How do you come up with pitches for your magazine articles?
February 15, 2011 4:55 PM   Subscribe

You're a freelance journalist. You make pitches to magazines. How do you come up with ideas?

I've got a magazine interested in printing some of my work. Hooray! Unfortunately, what they print is completely different from what I'd be writing in a perfect world – more in the "100 FILMS TO WATCH BEFORE YOU DIE" / "MUSIC'S BIGGEST MYTHS BUSTED" genre. I don't have a problem doing this, but unfortunately, when it comes to ideas to pitch I feel a bit stumped. I feel like there's a formula here that I can't really follow without coming up with something waaaay too formulaic. If you've ever been in this position, what techniques did you use to come up with ideas?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't exactly pitch to magazines, but I do similar work. What I do in that situation is write the thing I want to write, then go back and figure out a way to put it into a catchy formula.

Let's say I just wrote a 1500-word article about my kitty. Looking back over it, I discover that I'm mostly talking about how awesome he is.

I re-title the article "N Ways My Kitty Is The Awesomest." Then I go through, pull out each reason, and give it a number. Then I populate N for the correct number.

(I always do it in that exact order, by the way. I guess you could do it the other way, but we all have our crazy-ass writing superstitions and practices, and I'm staunchly sticking with mine.)

The more abstract your article, the better the N title is going to be. Let's say you write a 1500-word article about David Lynch. You can title it "200 Chocolate Milkshakes David Lynch Has Had For Lunch." Or "5 of the World's Creepiest Paintings." Whatever spin you want to put on it.
posted by ErikaB at 5:03 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Waaaaay too formulaic for you? Or waaaaay too formulaic for them? If it's the former, and if the formula fits the magazine, go ahead and pitch it. When you do the actual writing, no matter how dreary the listicle concept seems, you'll make it your own.
posted by escabeche at 5:21 PM on February 15, 2011

There is no formula. To avoid seeming "formulaic," use your own creativity and follow what intrigues you. The pitch thing is just something every writer has to figure out for him/herself. Freelancing is hard but a learning curve and it's all part of developing your "voice." If you have to ask "how do you come up with ideas" you should probably wait until you've actually got some ideas before wanting, giddily in the abstract it seems, to get published.
posted by taramosalata at 5:48 PM on February 15, 2011

Two-part answer from a writer who's pitched to, and written for, dozens of magazines from Maxim to Wired over the years.

Coming up with ideas: The best thing (as taramosalata notes) is to start with what you're interested in, and only then figure out which of the magazines you like (and are familiar with) might be appropriate for an article on that subject. It's really hard to write convincingly about topics you just don't care about.

Pitching ideas: A really good pitch is basically a condensed version of the story you'd like to write. Some of the pitches I've written have actually been longer than the resulting article. You need to give the editor a sense of your voice and passion for the subject, as well as a sense that you really know the material.

A successful pitch will include the type of article (feature? 10 best? interview) and the section of the magazine you're proposing to write it for.

I like movies and I like tech, which spawned the following idea, as summed up in a pitch to an editor that got me an assignment at a lad mag a while back. (It's old but I went through a bunch of pitches and this one sums up best what I'm describing.)

> You know Netflix. More than a million subscribers, 13,500 titles, big business, popup ads all over the place.
> But Netflix is strictly middle-of-the-road.
> For all your porn rental needs, BlueDVD is the way to go--it works just the same way as Netflix, down to the rental que, and has a comparable $21.99 monthly membership fee for unlimited rentals. Happens to be run by a brother and sister. Among its top movies this month are Balls Deep 3 and the North Pole 11, reportedly not a Christmas tale.
> For people way down at the other end of the spectrum, there's CleanFilms, which rents films that all have been edited to what it calls an "E" rating, which means, according to the site, "We take out profanity and other offensive language. We also remove nudity, sexual situations, and extreme or gory violence. Our intent is to edit movies so that they become comparable to a PG rating." Ooh, sanitized fun. Monthly membership fee is $19.95. Just 225 titles so far, but they're shooting for a thousand in the next few months.
> Which brings us to the pitch. I propose a comparison of the three, which would include URL, membership cost, number of member, number of titles, most popular title, and of course a couple funny lines summing up the point of the service. Oh yeah, and maybe films they won't carry. CleanFilms lists a few films they won't carry, including Pretty Woman and Eyes Wide Shut. You have to wonder if there are certain films that are just too foul for BlueDVD. Or too clean. And what's the cutoff point for Netflix?
> Good front of book piece?

Last thought: What you'd write in a perfect world is usually irrelevant. Most magazines are most receptive to service journalism from first-time writers--that is, the "12 ways to turn on your lover" and "how to pick a Belgian ale" and "5 snowtires we love" type stories.
posted by bassomatic at 6:33 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a journalist or in the news / magazine industry, but I merely point out what I've observed as a reader - it has become a growing minor trend in British newspapers and magazines their writers to choose features recently published in US media and then repackage these stories with some extra research and maybe a UK twist (in your case, turn this in to a "top 5 secrets you need to know about X !!!!" formula, I suppose). This trend is also observable to a lesser extent in a vice versa flow from the UK to the US. Of course this could work well for a number of country-pairings - Australia, Canada, France etc etc.
posted by Bwithh at 6:53 PM on February 15, 2011

If you're a journalist, you should be good and making connections other people don't normally see. Put this to use here, but with pop culture (if that's what the site is about, from what your examples hint at).

I'd even start with the movies you like - are there any unusual similarities, or trends you notice? Can you make a list of other movies with that connection, and turn it into a fun or unusual Top 10 list?

You could also flip through the 'ol Ask Metafilter for ideas - lotsa good, untapped stuff here from when people ask for music similar to ones they already like. I've always been impressed when someone is thinking of a film, but all they remember is the plotline, or some unusual tidbit, and a wide variety of potentially correct answers are given... always seems like fodder for a Cracked article.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 7:15 PM on February 15, 2011

Go through old copies of the magazine and look at all the stuff they've printed before and see if you can brainstorm any ideas from what has gone before. Just let your mind go and make freeform connections and write them down. From "100 Films to Watch Before You Die", you could get "The Ten Most Overrated Movies in Film History", "The 50 Most Gory Death Scenes" and on and on.

I know nothing about trains but I looked through old articles in a magazine about trains and was able to come up with several workable, relevant, interesting ideas for articles about trains that way.
posted by Jess the Mess at 3:58 PM on February 16, 2011

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