EDvice: How to Perfect Your Story Pitch

Jason Tanz, Senior Editor at Wired

Ed knows you pile your plate high and may not be able to see every speaker he brings to campus, so he’s going to make this easy. Every week this semester, he’s looking to treat you to a juicy Q&A session with an editor– delivered straight to your computer. Keep checking back to the website for his latest guest speaker and the newest piece of advice.

Former editor at Fortune and writer at SmartMoney, Jason Tanz now runs business coverage as a senior editor at Wired. In addition to those, his clipbook boasts stories published in Esquire, The New York Times, Spin, and more. Did we mention he’s a published author, too? Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America came out in 2007. Now Ed’s taking advantage of his extensive writing background to learn about how to pitch stories to our favorite glossy reads.

ED: How would you describe the staff of Wired?

JT: Everybody there is strong, as an editor and as a tech observer. But as with all magazines, some people are tech experts who have learned to edit/write, while others are writers/editors who have learned about tech. I’m in the latter camp. I’ve always been interested in technology and its cultural impact — and all job applicants have to demonstrate that they can think in a Wired way. But I think my real strength is in writing, editing, shaping stories, etc.

ED: I recall the Wired pitch process as being intense, complete with ratings 1 through 5 by the rest of staff on every idea put on the table. How would you summarize the in-house pitch process?

JT: Yeah, 1 through 6, actually. Every assigning editor submits any pitches they’ve developed with their writers, and all the other editors vote on a secret ballot. Then, we all file into the conference room, and there’s a table on the whiteboard with all the pitches ranked by the average score, in descending order. We work our way up the list, discussing each story as we go. For the editors, it’s kind of like a thesis defense. The conversation is informed by the scores, but ultimately it’s Chris Anderson’s call.

ED: What makes a successful Wired pitch?

JT: The ideal Wired pitch has both a rich story and a rich idea, both of which have enough dimension and depth to play out over several pages. So for instance, if you have a big idea but it can be summed up in a paragraph, that’s probably not going to be enough to support a Wired feature. Now, obviously, if the story is really great, the idea doesn’t need to be quite so mind-blowing. And if the idea is really amazing, we may not need to anchor it with a narrative. But that’s a basic guideline that I use when I’m considering whether to pitch something.

ED: What is one big mistake to avoid when pitching an article to a magazine?

JT: If you’ve got a story idea, and you think it could work for a number of different magazines, don’t send the same pitch to all of them. Every magazine is different. Wired has a particularly distinct voice and worldview, so we look for writers that really understand what we’re about, and whose pitches are tailored to our specific sensibility.

ED: Drawing from your freelancing for Spin, Esquire, and The New York Times, what advice do you have for aspiring freelance writers?

JT: This sounds corny, but find a way to write the kinds of stories that you want to read. It’s easy to get bogged down with assignments that you’re doing for the money. And you’ll have to do some of that. But if you keep developing your own voice and your own expertise, even if you don’t always get paid for it, it will eventually pay off.

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