How to stop pitching ideas and start pitching stories

A subtle but crucial difference.

(Illustration by Matt Lubchansky)

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We’ve all sent a pitch that had some version of one of these:

“I’d like to write about X topic/trend/idea …”

“I see on Twitter a lot …”

“I feel like X is interesting …”

Pause! This is such an easy trap to fall into. But when you’re making unspecific, open-ended statements and using huge generalities in a pitch, you’re not pitching a story; you’re pitching an idea. And editors buy stories.

This may sound like a difference in semantics, but I promise you it’s not. 

So. What is the difference?

An idea is abstract, while stories are concrete.

It really is that simple. And once you master that difference, you’ll never pitch an idea again.

To illustrate this, let’s recall high school physics. Think of an idea as a gas: a substance that expands to fill whatever container it’s in. It has an indefinable shape, and without something to hold it together, it just kinda … floats away. The story is that container: it gives your idea shape and holds it all together. 

So, what makes a good container? A story typically has some level of news value, it’s grounded in the specifics of sourcing and reporting — people, anecdotes, data, analysis, expert voices, etc. — and it has a defined structure. For a pitch, you don’t need to have done your reporting and interviewing yet, but you do need to have thoughts about some of those things and how they’ll fit in your story.

This generally holds true across different kinds of journalism. Maybe your piece has a narrative arc or is centered around data analysis, or maybe it’s a piece of service journalism that shows readers a new way of looking at the world. Whatever it is, it’s something. An idea is just the gas inside that container: it’s the ~big picture~ thought that the story encapsulates. You can have an idea without a story, but without the container of a story, the idea just dissipates, formless.

Part of writing a good pitch is justifying the existence of the pitch itself.

For example: “I want to write about why we should all be more mindful” is an idea pitch. But, “I want to write an explainer about the specific mental and physical benefits of adding more mindfulness into your life, and how it can improve your levels of stress, anxiety, and overall well-being and life satisfaction” is a story pitch.

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Another: “I want to write about how everyone is buying mini-fridges lately” is an idea. But this is a story: “More people than ever are buying mini-fridges. I analyzed the sales data of them for the last 10 years and found a spike that coincided with the pandemic. Why are more people buying them, and what are the implications for the future of American kitchens — and electricity consumption?” (Please, someone write this.)

One more: “I want to write about TikTok influencers in the pandemic” is an idea. “I want to write about this subset of TikTok influencers that is changing how influencers make money on the platform, and how they’re building a sustainable plan that can weather the pandemic unlike any other influencer on the platform” is a story.

A successful pitch proves the case that what you’re selling is worth buying.

But these are all hypothetical. Let’s look at something that has actually been published: this excellent story from late March by Darcie Wilder in The Outline (R.I.P.) about what it meant to “log the fuck on” in the early days of the pandemic.

The bad way to frame this story would’ve been: We’re all on the internet now because we have nothing else to do, so let’s talk about how weird it is. (And I can speak from experience in saying that story was pitched industrywide many, many times that month!)

The frame for the Outline story, on the other hand, spoke much more pointedly to themes about celebrity, digital culture, the role of creatives in the pandemic, socioeconomics and more. It has a genuine thesis, wonderfully summarized here:

While the government views the economy and human lives on a diametrically opposed scale, there is a class of creative that aims to “speak to the times.” (You may recall that the comfortably bored people who believe this to be true were the same ones saying, “Now, more than ever, we need comedians,” after Trump got elected.) It’s as if post-9/11 New York nostalgia has returned, morphing from the worst is behind us; we must be brave to the worst has yet to come, but also things are the worst now and were equally bad before this; we must be brave. Both rely on a self-important sense of personal responsibility to tackle an issue largely out of our hands. And, similarly, both provide the crisis for the government to swoop in with increasingly strict regulations in the name of personal and public safety, which, if you’ve gone through a TSA line in the past 19 years, you know are hard to rescind once normalized.

That is a story that deserves to exist, and it deftly grounds an idea — it’s weird to be online during the pandemic — in an actual story. With that perfect container, there’s no way that idea is floating away.

Oh, a few other things …

• If you found this post helpful, please consider supporting FWT on Patreon. For as little as $3 per month, you can help us do more free Zoom panels, keep writing this newsletter AND you’ll get special, exclusive stories available only on Patreon. Coming this Thursday: The Dos and Don’ts of Writing the Perfect Pitch. Click here to learn how to subscribe!

• Speaking of, I tweeted a whole bunch of tips on writing better pitches yesterday, check out my thread here.

• There are still a few spots left in this weekend’s Zoom panels! We’re gonna talk about how to structure a longform story and how to write better pitches. Register here.

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Bye ily!