Freelance Friday: Pitching & Procrastinating

Q. What are the basics of pitching stories?

A. A pitch is the written equivalent of an audition. It’s you demonstrating not only that you have a great idea for a story, but also that you’re the right person to execute it, at this particular time, for this particular publication.

Pitching was one of the things that intimidated me most when I started journalism school, because it seemed like a code I had to crack. I felt that if I didn’t know the language of pitching, I’d never be able to “make it” as a writer, even if my skills were otherwise solid. This is somewhat true – actors who suck at auditioning don’t book many gigs, even if they’re fabulous once you get ’em on stage or on camera, you know? – but pitching isn’t as difficult as I once believed it was.

Here’s the basic formula. Look up the editor you want to pitch to (I usually sleuth out “sex & relationships” editors, since that’s my niche, but it depends on the piece and the publication) in the outlet’s masthead. (Or, alternatively, reach out to a writer friend who’s worked with that publication before and ask if they’d mind sharing their editor’s contact info.) Check to see if the pub has specific parameters for pitching, and read those carefully. If not, write “PITCH:” in the subject line of your email, followed by a brief headline/title for your idea.

Address the editor by name, if at all possible. Write a quick introduction like, “I’m writing because I have an idea for a story I think would be right up your alley.” Explain your story idea in 2-3 paragraphs. Lay out the main points you’ll make, and how you’ll support them – including anyone you plan to interview for the story. Connect your story to the publication’s particular audience – make it easy for the editor to understand why your story is a good fit for them, specifically. If you can, tie the story to a “news hook” that makes it current (e.g. “I want to write about fisting because International Fisting Day is coming up”). Specify what type of piece you’re hoping to write (news brief? personal essay? longform feature?) and what you estimate the word count might be (although an editor might just tell you the word count they want).

Some publications want you to have already done lots of research by the time you get to the pitching stage, while some are content if you just indicate what research you intend to do if your pitch is accepted. However, it never hurts to do at least a little research in advance, to prove you have access to sources and an understanding of the subject matter. You could, for example, dig up some statistics that prove your central point, interview someone who attended an event you’re reporting on, or reference some other writing that’s been done on the topic you’re tackling (so long as you explain why your story will be different!).

In your last paragraph, give a little context about yourself: explain who you are, what you do, what your credentials are (including a few past publications, if applicable), and why you’re the person to write this story. (Do you have firsthand experience with the subject matter? Are you well-connected with relevant sources? Are you an expert on the subject?) Finish with a nice conclusion (as per advice from Alana Massey, I like “If you’re interested in moving forward with this, let me know your thoughts in terms of angle, deadline, rate, and word count”) and a polite and professional sign-off. (I always include my portfolio URL under my name so editors can check out the rest of my work if they are so inclined.)

While you’re bound to get rejected a fair bit, good pitch skills can take you a long way. Once you get a pitch accepted, it’s just a matter of proving you can actually follow through on researching and writing the piece you’ve pitched!

Q. How do you avoid procrastination? What keeps you so highly motivated?

A. I’m often asked how I manage to crank out 2 to 3 posts a week so consistently. I think the answer is: a blend of caffeine, mental illness, organization, and love.

Let me explain what I mean by each component of that recipe. Love is easy: I have a deep, unending zeal for writing – and writing about sex in particular – that is the core fuel of what I do. Other factors in my life (like the aforementioned mental illness) sometimes obscure my passion for periods of time, but it’s always there, waiting to be rediscovered. If I ever find myself resenting my blog workload or just not feeling as thrilled about it as I normally would be, I know I’m burned out and need to refuel my creative engine. Often I can do that by just taking a few days off from writing (if possible), reading the work of writers I admire (in my genre or not), and then pursuing whatever topics genuinely tug at my curious heart at the time. (Erotic massages? Sex work law? Gloryholes?)

Mental illness is a tricky one. It’s my go-to jokey answer when anyone asks me how I stay so productive – “I’m mentally ill!” I’ll quip with a grin – and that’s an oversimplification but it’s also true. I have bipolar type 2 and my bouts of hypomania are often accompanied by boundless fascination with particular topics or people, more frequent strokes of brilliance, and more energy with which to transform those idea-flashes into fleshed-out pieces. My mental illnesses are a burden but they’re also my superpower. Many times, when Depressed Me was too foggy and forlorn to write a blog post, I’ve said a silent prayer of gratitude for Hypomanic Me and her hours of tireless work: I can often publish a blog post I wrote while manic to fill time while I’m too depressed to write.

That’s where organization comes in: I rely on infrastructure I’ve set up to keep my blog running smoothly, even in times of emotional turmoil. I use the Editorial Calendar plugin to keep all my posts visually organized and scheduled. When I receive a new toy to review, I create a draft of my forthcoming review and add to it whenever I have a relevant thought. When I think of a great idea for a blog post, I make a draft for it and make detailed notes so I can write it later. I work in advance on my regular features, like my Monthly Faves and link round-ups, a little at a time, so the work rarely piles up too much. I keep lists in Evernote and my phone’s Notes app of posts I’d like to write, so I’m never stuck for ideas. Basically, I put in a little work here and there to steadily reduce all the writing-related stressors I can, to make space for myself to actually write.

And when all of that fails me? There’s always caffeine. I get my ass to a coffee shop, order something tall and peppy, sit down with my laptop, and wait for the artificial energy to hit.

Got questions about freelance writing, blogging, or any of my other sexy-scribe activities? Email them to me, or comment below, and I’ll try to tackle ’em here!