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This week’s question is from a freelancer who has an idea for a column and wants to know how she can pitch it to a publication: whether it’s different from pitching an article, what to include in the proposal, how many column ideas to present, how payment works, etc.
We reached out to Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski, an award-winning humorist and freelancer who has written for Family Circle, Boys’ Life, Maryland Life and Baltimore magazine, among others. Her humor book, “Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box,” comes out in spring, 2012.
Wojciechowski has also written a syndicated weekly column, “Wojo’s World,” since 2003, and has this advice to share:
In 2003, when I began writing my humor column, Wojo’s World, I pitched it to a local newspaper I had been freelancing with for many years. In that case, it was an easy pitch: the editor already knew me and liked my writing. The worst thing she could have done was read my first column and politely told me, “No.” But she didn’t.
When I pitched the column a second time, it was to a publication where the folks didn’t know me. I met with the publisher, armed with my three favorite columns. He liked what he read. But it still wasn’t a done deal. “Let’s give it a shot and revisit at the end of the year,” he said. That’s exactly what we did, and they decided to renew the column.
So while that’s my story, it’s probably not a usual one. To answer your question, “Is pitching a column different from pitching an article?” Well, yes and no. (I know -- don’t you just love the easy answers?)
If I were pitching a humor column or an essay-based column, I would first check out a number of publications to see where the concept would best fit – and make sure the publication doesn’t already have a column like the one I was thinking of pitching. Check a few back issues of the publication, just in case it’s something that’s not in every issue. Can you imagine having an editor come back with, “Um, did you read our last issue? We’ve got what you’re selling right on page 73!”
Something like that could cause a writer to not only crawl into a hole from embarrassment, but also to tunnel deep within the earth and hide for years.
But you won’t need to do that because you’re going to check first, right? Of course you are.
Next -- and this may seem obvious, but I’m including it anyway -- pitch to the right person. You can find this information by looking at the publication itself, checking on the pub’s website, or even placing a call. You can also ask other writers. But do your best to get your proposal to the right person. If you don’t, the wrong person may delete it, and, let’s face it, that’s not the way to get a column.
Phone or email? Unless you know the person you’re contacting pretty dang well, email is the way to go. And keep your proposal in the text of the email; some publications’ servers are designed to make emails bounce if they have attachments. And while emails bouncing through cyberspace may be fun to watch, again, it’s not the way to get a column.
As for the proposal itself, I would start off with something that grabs the editor’s attention and keeps it. For example, “Dear Ms. Editor, I would like to write a column for your publication” is not nearly as catchy as “When I was a teenager, I learned some important things: how to give the silent treatment to my parents, how to talk to the opposite sex without throwing up, and how to parallel park…But one parking incident that will go down in the annals of bad parking history was the time that I pulled in way too close to the wall of our house. I heard a loud noise and saw bright orange pieces fly into the air like confetti in front of my car.” (From Wojo’s World, “A Parallel Universe.”)
I would start with a portion of an essay or humor piece that really showcases your work -- your ability to make folks laugh or to get them interested. Then pitch the column. Let the editor know how it will enhance the publication, draw readers, and entice advertisers.
Yeah, I know. We’re supposed to keep advertising and editorial separate. We are. I’m not telling you to go knock on advertisers’ doors and try to sell ads. That would be wrong. Very, very wrong. But if you have ideas about building ads around your column or how the readers of said column will likely be those with purchasing power (feel free to research and throw in some stats here), telling the editor is smart business practice. Because while the editor may love the idea, he/she has to take it to the higher-ups. And finding a way to help sell the column does not take away from your integrity as a writer. In fact, it may get you the “in” that you need.
Next, list your credentials. If you don’t have any, you probably don’t want your first foray into the writing world to be pitching a column. Sure, stranger things have happened, but you might want to get some clips under your belt first. Be sure to choose the credits that most tie in with the type of column you’re pitching. If, for example, you’re pitching a mom-to-mom type column, list the publications you’ve written for that moms would likely read. If you want to list prominent publications that have nothing to do with your column, you can, but save them for the end of your list.
Finally, include three sample columns. Yes, I’m totally serious. If you’re pitching an essay or humor column, the editor will need to see what you can do. Actually, if you’re pitching another type of column, and you’ve never written one like it before (so an editor could see it in a clip), then write three practice ones and paste them in at the end of the email. Let the editor know that you’re doing this. Be sure to write something like, “For your convenience, I’m pasting three sample columns at the end of this email so that you get to see what the column will be like.”
Before you hit up an editor with your column idea, run it by some friends -- and be sure that at least one of them is a writer, and that they are the kind of friends who will tell you if an outfit you’re wearing looks stupid. This is not the time to go to the “yes” friends. Let them help you figure out if this column idea is as interesting as it can be and if it’s something you can really do.
Should you talk about payment? I wouldn’t when you’re pitching the column. Why? Because you want to sell them on the idea of the column first. You want to get into this publication. Now, I’m not saying that you should write it for next to nothing or for -- shudder -- free, but you want to entice them first, then talk price later. If you went into a first interview for a job, you wouldn’t sit down and say, “Hey, I’m wonderful. Now I want you to pay me $100,000,” would you?
Well, perhaps you would. But that might explain why you’re not getting called back for second interviews.
And don’t give up if the first editor says, “No.” Just as with queries for articles, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea. It may mean that the publisher recently said at a staff meeting that columns stink. Or the editor may have had bad experiences with other columnists, so the publication isn’t taking new ones. Or everyone at the publication has no sense of humor or they have gotten lobotomies or they think laughter and joy is the fodder of the devil…
Okay, it’s probably not the third, but you get the idea.
Be persistent. If you get a “No,” see it as one step closer to a “Yes.”
If you need a laugh in the meantime, come over to my website, WojosWorld.com, and read my column.
And, oh yeah, once you get your own column, always look for ways to promote it. That will make your editors happy.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll hear from Suzette Standring, award-winning author of “The Art of Column Writing.”
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