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Science Writing Prize 2014: How to Pitch to an Editor

8 May, 2014

It’s time to submit your Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize entries, but now you’ve got a taste for writing, how can you get paid to do more? Pitching your ideas might seem daunting, but following this advice from James Randerson, science and environment news editor of the Guardian, will help boost your chances of success…

Freelancing can be soul-destroying. You spend hours coming up with great stories; finding clever, exclusive lines; tracking down interviewees – only for your pitches to disappear into a black hole from which no communication, either positive or negative, ever emerges.

Email event horizon

The event horizon of the editor’s inbox seems to suck in pitches and imprison them while your news peg goes stale and the chances of you making any money from your hard work rapidly recede. Worse still, there is always the sneaking suspicion that the lead you’ve given away in your email is now being worked up into a news story by the paper’s own staff.

Pitching freelance stories is tough, but there is a lot you can do to improve your chances of success. First, some general rules.

  • papersRead the publication you are pitching to (I know that sounds obvious but you’d be amazed how often freelancers don’t) and work out what sorts of stories they are interested in and what slots are available.
  • Think about the format your story will work best in – is it news, a blog, opinion, a feature or something else? Identify a specific section and find out who edits it. Then pitch directly to them, not a general email.
  • Think of the pressures your editor is under. They most likely have many times more potential stories being thrown at them than is possible to process – from PRs, scientific contacts, their own staff, rival media and other freelancers. To catch their eye, you need to get your pitch right.

Email is mostly best for an initial approach. Include a clear and concise top line that sums up the story. If you are pitching news, this is probably the top line of your story. Follow that with 100 words or so of context and background. This should be information that backs up your top line and helps to explain its significance. Then give a brief summary of who you are, including which publications you have worked for previously. That will help your editor to get a feel for your writing credentials

Another tactic, which can be a good way to demonstrate your writing skill is just to send the completed piece. That way the editor can see exactly what they are getting and how much editing work the piece is likely to need.

Give them a call, but be polite!What next? Unless you are lucky, you are likely to be waiting for a response from the void. Don’t just sit there. It is fine to be persistent. Give it an hour or so, then phone up to check that the pitch has arrived and been seen. Very likely, that will prompt your editor to read the pitch and respond one way or the other. Politeness and huge doses of charm are the best way to get a result.

And what about protecting against idea theft? In reality, it probably doesn’t happen very often. But if you really do have a hot idea, try giving enough information in your pitch to whet the editor’s appetite without making it easy to follow up the story – for example by leaving out the name of a key contact. Once you have them hooked you can tell them more.

In a nut-shell:

Do…

  • Target a particular section and pitch to the editor responsible
  • Include a clear, concise “top line” for your story
  • Give a brief summary of who you are

Don’t…

  • Pitch your story without first reading the publication
  • Just sit there if you get no reply
  • Give away too much if it’s a red-hot story.

Enter the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014

The deadline for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014, in association with the Guardian and the Observer, is this weekend!. Get your entries in by 11th May 2014 for your chance to win £1000 and see your work published by the Guardian or the Observer. Full details and terms and conditions can be found on the Science Writing Prize pages of the Wellcome Trust website. Good luck!

You can see the complete set of “How to” posts giving you tips on how to write a good science story from a research paperhow to interview someonehow to write a science feature  and more, on our page of science writing tips.

Image credits: Black hole image courtesy of: Alain r,  used under a CC-BY-SA licence. Modified (addition of email symbols) by Kate Arkless Gray, Old telephone pattern by Asja Boroš on Flickr, CC-BY.

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