Thursday, August 11, 2011

Problem Pitches: Adjusting the Focus

This week, I've been reviewing pitches for the 2013 Writer's Market and Poet's Market. I've made it through my first round of cuts, but I haven't made any final decisions yet. That'll come by the end of the month (for those who are patiently waiting). However, I have been able to use the first round of cuts to make a list of common pitch problems that will hopefully help writers with pitching and querying other markets.

First off, let me say that even very good pitches get rejected each year. I have a defined budget and page count: Once I hit the limit on either or both, I have to start sending out rejections and hope the good pitches make their way to me again next year. That's just the business of publishing, and it's important for writers to understand that editors and agents are looking for pitches to accept--not reject.

That said, I want to look at the problem of unfocused pitches.

Problem #1: Focus Too Broad
A certain percentage of the pitches I've read recently can be boiled down to this message: I propose to write an article on how to make writers more successful. Of course, I'm interested in publishing articles that make writers more successful, but the pitch includes no specifics on how the writer intends to make other writers more successful.

A better approach would be to pick a common problem writers have--such as pitching editors and agents, handling tax forms, creating a professional website without spending a ton of money, etc. When you can't give specifics, you're most likely using too broad of a brushstroke.

This same principle applies to other markets as well. If you want to write for a parenting magazine, don't make a general pitch that claims it will make better parents. Instead, pitch an article that will help parents handle five common temper tantrums or that gives strategies for getting children to stay in bed at night.

Problem #2: Focus Too Narrow
I usually find this problem more in Writer's Market than Poet's Market, because Writer's Market appeals to a large swath of writers, while Poet's Market is already a niche of the writing community. So, how can a pitch be too narrow?

Here's an example (completely made up): I'd like to write an article on dealing with editors of trade magazines for the farming segment.

The problem here is that it only appeals to a slice (nonfiction article writers) of a slice (for trade magazines) of a slice (that focus on farming). At most, this article would probably appeal to fewer than a dozen readers of Writer's Market--even if it's a brilliant article.

A better approach would be to broaden the focus by dealing with editors of various magazines and identifying their different needs and expectations. A well-executed pitch would offer to break the article down into important groups: national consumer magazines, regional consumer magazines, trade magazines, and online markets.

This pitch is still very specific, but it will appeal to a broader audience.

One more thought on narrow topics
Sometimes, narrow is fine if you're trying to get a small piece published in a publication that has a section for very specialized information. For instance, Writer's Digest magazine has an Inkwell section that collects such pieces in the front of each issue. In these spaces, narrow and quirky can be a good thing.

You can also include your narrow idea as a possible sidebar to go along with your broader article idea. It's all about how you package your ideas.

I know it can feel like a balancing act at times, but practice really does make perfect. The more you pitch the easier it will get to find that right balance.


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Interested in more information on the business of writing? Check these out:
  • 2012 Writer's Market Deluxe Edition, edited by Robert Lee Brewer. This book is loaded with publishing opportunities and articles on the business of writing, including a pay rate chart, information on contracts, data protection, social media tips, pitches that never fail, and more!
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen. This is my favorite resource on how to write a book proposal. Larsen does an incredible job of breaking down the proposal into manageable chunks that create a coherent whole. 
  • Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, by Chuck Sambuchino. This is the top guide on formatting and submitting your writing. This book doesn't just tell you how to format your manuscript, it shows you how with several examples.

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