On March 10, 2014, Jim Downs responded to Nicholas Kristof’s “Professor’s We Need You!” with “Can Academics Bridge the Gap Between the Academy and the Mainstream Reading Public?” Downs opined that academics face prejudice from mainstream editors.
I agree with Downs: Mainstream editors do have a bias against writers with academic credentials.
Academic prose has a reputation for being inaccessible and long-winded, the type of writing that few outside of academia want to read and publish.
With that said, I think academics would have more luck publishing in mainstream media outlets if they mastered the art of the pitch letter and made sure not to overemphasize the importance of their academic credentials.
In this post you will learn how to write a pitch letter. I will analyze its anatomy and discuss how you can use your academic credentials to impress editors.
What is a Pitch Letter?
A pitch letter is a short version of the larger story you wish to tell.
Pitch letters should not exceed 1-page in length and you should write them in the style and voice of the publication that you would like to write for.
Clarity is key.
You should use simple, declarative sentences, clear paragraphs, and a minimum of qualifiers in your pitch letters.
In my experience a good pitch letter contains 6 paragraphs.
Paragraph 1: Lede/Hook Paragraph
Your first paragraph should introduce the editor to new and interesting information.
It should contain the lede or hook for your story.
A lede/hook is a sentence that grabs your reader and reels them in.
The lede is not a plot summary.
Ledes are more like the slogan you see on a movie poster: A short, simple, catchy sentence.
Paragraph 2: Context for Your Lede
Editors want to publish interesting and timely information.
Follow your Lede/Hook Paragraph with an explanation of why your topic is timely.
Will your proposed article require interviews or research?
If so, tell the editor that you have access to the resources and people you need to write the article you propose.
If you have conducted research already, tell the editor about the work you have done.
Paragraph 4: Article Length
How long will the article you propose run? 500 words? 750 words? 1,000 words? Tell the editor.
Also tell the editor if you have access to photographs or images that they could publish with your article.
Editors often privilege pieces that include photographs and images.
Paragraph 5: Biographical Information
Why you are the person to write this article?
Briefly summarize your expertise for the editor.
If you have a master’s degree or Ph.D. in the subject matter of your article, tell the editor in 1 sentence.
Follow this sentence with links to a few of your clips.
If you are an academic, link to clips you have done for non-academic outlets. If you have a book, link to your book.
If you do not have any clips, point to blog posts or let the paragraph end with why you are the person to write the article you proposed.
Do not discuss the fact that you have no clips or limited experience in your pitch letter. Wait for the editor to ask you about your experience.
Thank the editor for their time and consideration.
Tell them where they can reach you.
Sign your name.
If all goes well, you should hear back within a week or two.
If you do not hear back within two weeks send a follow-up e-mail.
Pitch Letter Tips
1. You should send all pitches via e-mail unless your research about the publication tells you otherwise.
(Your research about the publication should also tell you which editor or assistant editor to pitch.)
2. Place “Query: [YOUR BRIEF SUBJECT]” in the subject line of your e-mail
3. Do not send attachments unless the editor asks you to. If you want to send clips or your writer resume, include links to those pages on your website.
Like Professor Downs, I have experienced wariness on the part of editors when it comes to my academic credentials.
I try to win them over by not overemphasizing my Ph.D.
To this end, I emphasize my story first and place my academic credentials in the second to last paragraph of my pitch letters. I talk about my credentials only in a sentence or two and I provide links to clips that reflect my ability to write for mainstream audiences.
I have had two editors ask me to submit articles I have proposed on “spec,” which means they liked my story, but wanted to read the entire article before they committed to publishing it. This happens to non-academic freelance writers too.
I hope that these requests will happen less as I build a track record of published articles in mainstream outlets.
How do you pitch editors?
Do you have a trick or techniques that have proved helpful to your success with mainstream media?