Pitch perfect

There's nothing like the introduction of four top editors to quiet a room of science writers. This year, editors from the New York Times, Scientific American, Sierra, and Wired formed the panel of the Pitch Slam, a fan favorite at the annual NASW workshops. Writers, eager to hear insider tips and witness on-the-spot feedback to story pitches, packed the room in October in Palo Alto, the site of ScienceWriters 2008.

 

There's nothing like the introduction of four top editors to quiet a room of science writers. This year, editors from the New York Times, Scientific American, Sierra, and Wired formed the panel of the Pitch Slam, a fan favorite at the annual NASW workshops. Writers, eager to hear insider tips and witness on-the-spot feedback to story pitches, packed the room in October in Palo Alto, the site of ScienceWriters 2008.

Before the pitches began, moderator Robin Mejia asked each editor to introduce himself and provide a few details on his publication's pitch process. First up was Ivan Oransky, online managing editor for Scientific American. SciAm.com produces an average of 55 pieces of fresh web content a week, said Oransky, and there are several areas where freelancers are regularly used, including In-Depth Reports and Fact or Fiction, a weekly column (see http://www.sciam.com/ for examples). Writers are welcome to directly email him pitches at ivanoransky@sciam.com. Hint: Oransky admitted a soft spot for lists and slideshows. "You had me at Top Ten," he laughed.)

Next up was David Corcoran, health editor at the New York Times. Because staff writers and longstanding freelancers write most articles in NYT, "We're not the easiest place in the world to crack," said Corcoran. Still, he accepts pitches via email (corcoran@nytimes.com), and asks they be one at a time and average 200 to 300 words. If you haven't heard back in about a week, the answer is probably no, he noted. Freelancers may have the most success pitching original web content, he said, including "Times Essentials," in-depth presentations about particular diseases and conditions (contact Toby Bilanow, bilanow@nytimes.com). Another freelance-driven section is "Cases," personal essays on medical topics (contact Mike Mason, mmason@nytimes.com). The Times pays about $1 per word.

Seated next to Corcoran was Adam Rogers, senior editor at Wired. "Almost any kind of story can have a Wired angle," said Rogers, but freelancers need to find it. To pitch a feature to Wired, email him a proposal (adam_rogers@wired.com) of the idea, why it's cool, who you are, and "don't assume I know anything about it," said Rogers. He reminded writers he evaluates not just the story idea, but the writing of the pitch as well.

Bob Sipchen from Sierra rounded out the panel. Features with the greatest success in Sierra have both deep science underpinnings and a human element, said Sipchen. The magazine employs freelances to write many sections of the magazine, including "The Green Life," a front-of-book section on health and green living, and "Grapple," on politics and policy. Sierra rates begin at $1 per word, and the magazine has a good travel budget, said Sipchen. He welcomes pitches at bob.sipchen@sierra.org.

Finally the main event began. Each hopeful had 60 seconds to propose a story, after which he or she would receive reactions from the panel. (Side note: This year's all-male panel received a long string of female pitches--Brian Vastag was the only male to take the hot seat). The ideas pitched ranged in subject but the majority were medical and environmental stories. While the panelists offered specific responses to the strengths and flaws of each pitch, several themes emerged as writer after writer stepped up to the microphone.

"Be skeptical," said Oransky, a sentiment echoed by his fellow panelists. "We want to see it flushed out," he said. It can help to have hard statistics to convince an editor of the importance of a story, he added.

"Asking a question is a bad way to pitch us," said Rogers. Call a few sources and find out the answers first, he suggested. Then you'll know the story. Questions can be intriguing, but there's always the risk the answers won't pan out.

"Make sure you do your research," said Sipchen. It's important to make sure the publication you're pitching as well as its competitors haven't already covered the story. If the general topic been heavily reported, "you need something that advances the ball," said Corcoran. Show there's new research available or that you have a new angle, the editors suggested.

Megan Scudellari is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina. A recent graduate of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, she specializes in the life sciences and currently writes for The Scientist magazine.

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