How to write and pitch a successful article outline

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Pitch article outlines and ideas to magazine editors successfully with outstanding advice for freelance writers from the archives of Writing Magazine – with a helpful example of the query that led to this article being commissioned.

 

Increasingly, magazines are asking for a pre-submission outline before considering a possible feature article. Outlines can be a good thing for both editors and writers.
An outline gives the editor an opportunity to judge whether the feature is likely to be of interest – and whether the writer can handle it. An outline lets the writer sort out his/her ideas – and maybe get a go-ahead – before actually writing the feature.


An outline is a ‘taster’ for the eventual article. Too long and you might as well submit the complete article – and the editor won’t like that. So it needs to be as brief as possible – a single page – while providing a summary of the eventual content. And unless you are already known to the editor, you need to spell out your ‘credentials’ for writing on the subject: to sell yourself.

 

What to include in your article outline

Think of an outline as a three-part document:
• The title and ‘hook’, to grab the editor’s attention
• Details of the planned content
• A brief statement of your ‘credentials’
Before you start writing the outline, you need to be clear in your mind what your purpose is. Not long ago I wrote an article about Japanese netsuke. My purpose was clear – to interest the ‘ordinary reader’ in these tiny ivory carvings and suggest that they were good ‘collectables’. My purpose in writing a how-to feature like this is equally clear – to show the beginner how to do something relevant. I script one-page non-fiction picture stories for a children’s magazine: my purpose there is also clear – to make potentially dull facts interesting to the young readers.

Provide the title and hook that will keep readers interested

The most important part of any article is the beginning. If you don’t grab your reader within the first paragraph or so, they may not bother to read on. The title and the ‘hook’ – the opening paragraph – need careful thought. They will be an essential element of your outline. For now, you need to grab the editor’s attention. The word ‘successful’ is used in the title of this article. That is always a good eye-catcher. Note too how quickly I mention the benefits of the outline to the reader-writer.

 

What content to include and how to structure your article outline

You need to give much ‘pre-outline’ thought to the actual content of any article: the points to be made and the best – most logical – order in which to make them.
If you are writing an historical feature this could be structured along strictly sequential lines – or it might be possible to use flashback. Start with an account of some particularly thrilling episode – to grab the reader – then go back to the historical beginning. Say something like, ‘But it all began some weeks earlier…’
With a how-to article, the straightforward ‘1–2–3–4’ sequence is almost always best. With an article incorporating a collection of varied facts, the ‘twin peaks’ structure is worth considering: start with one particularly interesting fact, and end with another. A circular structure is also often a good idea – at the end, refer back to a point raised in the opening paragraph. It gives the reader a ‘satisfied’ feeling.
For an outline, you need to decide in advance the structure you will adopt. Once decided, briefly list the key elements – bullet points are useful here

 

Give your credentials as the most suitable writer for this article

In the third part of an outline, we come to your ‘credentials’. For the Japanese netsuke article I mentioned that I had a small collection of netsuke and that I had studied their history. A selective – writer’s – biog is also sometimes appropriate: mention any relevant publishing credits.
You might also, within the ‘credentials’ section of the outline, also like to check on the length the editor wants, and/or whether he wants black and white or colour illustrations.
In America, writers often incorporate their outline-query within a sales-letter. In the UK, a one-sheet outline plus a simple, brief, covering letter works best.
Send it by email to the editor, unless email queries are not welcomed, when you should post your letter-plus-outline to the named editor.
Below is the outline that I submitted to the editor of Writing Magazine for this article. It worked for me. ?

 

The outline that worked when proposing this article

Increasingly, magazines are asking for a pre-submission outline before considering a possible feature article. Outlines can be a good thing for both editors and writers.
An outline gives the editor an opportunity to judge whether the feature is likely to be of interest – and whether the writer can handle it. An outline lets the writer sort out his/her ideas – and maybe get a go-ahead – before actually writing the feature.
Then …
• An outline has three parts: title and hook, content, and writer’s ‘credentials’.
• Before preparing the outline, the writer must be clear as to the article’s purpose.
• The title and hook are important to the article, and must lead off the outline.
• The outline should include a structured list of the contents of the eventual article.
• The final part of the outline should incorporate the writer’s ‘credentials’.
• Unless editor welcomes e-mail queries, submit the outline, with covering letter and sae, by post.
The article itself will be illustrated by this outline – ‘one that worked’. Article plus outline-illustration will be approximately 900 words overall.
I am well-qualified to write this article. As you know …
(contact details, etc.)

This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Writing Magazine.

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