Pitch Perfect: How to place your op-ed and get it published
To harness narrative power to activate change you must have an argument to make and an audience to whom you can make it. Once you have identified those elements the next step is to figure out where you want to place your story for publication. The idea here is to choose an outlet with the maximum impact to reach your audience. When you can reach your audience you can speak to their beliefs, motivate them to take action, and mobilize them in an effort to bring about lasting change. That is the power of narrative. But before you can get to your audience, you must first get through the gatekeepers.
Editors are gatekeepers of the op-ed space. They can be overworked and underpaid. Editors have limited time to read an email let alone help you prune, spruce, and shape an op-ed over days and weeks. You need a clear, concise offer in hand when you approach an editor of a newspaper, magazine, or other form of digital media. You need a pitch.
Your pitch gives the editor an idea of what your argument is, who your argument is for, how it fits into their coverage, and why you’re the right person to write the op-ed at a specific moment in time. As a freelance journalist for the last three years I’ve written countless pitches to innumerable editors. I didn’t have a prior relationship with many of them. What helped me succeed in getting my stories placed was my pitch. They all followed a simple formula borrowed from the wonderful world of book publishing: hook, book, cook. Here’s how it applies to an op-ed.
One sentence. That is all the space you have to hook an editor into your idea and to keep them reading on in your email to learn more about the narrative arc for your proposed op-ed. Your hook should be pithy enough to spark interest while remaining cogent so the editor has immediate understanding. Your hook line can often end up as the subject of your pitch email or even the headline of your op-ed. That is not a lot of space especially if the editor—or even your audience—is reading from their phone. With that in mind your hook should be short but impactful.
An exclusive essay on the dangers of police encounters for people of color from Zach Norris, executive director of Ella Baker Center and author of Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment.
This hook gives the topic, author, and author’s credentials in one sentence. Reading only this the editor knew the full story was going to be a first hand account about police encounters. While the word “exclusive” can sometimes seem superfluous, here it signals that this op-ed is one that could only come from Zach Norris; someone with ample experience in the social justice space and writing credits to his name.
Once the editor is in with your hook you want them to read the rest of your email so they understand exactly what your op-ed is about. They should understand its structure, its audience, and how it gels with their current coverage or the mission of their publication. In the Norris example the hook was the story of a dangerous police encounter, but the heart of the story was the trauma inflicted on the Norris family and how these occurrences are common and sometimes deadly in Black and Brown communities.
Using the story of the traumatic traffic stop to bolster the final argument regarding the ineffective use of license plate readers, their overuse in communities of color, and how that influences the carceral state made a clear and concise argument of why this op-ed needed to run. It also helped that it meshed with the current coverage and investigations Mercury News had been doing regarding license plate readers in the Bay Area.
The points of your argument as its timeliness all need to be included in a full body paragraph of your pitch. Explaining to an editor your take on an issue they’ve already been covering but from a unique or personal angle optimizes your pitch and primes it for publication. There’s only one question left: why are you the right person to write the op-ed and not a staff writer or a familiar freelancer already on the roster?
As the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Zach Norris was already entrenched in social justice advocacy and the abolition of criminal justice constraints. His organization had quantifiable results from their fifteen year campaign to close youth prisons. Their mission and ongoing organizing work to redefine safety and reimagine carceral systems gave Norris a solid foundation on which to stand and advocate for himself as the right author of his op-ed.
This section of the pitch may only be a few sentences but it is just as important as the prior two. It is more than a bio or a prose CV. Instead, you are explaining to an editor why you’re the only person in the world who can write your particular op-ed because of your unique and nuanced argument, the specific audience you’re reaching, and your credentials. Your credentials validate you as the author. They also validate the newspaper or magazine as the source of publication. At the final period of your pitch the editor should be convinced that they will not be able to get the story you’re offering anywhere else or from anyone else.
Remember, stories abound for an editor. They are inundated with pitches and story ideas from journalists, justice warriors, PR professionals, concerned citizens and more. You have a limited window to make yours stand out. Combining a powerful personal story with a nuanced narrative arc allows you to affirm a specific narrative, disrupt any that detract from your point of view, and further establish yourself as an organizer who understands how to harness narrative power to activate change.