Former Upworthy editor Parker Molloy has created a guide on “How to Pitch Content” perfect for anyone navigating the world of freelance journalism. Art by Sarah Epperson.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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Introduction

This is a brief guide to pitching stories to media outlets. Specifically, this is meant to help walk you through the process I generally take as I try to go from a broad topic and finally get it narrowed down into a pitch, which is a more specific and structured outline of what I plan to write.

Parker Molloy


A quick glossary

These terms are often used during the editing and publish process.

TermDefinition
ClipsSamples of your past work.
CMS
Short for “content management system,” which is the internal interface on the outlet’s end where the article’s text is input. Most outlets you freelance for will handle the CMS, but some longer-term freelance agreements might require you to learn how to use it.
DeadlineThe time and date your draft is due to the editor.
DEK or DeckA brief description of the piece. Usually no more than a couple sentences.
DraftThe article itself, ready to be sent for edits.
EvergreenContent that’s not necessarily tied to a specific news event, or if it is, will remain relevant beyond the initial news cycle.
GrafShort for “paragraph.”
HEDShort for “headline.”
Kill feeThe amount an outlet has agreed to pay in the event that they don’t publish your article.
LedeThe first sentence/ paragraph of an article, summarizing the most important parts of the story.
Nut grafA paragraph that explains the news value of a story.
On specShort for “on speculation.” This means submitting a draft without receiving a guarantee of publishing or payment. Avoid this whenever possible.
PitchThe email you send to an editor outlining the story you want to write, what it’ll look like, and why it’s relevant to their outlet.
TKShort for “to come.” This is often used as a placeholder in drafts or pitches where you don’t have all the necessary info.

First, let’s talk about what a pitch is — and what it isn’t.

The goal is to get from an idea to the pitch itself. An idea can be anything — a book you read, a movie you saw, an idle thought that came to you that morning in the shower, anything. For instance, “Star Wars” is an idea. Obviously, though, you can’t just contact an editor and say “Hello, I would like to write about Star Wars, please.” You’re not there yet.

What you need to do is to narrow it down into a topic. A topic is the general direction you take your idea. In the Star Wars example, your topic might be  “diversity/representation in movies.” Still, this isn’t quite enough to call it a pitch just yet.

Here, you’ll distill the idea and topic into a story. This is where you’ll start getting more specific. It’s where you’ll sketch out what characters will be in it, what makes it newsworthy, why people will want to read it, and what the actual conclusion will be. Again using the Star Wars example, your story might be… “Representation in pop culture is something people who not from marginalized groups probably take for granted. When Kelly Marie Tran was cast in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she was given an all-too-rare chance for Asian-American actors to appear in an action blockbuster. These young Star Wars fans explain why that matters to them.” At this point, you will probably have to do some basic reporting ahead of time. You’re close, but not quite there just yet.

Finally, the pitch, itself. This is where you outline the shape and the size of the story you’re planning to write, and importantly, why it’s a good fit for the outlet you’re pitching to. In the Star Wars example, a pitch to an outlet that publishes stories about race/gender/social justice/and so on might read like…

Example Pitch Email

“Ever wonder what happens when a group of young Star Wars fans finally see themselves the movies they love? I went to Comic Con last weekend to find out.

In an interview with Variety, Kelly Marie Tran called her casting in The Last Jedi ‘an honor and a responsibility.’ Why a responsibility? Because she never saw herself in any of the films and TV show she loved when she was younger. She said that when none of the characters you idolize look or sound like you, ‘you start wanting to change who you are.’ In speaking with five girls cosplaying as Tran’s character, I learned just how right she was.

In a 900-1100 word article, I’d like to highlight five lessons I learned from these five young fans. The post, complete with photos I took at the convention, will center around the idea that representation matters more than we might think. I’ll bolster it with details from studies about the role media representation plays in childhood development and self-esteem, and try to get a quote from a psychiatrist in the field.

I think this would be a great fit for [outlet] based on [past stories/topics you typically cover/etc.]. I think this is especially relevant right now because of [related cultural issue], and would be perfect for publication in time for [upcoming relevant event].”

This basic outline (idea, topic, story, pitch) is something I learned from a great editor named Amy O’Leary.

Let’s discuss emails.

Pretty much every pitch you send will go out via email, so it’s important to write one people actually want to read.

Who? This probably can go without saying, but it’s really important that you’re sending your pitches to the right people. If an outlet lists article submission instructions on its website, that’s great. If not, do your best to find the specific editor at an outlet that best matches what you’re submitting. In other words, don’t send a pitch about sports to a site’s politics editor. Also, don’t pitch via a mass email. Send individual emails to editors, and personalize them/demonstrate that you’re familiar with the work they do.

Subject line. People have different approaches to this, but mine is simple. I write “Freelance pitch: [a sample headline for the piece I’m pitching].” You want people to open your email, but you don’t want to trick them into opening it.

Intro. I like to throw in a couple sentences at the beginning of a pitch email. “Hello [name]! My name is Parker, and I’m a freelance writer. I’m reaching out today because I have a pitch that I think might be a fit for you and [publication].” At either the beginning or the end of the email, you’ll probably want to include a few links to past clips of yours that match the tone of what you’re pitching.

Follow up. If something isn’t timely, give it 4-5 days before following up on your initial email. One follow up is probably enough. You might not always hear back, and that’s okay!

 

Money $$$

Once you’ve found an editor interested in your pitch, it’s time to talk money! Always do this before you more forward with writing your story. Your time and your work is valuable, so be wary of editors that promise to pay “in exposure” or request articles on spec (which is to say without an agreement that you’ll be paid/that the story will get published). Sometimes a story won’t end up running for one reason or another (perhaps it’s a story contingent on a specific event like a certain election outcome). This is why it’s good to ask about kill fees. A kill fee is an agreed amount that an outlet will pay you in case the story they commissioned doesn’t get published. Typically, once an editor responds to my pitch showing interest, I’ll write back asking what their rate is and what kind of turnaround they’d like to see on the piece (it’s always good to get a firm deadline before starting). If the answers sound good, I’ll get to work.


Meet the Contributor

12715466_512280335611504_5526228800742362490_nParker Molloy is a writer whose work has appeared in places like the Guardian, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Daily Beast, Slate, Vice, and the Verge. In 2016, she was named one of Fusion’s ‘The 30,’ a group of ’30 women 30 and under who will change the presidential election.’ In 2014, she was part of the Windy City Times’ annual ’30 Under 30′ list. Parker lives in Chicago with her wife, as well as their pet dog, cat, and rabbit.