The Art of Pitching: How I Got Published in The Atlantic
Over the last two years I’ve written for national magazines like The Atlantic, FastCompany, and Quartz. In this post I’ve broken down the process I used to break into these publications. My hope is that it will help people like you get your ideas published and build your personal or company brand.
Two years ago, I returned to my hometown of Denver after five 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. No, I wasn't another discouraged millennial moving back into the basement – I simply decided it was time to achieve a childhood dream and get published in a national magazine.
During those two weeks I did nothing but read books and write magazine pitches. I told myself that I wouldn’t leave until one of my pitches was accepted. Over the course of 14 days I sent 14 pitches, and finally on August 9th my first story was accepted by Quartz. A couple weeks later my second story was accepted by The Atlantic. Then I landed another story with Quartz. A couple months later I started contributing to FastCompany regularly.
What inspired this crazy routine? To put it simply I wanted to share my ideas and experiences with millions of people. For years I had written blog posts about what I was learning as an entrepreneur. On average hundreds of people would read them — maybe thousands if I was lucky. I knew that if I wanted to build a personal brand and generate awareness for my company I’d need to get my ideas in front of a larger audience.
In hindsight, the path to success was relatively straightforward. The only thing that prevented me from doing so in the first place was myself. Self-doubt and the notion that only “real writers” could write for major magazines stopped me from taking the first step. Once I overcame my doubts and learned the process of pitching I started getting published in national magazines. With the prestige associated with names like The Atlantic I had the opportunity to meet with the founders of companies like Kickstarter. My stories started hitting the front page of Reddit and HackerNews. Last summer I achieved my goal and passed one million cumulative views on my stories.
Below I’ve outlined the exact steps and resources that I use to get published. My hope is that it will help you build your brand and get your own stories in front of millions of people.
Learn from the best pitches
Every profession or skill has its own element of “insider’s baseball.” In the publishing industry, there’s a proper way to pitch stories. To learn this, I started reading articles on how to pitch. At first all I found was fluff pieces, and light blog posts sharing truisms 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.
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. It was an incredible find.
Before finding The Open Notebook, I hardly knew how to structure a pitch. Sometimes I sent entire stories (note: 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?” (why I thought this was a good idea, I’m not sure.)
The Open Notebook enabled me to analyze the best practices of 100 successful pitches by some of my favorite writers. My number one takeaway was how to create a character-driven story hook.
A story hook with characters
One of the things that surprised me the most 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 that I’d eventually write.
Here’s an excerpt of a successful pitch that I wrote using that framework:
Over the course of 550 days, Casey Neistat became one of the Internet’s most famous celebrities. His daily vlog became one of the most popular and talked about channels on YouTube, attracting 6 million subscribers. He won GQ’s New Media Star award in 2016, produced one of the year’s most viral videos, and then crashed the Oscars. Then on November 19th he shocked the YouTube community that adores him so much and announced the end of his vlog.
In the first decade of his career, Neistat straddled the line between filmmaking’s established world and its less critically respected fringe. As soon as he achieved commercial success, premiering films at Sundance and selling a TV series to HBO, he pivoted. Over the next five years he straddled the line between the filmmaking world and tech. By 2014 he was spending all of his time producing viral hits like the video of him snowboarding in New York City. The next year he started a Snapchat competitor, Beme, which he sold for $25 million at the end of 2016. Each time the world expects Neistat to do one thing, he does the exact opposite and achieves wild success.
In his latest pivot Neistat wants to use his influence and filmmaking skills to make the world better. It’s cliche, he admits, but the man who achieved Internet fame by preaching platitudes like “Do what you love” and “Don’t worry what others think” has never shied away from the borderline trite. Up until now, Neistat hasn’t shared his plans. He has said repeatedly that he is excited about the democratization of technology, but how he’ll contribute is unclear. Neistat has agreed to speak with me to share some of his plans.
In this pitch I was able to hook the editor with a question: why did Neistat end his vlog? Rather than answer it in a sentence I provided more character development, sharing snippets from his career. The pitch also had inherent conflict that appeals to FastCompany’s audience (between the established media world and the independent creator movement). The pitch ended with a larger question: what will this character (Neistat) do next? In other words the pitch had every element of a good story: characters, plot, and meaning.
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 most important element of a good story is meaning. You can tell a story in which a character does something (plot) in a place (setting). But without meaning it’s going to fall flat like a bad joke. In fact, comedy is a great place to learn how to tell stories.
Andrew Stanton’s (writer/director of Toy Story) explains this brilliantly in his TED Talk on storytelling. He gives 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…”
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, that explains why…” In telling a story you often need to engage in discussion around a larger event or trend, while connecting it to a truly interesting narrative.
Relevance > interest
One day, soon after returning to Denver, I randomly read about how America controls a majority of the airplane manufacturing industry. I wanted to know how and why so many prominent airlines were started here and what entrepreneurs like myself could learn from it. In my research I found an amazing story about how Bill Boeing started Boeing and United Airlines and launched the entire aviation industry as we know it.
Unfortunately a great story isn’t the only prerequisite to getting published. Timing and relevance to “the news cycle” is another essential ingredient. Here are the first two paragraphs from a pitch that led to one of my stories in The Atlantic to show you what I mean:
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.
Notice that I don’t even mention Bill Boeing or the aviation industry in the first two paragraphs? Instead I found an event that could make the story relevant to the day’s news. That answered the question “So what?” and created a timely reason for telling a history of aviation in America.
The next day Amos-6 exploded on the launch pad and my story suddenly became even more relevant. Hours after the explosion I followed up with the editor. He responded immediately and I landed the story.
Before writing for magazines I avoided daily news like the plague. As an entrepreneur it was full of noisy distractions. But in deconstructing the pitch process I learned how important it is to have a finger on the pulse of current events.
To really understand that idea 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. You have endless deadlines, hotshot reporters to manage, and a constantly shifting 24-7 global news cycle. Sound easy?
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. Not thinking from the decision-maker’s perspective is 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 after 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.
The key to pitching is always asking “So what? And who cares?” Your editor certainly will.
Once I thoroughly 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. That response and other words of encouragement prompted me to I start sending pitches everyday.
Holed 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 outline a story.
Later, in the afternoon, after making lunch, I’d research the story and get enough material to develop pitch.
By about 4pm, I’d have a fleshed out outline that I’d run by my Dad, who is an avid reader.
Next, 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 and track my progress. And I knew if I missed a day then I’d feel that same 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 means writing well
Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the importance of one last thing in the pitch process: which is that good pitching is also about writing well. 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.
About the author
Michael Thomas is the founder of Campfire Labs, the best way to hire the top 1% of writing talent. He previously founded and sold SimpleData, a lead generation company. Michael also writes for magazines like FastCompany, The Atlantic, and Quartz.