Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.
So, you think you have the seeds of a great essay or opinion piece. Maybe your research can help people understand an emerging human or environmental crisis. Maybe you want to share your lab’s latest astonishing discovery. Maybe you’ve just wrapped up a National Science Foundation grant and want to live up to the values of the “broader impacts” requirement.
You are ready to write for the public. But where to start? You start with a pitch.
In the academic world, anthropologists typically write an article draft and then submit it to a journal for publication. If the manuscript meets the journal’s standards and goals, then it is accepted and proceeds toward publication.
The process for publishing in magazines or newspapers is quite different. Instead of submitting a full draft, authors “pitch” a piece. Editors are busy and need to know quickly if you have a good story to tell and a good point to make—they often don’t have the luxury of time to read full pieces, and they appreciate having the opportunity to help guide your drafts toward their specific requirements.
A pitch is a proposal to editors to get them to buy your idea. Think of it sort of like an abstract, your CV, and a writing sample all rolled into one pithy, enticing proposal. The pitch process will be both a bit strange and entirely familiar once you grasp what it entails and what editors want. As a professional anthropologist and editor, I understand how foreign the idea of a pitch can seem to researchers—and how, with just a bit of work, it can easily be added to your writing toolkit.
STUDY THE GUIDELINES
Just as academic journals have different personalities and requirements, popular magazines and newspapers do too. Find the outlet you want to pitch and study their guidelines, first for the kind of material they’re seeking. For example, if you want to write a 5,000-word personal essay, don’t pitch a newspaper that only publishes 600-word, expertise-based op-eds.
Perhaps the best way to find the right outlet is to read widely. Become familiar with a range of publications and their styles, and be sure to read what else they’ve published about your topic recently. Once you find a good fit, study the pitch guidelines so that you can follow them exactly.
TURN YOUR IDEA INTO A STORY
Most popular outlets seek a story rather than a topic—for example, a narrative about the threat a coal mine poses to a tribe’s use of a sacred place, rather than a summary of the issue of coal mines and the environment.
Since you’re not drafting a whole essay, you don’t need to decide on every detail for your potential piece. But you need to have a vision for your piece in terms of its tone, core idea or argument, and structure. For op-eds, you will need a clear argument. For essays, as the journalist Michelle Nijhuis writes in The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook, make sure you have its three essential ingredients: a personal voice, a journey, and relevance to the reader’s experiences and world. (See our advice on how to write an essay.)
SUBMIT YOUR PITCH
Although the format varies—some publications will have online forms, others simply ask for an email—most magazines and newspapers are looking for several key elements in a pitch. You should summarize your idea or argument in just a sentence or two (50 words or less) and present a plan for how the rest will unfold. Most editors, when they finish reading your pitch, will want to be able to answer three questions: Why now? So what? Why you?
At the start, you’ll want to emphasize why this piece needs to be written now. For instance, maybe you have a significant academic paper coming out soon, something just happened in the news that your research sheds light on, or maybe your research can be tied to an upcoming holiday or anniversary. You want editors to have a sense of the urgency or direct relevance of your piece to the political, intellectual, or social moment. Acknowledge what has previously been published on the topic (especially in the outlet you are pitching to), along with a clear sense of why your piece would be new, surprising, and different.
Then, you’ll need to offer a structure for the proposed piece: Basically, what story do you want to tell, and how will you tell it? Offer a sense of the journey you’ll take the reader on—and the destination you will take them to. This section of the pitch should also give a flavor of the piece you’ll write: Are you aiming for funny, tragic, smart, or lyrical? You should also make clear why your ideas or work matter. What problem are you helping to solve? How does a new discovery fit into a larger historical problem? What insights are you sharing that might help readers rethink their lives? If you can emphasize why this information is important specifically to the readers of that particular publication (in terms of their nationality, political leanings, or any other demographic), then do so.
Finally, you’ll need to convince the editors that you’re the right person to write this particular piece. A lot of people have opinions about climate change, immigration policy, or police reform—but what is it that makes you qualified to write on such topics? Why should the reader listen to and trust you? If you have previously published pieces that highlight your skill at writing, include a link or two to those as well.
The whole pitch should be just a few hundred words. Since op-eds are often that length, some editors will want to see a full first draft at the outset: The pitch and the piece may be one and the same.
UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS
It’s often hard to know what happens to your pitch once it’s in the hands of editors. Whether you receive a reply, and how quickly, often depends on the frequency with which the publication publishes and the size of the outlet. For some daily or weekly magazines and newspapers, you might expect a decision within several days. Monthly offerings might be slower to decide. For major publications like The New York Times, unless they’re interested, you’ll likely never hear back. At SAPIENS, in most cases, we aim to decide yes or no within a week or so.
Know that editors consider a range of factors when they get your pitch, many of which are out of your hands: how many pitches they received that week, whether they have any pieces in the pipeline on similar topics, how long their backlog of publications is, and much more. There’s also the simple element of chance: Does your piece resonate with the editors who are considering it? In short, thank your lucky stars when your pitch is accepted. And, if you’re unsuccessful, don’t take it personally.
When you prepare your pitch, plan out a strategic sequence of outlets to submit to. (Most publications will bristle if you simultaneously pitch to other magazines and newspapers.) Start with the publication you most want your piece to be in, and then work down your list. If you don’t hear back, one reminder or nudge is reasonable; let the editors know that if you don’t hear back within a week or so, you will pitch another publication. If your topic is pegged to the calendar—say, a piece tied to the new year—start this process a few months in advance to give yourself time between submissions. When you receive a rejection, then be sure to tailor your pitch to the next publication’s style and requirements. Keep pitching. Success in this process requires persistence.
But also: Take your time. Be patient with and kind to yourself. While learning to pitch is fun, it can also be stressful. However, the work is worthwhile. Anthropology desperately needs you to help make the discipline relevant and impactful to broader audiences. And there are few satisfactions greater for a writer than to see their words making their way in the world, helping to shape it.
Using a search engine to find resources on “how to pitch” will offer many more resources. But here are some of the SAPIENS editorial team’s favorites:
Finally, consider the SAPIENS editorial team a resource. One of our commitments is to “help anthropologists become engaging storytellers through quality writing.” Reach out to the editor-in-chief or another editor to ask questions or arrange a time to chat about your work and possible directions for a piece.
Once you’re ready: Pitch us.