I’m tired of bad pitches. They waste everyone’s time and make you look bad. That’s not the reason I’m tired of them though. I just don’t want to see anymore great ideas die because the writer can’t pitch. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, but it’s an essential part of telling stories and one that you must master if you want to be a successful writer.
You might have the greatest story ever, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t articulate it well enough for someone to understand why they should publish it. “I don’t know how to express what I want to write about,” they say. If you can’t express it in a 50-100 word pitch, what makes you think you’re going to be trusted to do it in 800-1000?
Pitching is an art. It isn’t only about presenting your idea, it’s about presenting you. If I’m going to pay you to write for me, I want to ensure that you’re going to get the job done. If your pitch is full of errors and is difficult to follow, what’s to say the article you submit won’t be the same way? That’s why it’s important to master the pitch. If you put together a great pitch, it’ll make any idea seem worth telling.
I could tell you how I did it, but that’s all anecdotal. Instead, I asked top editors from Polygon and Playboy to help me dissect the art of pitching. Between the three of us, we’ve seen tens of thousands of pitches; a lot of which we’ve published, most which we haven’t. Below we’ll discuss the four components that matter the most when it comes to pitching. Use them as a guide to help sell your stories (and yourself).
It takes more than just a good idea:
“But my idea is good!” people say, not realizing that a good idea if only the first and easiest step of being published. We’ve all had ideas for apps, services, and entertainment of some kind, that doesn’t mean we’ve made them. Often, a good idea will get you in the door; your email will be opened — it won’t guarantee someone will be willing to publish it.
First, identify the right outlet. If you’re pitching to the wrong outlet, you’re already in trouble. You could have a killer idea, but be pitching to the wrong outlet; your idea dies and you give up. Don’t let your idea die at the hands of the wrong outlet. It needs to be custom-tailored to that audience, otherwise there’s no reason for that outlet to pick it up. If it could live on any outlet, there’s nothing unique about it. You need to ensure that the audience is there. “I need to know not just what the piece is about,” says Mike Rougeau, Gaming Editor at Playboy, “but why anyone will care.” If the audience isn’t there for your piece, you won’t find someone willing to publish it.
Second, tell a story that only you can tell. There’s a lot of people that want to say things, be the person who has something unique to say. Taking on outside talent is challenging — it’s a bigger deal than people assume. Your editor is going to have to take a calculated risk on you, a risk that you’re going to be able to tell a story that works for their outlet. Because of this, you need to make sure that your story is unique, otherwise they’re better served using someone internally to tell it, especially with big sites like Polygon. “I look for something that only that person could write. Something that draws from lived experiences or offers a unique point of view,” says Ben Kuchera, Opinions Editor at Polygon, “If it was something that anyone could write, we have plenty of talented writers who already work for Polygon.” They don’t need you to tell that story. Tell a story that, no matter how big the staff, can’t be told better you would tell it.
Be unique, tell something only you can tell, and do it for the right place. Present this in a clean and succinct manner and you’ll be on the right track.
Why being a new writer isn’t bad:
At some point, everyone is a new writer. You need to start somewhere. This doesn’t mean that you should pitch the big dogs saying “I’M NEW!” but rather, you don’t need a massive amount of clips to start. Most of the time, when I was pitching, I’d include two or three samples in a similar content category that I was proud of. If your pitch is concise and on-point, I’m mostly looking for samples to see that deadlines aren’t the issue. If you have a few solid clips under your belt, you’ll find that most people are willing to give you a shot. You need to have something though, says Kuchera, “I don’t mind working with new writers, but ideally you’d like to see some of their writing first.” Write on Medium, pitch some short work that you can really be proud of, tap your friends to see if they have any need you can fill. These are loss leaders. They won’t do much for you now, but they’ll help get you better work in the long run and are extremely important.
Why you don’t need to write the entire story in an email:
When I look for pitches, I want something I can digest quickly. It needs to be concise and to the point. If you ramble in an email and can’t get your point across in less than 800 words, you need to work on honing your idea before pitching it out to anyone. Think of it like the classic elevator pitch. In 30 seconds, tell me:
- What the story will be about
- Why it’s interesting to the audience
- What research will go into it
- Why you’re the best one to tell the story
- How long it’s going to take you/how many words you want to write
I found succinct paragraphs to be the best formatting for me. Through this elevator pitch, your editor should be able to get everything they need to know to make a decision on whether they want your story or not. Whatever you do, don’t write pages upon pages. You’re only going to turn people off from your idea, mainly because they might not even read it all. Again, if you can’t summarize your idea, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people you can tell it.
Keep it simple. We just want to know what your story is about, how you’ll tell it, and what makes it unique. Everything else comes later. “The main thing I look for in pitches is an idea that is conveyed so well it seems effortless—that’s when I know it’s going to be an easy piece to work on, edit and publish because the writer knows what they’re talking about,” says Rougeau, “The other details we can fill in after.” The idea of adding more later is important. This isn’t something that you send off and don’t ever get to touch again. If an editor is interested, they’ll start a conversation, which is a great place for you to add any additional context that might have bogged down your pitch at first. “A few paragraphs in total is all you need,” says Kuchera. “If I want more, I’ll ask in the follow-up email.”
Don’t do this:
It’s difficult to get a pitch accepted. You need to be the right person for the right idea at the right outlet. