Checklist: How to Write a Pitch That Doesn’t Suck

Are your pitches the reason you’re not getting freelancing work?

Pitches or query letters are often the scariest part of freelancing for both new and experienced freelance writers.

But master the art of the pitch, and your freelancing life suddenly gets a whole lot simpler.

One of the best ways to do it is to stop thinking of your pitches as a creativity showcase and start thinking of them as sales tools instead.

How?

Every time you finish writing a query letter or pitch, run it through this quick checklist to make sure all your i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.

1. The basics

Since this is a checklist, after all, let’s get the basics out of the way first to make sure you’re not making obvious mistakes.

  • Is the editor’s name spelled correctly?
  • If you’ve mentioned the name of the publication, is it accurate?
  • Did you check spelling and grammar?
  • Does your signature have your website URL in it?

2. Call to action

Yes, your query letter is a showcase of your skill and your ideas, but in the end, it’s also a piece of marketing. Most writers will forget that and focus far too much on the story idea and the actual writing in the query letter.

Remember, all good marketing ends with a call to action.

That doesn’t mean that you have to reach out to an editor at The New York Times with an email that says, “Buy now!”

But I do recommend closing with something that requires the editor to respond to you.

“I’d love to chat over the phone; let me know if that’s something you’d be open to,” is a sentence I’ve used in my pitches.

“Would you like to see some clips?” is another one that can get you an immediate response.

If you prefer to keep it simple, “please let me know at your earliest convenience,” is a good way to close, too.

3. Subject line

Increasingly, a good subject line can be the difference between whether your email gets opened and read right away or delegated to that “later” folder that never gets looked at.

It used to be that if you were writing for the web you had to focus a lot on headlines, but if you were writing for traditional media (or their websites), you could get away without much effort. That doesn’t work any more.

New media, old media, run by a corporation or a solopreneur, we’re all competing for the same attention spans. No matter who you’re pitching, it’s almost imperative you look at the way they handle their headlines so you can package your own story idea cleverly in a format that will fit into that publication’s lineup.

One way to do this is with a double-whammy headline — using a two-part headline to grab a busy editor’s attention and tell them right away why you must write this article.

The good news is if you write interesting headlines, you almost guarantee yourself quick responses to your pitches. So it’s definitely worth putting some thought and effort into them.

For fantastic examples of subject lines (and headlines) that work for news and feature stories, I recommend visiting Mother Jones to see how they tackle some serious issues with clever headlines.

4. Your first sentence

Here’s where journalists win out over bloggers every time: Journalists have it stamped on their brains that the first sentence of their story has to lay out pretty much everything. We live for that perfect sentence and — no exaggeration — will spend hours getting it right.

But in the end, it comes down to this: Does your opening line captivate me? Does it make me smile? Does it make me want to read on?

That’s a lot of pressure to put on one little sentence, so I typically give students who take my 30 Days, 30 Queries course a bit of leeway. Start with one interesting paragraph. Does it make the editor want to read the next one?

Here’s an example from one of my own query letters:

Over her husband’s funeral pyre six years ago, Heena Patel, then 21, was informed by her in-laws that he had died of AIDS.

Don’t you want to know what happened next? That’s what an effective first line should make you want to do.

Here are nine of my query letters that sold to top publications, including TIME and The New York Times. Notice how I start each one?

5. Your bio

If you’re like most writers I know, you have a catch-all bio that you copy and paste into an email every time someone asks you for one. Don’t make this mistake.

When you’re pitching, you need to highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in regards to the particular publication or editor.

So if, for instance, you’re pitching a technology website, you would highlight your degree in information technology — and perhaps not mention that you quit your tech job after two months because you hated the industry, instead starting your own small business.

But if you were pitching an entrepreneurship blog, that’s exactly the story you’d want to highlight.

Do away with those generic bios that you’ve been cutting and pasting into everything and start personalizing them for each pitch. It can be the difference between the editor thinking you’re perfect for the job, or wondering if you’ve got the credentials to report on the topic.

6. Timeliness

One of the easiest ways to make sure your pitches get quicker responses is to make them timely.

Editors are notorious for sitting on ideas for months on end, so make your pitches time-sensitive by giving editors a reason they need to publish your work now.

You can do this by tying your pitch into a current event, an anniversary or a promotion. It won’t work for everything you write, but a time-sensitive angle can fast-track your query process.

7. Clarity

Have you made sure your story idea is sound, sliced thinly, and can be expressed in a single sentence?

The one thing missing in most pitches, and probably the top reason most queries get rejected, is clarity. If you don’t clearly know the angle, the purpose, and the gist of your story, how do you expect the editor to get it?

The clarity in your pitch has to be both about the idea and the execution of that idea. Or simply, what do you want to say — and how are you going to say it? You need to be able to answer both those questions in a single sentence each.

For instance, for my first story for The New York Times, I pitched a story on how plastic roads in India were solving the problem of both the battered and damaged roads, as well as improperly disposed waste plastic. That quick summary tells you pretty much everything you need to know about that story. (Read the pitch and the resultant article here.)

New writers who have trouble selling ideas have often overburdened one poor article to do too many things. You need to able to define your story idea in one single (short!) sentence. Coming up with a good headline, as discussed above, can help you achieve this clarity.

Remember, querying is not creative writing. In trying so hard to write well, we forget that in essence a query letter is as much about showing off your writing prowess as it is about making a sale.

Your queries, basically, are sales tools. They’re a means for marketing.

And with the checklist above, you’ll be well on your way to making that sale.

If you’d like some help perfecting the craft and joining the hundreds of students I’ve helped break into top publications, including The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, National Geographic, Vice, Marie Claire, O, the Oprah magazine, and so many more, check out my course 30 Days, 30 Queries. See you there!

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