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Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Do You Contact a Source? The McCaughey Septuplets Rule, Revisited

New writers often ask me how to make their queries stand out from the pack, especially when they lack clips. The best way to do so is to craft a compelling query that shows you've already down researched the topic you're pitching. 

Depending on the topic, this may mean including statistics, recent research, or "live" quotes from an expert or another source. So how much time and effort do you put into the query itself? Do you interview a source before you get the go-ahead to do the actual article? Or do you wait until after you get the assignment? The answer depends on what I call the McCaughey Septuplets Rule.

Let me explain. If the story I'm pitching turns on someone's participation (such as with a true-life feature or a profile), I contact the person ahead of time to make sure he or she is willing to do the story if (and hopefully when) I get the assignment. I may also use this opportunity to do a brief interview with my source and include some "live" quotes into the query, demonstrating that I've already done my homework. 

I call this this "The McCaughey Septuplet Rule." Long before 19 Kids and Counting aired, the McCaughey Septuplets, born in November, 1997, were big, big news. Every few months, their beaming faces would grace a women's magazine.

So let's say you wanted to write a profile on the McCaughey septuplets or interview one or more of them for an article. Sure, you can pitch the piece, but if it gets assigned, well, you need the septuplets. No one else will do. 

Same goes for pitching an article about a particular celebrity. If you want to write about Matt Damon, you'd better confirm with his publicist he's willing to talk to you for the story. And if you plan to write about a researcher's ground-breaking discovery, you want to be sure she's willing to be interviewed for your story. Otherwise you'll be unable to write the promised piece. 

That's why I confirm that any critical story source is willing to talk to me before I pitch the story—I don't want to be stuck with an assignment I can't deliver. Otherwise, I note a couple of people who I "plan to interview" (note my phrasing--these are the types of sources I plan to talk to--if one isn't available, I'll get someone similar), and contact them once I get the assignment.

Get the idea? If the story turns on someone's participation, I get their OK before I pitch it. Otherwise I pitch it and contact my sources afterwards. That's the McCaughey Septuplets Rule, in short. Follow this strategy and you'll write stronger queries--and never be in the position of being unable to deliver a story you pitched. 

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