Getting published in a national online magazine or site like The Atlantic is a great way to gain exposure for your ideas and products. It’s also a great way to build credibility and personal brand. This year I deconstructed the pitch process, and learned how to maneuver the publishing world. The result: my stories are getting published in The Atlantic, FastCompany, and Quartz.
15 minute read
Last summer, on a small island in Iceland, I awoke in the middle of the night with a sudden angst. I don’t recall if a dream sparked it. Maybe it was a night terror. My Dad said that I woke him up earlier in that night sleep talking some gibberish. But whatever it was, the angst suddenly prevented me from sleeping.
That angst that kept me from sleeping in Iceland would eventually inspire me to pursue and achieve my goal of publishing a story in a national magazine. For the entire year prior to that night I’d felt as though I was stalling. In January I told myself that I wanted to be a published journalist. But by July I’d hardly published a thing, let alone landed anything in a national magazine.
After spending a week in Iceland I went on to Paris and then Switzerland to bum around with a friend. But the entire trip that anxiety persisted. I felt like I was wasting my life, pursuing someone else’s ideal. Today’s culture of “conspicuous experiencing” and #blessed travels told me that I should spend my money and time traveling the world. But all I wanted to do was write stories for magazines. After a couple weeks my friend and I called the trip short. At a touristy pizza restaurant, surrounded by other “experiencers”, we decided that it was time to pursue our own visions of the good life.
In August I returned to my hometown of Denver after four years away. I didn’t tell anyone except my family that I’d returned, and for the next two weeks I holed up at my parent’s house. During those two weeks I did nothing but read books and write magazine pitches. I told myself that I wouldn’t leave until I’d had one of my pitches accepted.
Over the course of 14 days I sent 14 pitches, and finally on August 9th my first story was accepted by Quartz. Shortly afterwards another story was accepted by The Atlantic. Then I landed another story with Quartz. And a couple months later I started working with FastCompany.
In hindsight the path to success was relatively straightforward. For three years I told myself that I wanted to publish magazine stories. And for three years the only thing that prevented me from doing so was myself. Self-doubt, writer’s block, and this notion that only “real journalists” could write for magazines stopped me from taking the first step. But once I did, the next dozen steps were easy.
However, I’d be lying if I said it was only self doubt that prevented me. Like every profession or skill, magazine writing has its own element of “insiders baseball.” There’s a proper way to pitch stories. Some stories are obvious fits to a magazine editor, but what makes it obvious can be impossible to decipher for an inexperienced writer. Ultimately writing for national magazines was about two things: understanding how “the publishing machine” works, and understanding how my own machine (my brain) works.
Below I’ve tried to detail the exact steps I took and resources I used over the last couple months:
How to Write a Magazine Pitch
The first step that I needed to take in order to break into magazine publishing was understanding the rules of the publishing establishment. I needed to understand the system to break into it. Immediately, I realized that the pitch process was the first gate that I needed to pass. So I started reading articles on how to pitch. At first all I found was fluff pieces, and light blog posts that told me what I already knew: “Keep it short, and tell a good story.” That was no help. What I needed was the exact formula and set of actionable steps to get editors to respond.
I found that formula on the Metro one day in Berlin just before coming home. In one of the fluffy articles I read I saw a link to a pitch database called The Open Notebook. There I found a list of about 100 successful magazine pitches next to the published story that they became. This was incredible.
Prior to finding The Open Notebook I hardly knew how to structure a pitch. Sometimes I sent entire stories (never do this). Other times I sent something along the lines of “I’d love to write a story about artificial intelligence. Are you interested?” The Open Notebook enabled me to analyze the commonalities among 100 pitches by some of my favorite journalists.
I saw that every pitch had a few common components:
A story hook with characters
One of the things that surprised me so much was how beautifully written some of the pitches were. They included characters, plots, and everything else that a real story has. In other words, the core of the pitch was storytelling. In hindsight that seems obvious, but at the time it was a revelation. I thought a pitch had to be formal and short. I learned that it should be a shortened version of the story I’d eventually write.
Here’s an example of a successful pitch that I wrote using that framework:
"Did you hear that Levels is settling down in Amsterdam? Apparently the father of digital nomadism is no longer a nomad."
After launching Nomad.io and RemoteOk, Pieter Levels became the face of the digital nomad movement. Online he could be seen posting photos from Thailand one day, and tweeting from Miami the next. His blog quickly became a place of inspiration for despairing office workers stuck at their 9-5. But two cliches tell Levels' story best: first, the grass is always greener on the other side, and second, actions speak louder than words.
