The pitching process is different for every publication and for every type of story, but its importance to the quality of the published product rarely wavers. Writers must be clear on topic, specific on story angle, and trust their editors. Editors have to be clear on expectations, specific on requirements such as number of sources, and they must trust their writers.
In this post, we’ll explore pitching story ideas from both sides—writer and editor—and what each person’s role is at each stage of the content creation process.
Writing for any digital publication comes with expectations—adapting to brand voice, following editorial and visual guidelines, using SEO standards, and more. Expectations of what a great story pitch looks like are no exception. Writers: Find out what your pitches should look like before submitting story number one. A good editor will send you pitch expectations ahead of time, but in case they don’t (or if the publication is so new they haven’t formulated them yet), be proactive and seek them out.
Consider asking your editor:
The earlier you and your editor agree on how your pitches will look, the more efficient your communications will be, and you can get to work on the story quicker. Plus, the story will be more faithful to your intended angle, as opposed to a story based on a loose summary of your thoughts on the topic.
As an editor, it’s your job to communicate with your writers exactly how you want them to pitch you story ideas. Whenever you onboard a new contributor, you have a responsibility to send them the pitch expectations and ensure they understand them.
From your perspective, pitches are proposals—they are the first sip from a glass of wine your waiter brought you. Will you accept it, or send it back?
The trick in creating pitch expectations is to provide some structure that writers can follow when submitting ideas, but not handcuff them and stunt their creativity. At the Content Standard, our writers’ pitches depend on which area of the site they’re writing for, but generally our pitch expectations look like this:
Article Headline: 1- 2 paragraph summary and explanation of specific story angle, including the key takeaways for the reader and underlying argument. Please include a minimum of three sources, two years old at most.
If writers seem to be meandering off the pitch path you paved, it’s likely their stories will come in off-topic, too. Gently remind them of the expectations. They’ll be happy you did.
Once you know what your editor expects for pitches, it’s time to do your research and start crafting. You might have a burning idea to type out, but more likely you’ll have to research current industry trends and craft original topics around them.
Bookmark and maintain a list of websites and authors you admire who produce similar content to the kind you’re providing your editor. When it comes time to generate ideas for pitches, turn back to these sources. A few of my favorites that I visit when creating topics for internal contributors at the Content Standard are Fast Company, Digiday, and The Atlantic.
Not only will you be reading content from experts in their respective fields, you will be tapped into the freshest trends and topics.
It’s also good to keep a list of your ideas for future, non-time-sensitive articles. That way, you have a bank to withdraw brilliance from whenever you need a pitch. A pitch in a pinch!
In an ideal world, you will receive an original, interesting story pitch that follows the guidelines you set more closely than a sommelier studies grapes. I don’t know many editors who live in ideal worlds, but I could recommend some marvelous Merlot.
If a pitch isn’t on point, pinpoint for the writer the direction you would like to see them take the story. If the writer raises a great question within their pitch that you would like to see them focus the entire article around, let them know. Recognize his success in raising that question and encourage him to dig into it, sending over content creation tips and feedback for refining.
To be able to have this back-and-forth with writers, it’s a good idea to budget extra time into the pitch process. You never know when life—the flu, a funeral—could get in the way.
After incorporating your editor’s feedback on your pitch and submitting a revised version, and after your editor gives you the go-ahead, it’s time to start writing the story. Keep the pitch close at hand and refer back to it when you’re creating the content. In the Skyword Platform, the pitch (assignment summary), along with content requirements and comments from your editor, are conveniently located on the same page as the workspace to write your story. Guidance is just a quick scroll away.
Of course, a great pitch doesn’t guarantee a great story. When you begin to edit, reread the final proposal and determine how closely the writer followed it. Did he waltz the story to far off lands? Or did he deliver it precisely to the place you imagined?
Hopefully a story will evolve from pitch to paper, the writer exploring unique angles within their topic and providing original analysis on agreed-upon themes. If it doesn’t, follow up with the writer with specific feedback on what direction to take the story next.
Whether you’re a writer or an editor, you should always be thinking: How can I make their job easier, and therefore mine? Many of the best examples of digital storytelling started with a pitch, followed up by writer-editor collaboration throughout the content creation process, and ended with an exceptional story.
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