I’ve been a digital nomad for the last year, and if there has been one lasting lesson it is this: nomadic tribes settled down for a reason. Every nomad I’ve met goes through the same phases. In month one it is euphoria and excitement at following one’s dreams. Then in month two and three it’s frequent moments of questioning. The homesickness sets in, the new friends and cities get old. And eventually everyone reaches phase three: existential despair — the same kind that inspired them to leave their 9-5. That’s when they pack it in and their Airbnb account goes dormant.
In this piece I plan to tell the stories of digital nomadism that don’t make headlines or self-help blogs. I plan to interview influencers like Pieter Levels, Joel Gascoigne, and others who have built personal brands around the digital nomad movement, but in recent months have settled down.
In this pitch I was able to hook the editor with a question: why did Petier stop traveling? Then I told a short series of events that hinted at why he stopped. “He did this, and then that.” In doing so I also described a character. But most importantly I described why it mattered. I tied Pieter’s story to a larger trend that Quartz’ readers would be interested in. (Note: In writing the story I learned that Pieter didn’t stop traveling. He just changed the way he did it. But it still made for an interesting story).
I learned much of what I know about storytelling a couple years ago from a video interview with This American Life’s Ira Glass.
Explain why it matters
One of the questions I forced myself to ask before every pitch was: So what? In other words, what’s the point of writing this story? In asking that question I tried to put myself in the editors shoes. Why would they want to publish the story? What problem was I solving for them? It’s essential to attach meaning, or significance, to your pitch. This is not dissimilar to the way storytelling works in real life.
When I was a teenager I had a habit of running my mouth a lot. There was hardly a moment that I wasn’t telling a story or joke. But one of the things that always bothered me was how frequently my stories or jokes fell flat. I’d say, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” And my audience would look at me in silence for a couple seconds as if to ask, “Are you done?” Other times I’d tell a story and people would erupt into laughter. But success in storytelling at that time of my life was a total black box.
After college I learned the components of a good story and the importance of the punchline. One of the best examples of this that I’ve seen came from Andrew Stanton’s (writer/director of Toy Story) TED Talk on storytelling. On stage he gave the following example:
A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a drink. And the only people in there is a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while.
And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes, “You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands from the finest wood in the county. Gave it more love and care than my own child. But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No.”
He points out the window. “You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them through the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No.”
He points out the window. “You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No. But you fuck one goat…”
As I wrote on my blog a couple years back, “The old man at the bar describes three events — things that he’s done in his town. Then he hooks us by suggesting that he has a nickname. By the third event we’re invested in the story and curious what his nickname is. I assume I don’t need to explain what the “Aha moment” in this story is. But the point is that every event in that story led to it.”
Every magazine pitch needs its own “Aha moment.” It needs that moment where you go “Oh man, this explains why…” In telling the story you need to describe a larger event or trend. For my Quartz pitch it was why traveling the world wasn’t all it’s made out to be.
You can view Andrew Stanton’s full TED talk here:
Dig in the archives and tell unique stories
Another reason that an editor might want to run a story is because it’s irresistibly unique. If you haven’t noticed, the Internet, for all its beauty and splendor is an echo chamber. The same stories get told dozens of times in only slightly different ways. Part of this is because humans themselves don’t actually want that much variety in their lives (see this story on What Makes Things Cool). But part of that is the reality that finding unique stories is hard. It requires digging in archives, interviewing lots of people, and chasing leads that don’t always pan out. This is an opportunity for anyone willing to put in hard work.
One day shortly after returning to Denver I ran across a story about Icelandic Airlines that explained the origin of their stopover program. That led me to ask the question of why America controlled a majority of the airplane manufacturing industry, and why so many prominent airlines were started here. All of the stories I read led to a book that wasn’t available online. So I started calling around. I found a bookstore owner who lived in the mountains. He told me that he was going to be in Denver that night at an art festival. So I drove downtown and met him. That night I stayed up late reading stories about the pioneers of air travel.
The stories I found in that book led me to pitch two stories. One would take a month to find its home (in The Atlantic), and the other would take another four months to find its home (in FastCompany). In order to add color to each of those stories I had to find books in libraries and dig up old Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1960s. It was fun work, but it was a rabbit hole. I had to invest time, and have faith that I could piece all the strings together into a cohesive story and then place those stories in magazines.
Here’s The Atlantic pitch and story that research ultimately resulted in:
On Saturday SpaceX will send a communications satellite by the name of Amos-6 into space. The launch will be the company's 33rd and it is just one of 40 that SpaceX has planned in the coming years.
30 years ago a private company shuttling more satellites into space than NASA would have seemed crazy to all but a few in the aerospace industry. By the 1990s space travel seemed a distant dream shelved by governments overwhelmed by swelling deficits. Today the dream of visiting far off planets is alive again though, thanks to private companies like SpaceX.
Shipping satellites into space for governments and large corporations is only phase one in a much larger plan for the company, however. Over the next two decades SpaceX hopes to transition to passenger space travel and send humans to Mars. And in doing so, it will borrow from a strategy developed 90 years ago by a man who we might consider the Elon Musk of the 20th century.
In the 1920s the young aviation industry looked much like the private space industry today. Costs were prohibitively high for everyone save the ultra-wealthy and governments with large budgets. But a group of entrepreneurs and politicians dreamed of a world where passenger travel was accessible to the masses, and very quickly afterwards they saw those dreams come to fruition. Few shaped this history more than an ambitious businessman from Seattle named William Boeing.
Like Elon Musk, Boeing faced a problem of economics, a chicken and egg dilemma of sorts. To make passenger travel profitable his company had to charge the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars adjusted for inflation. That severely limited the market. The best way to bring down costs was economies of scale, however. It was a tricky Catch-22 any capital-intensive industry faces at the start.
Boeing solved this problem by bidding on mail contracts from the US postal service. But the novel business strategy that set him apart from his peers was how he intended to transition to the potentially lucrative passenger air travel business. In 1927 Boeing launched the Model 40A, a plane capable of flying mail and two passengers. He charged each passenger $900, or roughly $8,000 today. This second income source enabled the company to charge less for mail, which enabled Boeing to win more contracts and thus further reduce their costs. A virtuous cycle ensued, and soon Boeing became the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world. By 1933 the cost of a ticket from New York to San Francisco was $160 and the new passenger air travel industry was born.
It’s easy to be skeptical about SpaceX’s passenger travel aspirations. The leap between near-Earth orbit and Mars is not trivial. But in studying the aviation industry of the late 20s and early 30s, a time when costs were reduced dramatically and the passenger airline industry was born, it is possible to imagine trips to Mars in the near future. In this article I intend to tell the story of aviation’s innovative, and sometimes corrupt, beginnings. My sources include Bob Van der Linden, a leading historian at the Smithsonian and author of Airlines and Air Mail, and other aviation experts.
Would you be interested in a piece on some of the parallels between the two companies in their first 10 years of operations and how the price of space travel might come down in the same way air travel did in the early 20th century?
If so I'd be happy to write a more thorough pitch with facts on the parallels between the two industries and a plan of attack for research/investigation. I can also research different lessons / implications if you'd like.
The next day Amos-6 exploded on the launch pad and my story suddenly became very relevant. Hours after the explosion I followed up with the editor. He responded immediately and I landed the story.
When I drove down to meet that bookstore owner in August I could have never predicted that a rocket would explode a month later and lead to my story being published in The Atlantic. I could have never predicted that all that research into Popular Mechanics archives would result in a story about an entrepreneur that dug a plane out of a glacier, or that the story would get picked up by FastCompany. But hard work yields opportunity and opportunity is the foundation of luck. My pursuit of original stories was the key to landing both pieces.
Explain how you’ll report the story
In looking at successful pitches I noticed something odd. In every pitch it seemed that the last paragraph explained how the reporter would go about gathering the source material. This was something that I’d never read on any blog or heard a reporter talk about. But out of 100 pitches it seemed that 80% had a paragraph about how the reporter planned to get material for the story.
In the follow up that I sent to The Atlantic after Amos-6 exploded I edited the intro and also included my methodology:
In this article I plan to tell the story of how America’s passenger airline industry was born essentially overnight. In doing so, I will parallel Boeing’s rise to prominence in the 20s and 30s to that of SpaceX’s. My sources include Bob Van der Linden, a leading historian at the Smithsonian and author of Airlines and Air Mail, and other aviation experts.
In a story about Iceland’s tourism industry I wrote:
In this story I intend to tell the story of Iceland’s exponential tourism growth in recent years. I have sources at The Ministry of Tourism, Statistics Iceland, Icelandair Group, and The University of Iceland’s tourism department. I’ve done extensive research on the tourism industry in Iceland in preparation for a longer article about the founder of Icelandic Airlines.
These paragraphs give an editor confidence that the journalist is serious about the story and willing to report the facts. Very few magazines want opinion-pieces, so the methodology shows that a pitch isn’t some fluff piece without facts, data, or reliable sources to back it.
Think like an editor
Put yourself in an editor’s shoes for a second. You get 30-50 email pitches everyday, and you have a boss breathing down your neck asking when the next viral story is coming. Prior to my first couple pitches I didn’t take an editor’s interests into consideration. I was thinking about the pitch from my perspective instead of thinking about it from theirs. That’s a key mistake that people make in every facet of life from sales to job interviews. It really hit home for me when I received the following email from an editor:
Hi Michael, thanks for reaching out.
I like/appreciate the irony of Iceland being unable to enjoy the fruits of its Euro 2016 success, but the country's enormous tourism growth has been written about a fair amount over the last year or two, so we'd need to find something new to say about it or its impact. This could mean a fallout story about how tourism growth is reshaping other parts of the economy, or a look at the people who have to adapt the country for the new tourism demand... most important, we'd just want to get beyond the straight growth story.
Another time I pitched a story about how corrupt the early airline industry was and got this response:
Thanks so much for your pitch and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. This sounds like a great story but in the absence of interesting 'so-what' style lessons or implications, I'm going to pass. Let me know if you think I am missing something.
After a couple more of these I learned that editors want to break new stories, and those stories need to be relevant to a larger conversation in society. A story on airline corruption would be relevant if there was a scandal that got people talking about corruption. But in the absence of any current event my story was 100 years past its prime.
The key is always asking “So what? And who cares?” Your editor certainly will.
Once I learned the structure of the magazine pitch and got feedback from a few editors I felt a new confidence. After sending my first pitch, and receiving a rejection I asked for feedback. The editor — a writer that I really respect — told me that he really liked the pitch, but it wasn’t relevant to his audience. With that and other words of encouragement I started sending pitches everyday.
By holing up in my parents house, I was able to create an entirely new schedule for myself. Each morning I’d wake up around 7am, drink coffee and eat breakfast with my Dad, and then start reading. After about an hour of reading I’d feel eager to start jotting ideas down. Then I’d take those ideas and start doing research to see if anyone had written about them. From there, I was able to get a story outline. Then in the afternoon, after making lunch, I’d research the story and get enough material to send a pitch. By about 4pm I’d have an outline that I’d run by my Dad, who is an avid reader. Then I’d take his feedback and write up a pitch. By 5pm each day I would send a pitch and then log it in my pitch tracker.
As someone who used to be in sales, I knew the power of tracking my “pipeline.” That’s where the idea for a pitch tracker came from. Each day I’d log my pitches, and when I heard back I’d update them. Simply seeing the pitches logged in a spreadsheet forced me to pitch everyday. I knew if I missed a day then I’d feel that anxiety that woke me up in Iceland.
(I won’t write more about routine since I think this has been covered a lot already. But the long and short of it is this: pitch every day, work hard, and be persistent. It took me 7 pitches before I got my first story accepted).
Good pitching is good writing
Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the importance of one more thing in the pitch process: that is that good pitching is good writing. I’ve already mentioned that storytelling is the core of any pitch. But so is good grammar and sentence structure. Your prose needs to be as readable as your stories are engaging. Of course, that is something that only comes with practice. There is no shortcut, no easy hack, to writing well. But fortunately there are about ten bazillion books on the subject. On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a particularly great one. John McPhee’s Writing Life Archive is equally brilliant (and free).
Another way to learn how to write well is simply by reading more. Every morning I read for about an hour. Every night I read for about 30 minutes before going to sleep. When I sit down to write I hear other, more experienced, author’s voices in my head. If a sentence isn’t grammatically correct I don’t notice it because I know all the rules of the English language. I notice because it doesn’t look like Michael Lewis’ writing or a story in The New Yorker.
The way I see it every time I sit down to read, my brain slowly unravels the English language. Then when I go to write, it references that information. Every book or story is an input that the brain analyzes for commonalities. Everything I write is an output of all that collective information organized in my own unique way. So it seems my subconscious has been doing for years what my conscious was finally able to do when I got ahold of successful story pitches. And I believe that is why seeing those examples was what I needed to finally break through the ceiling that was preventing me from my goals.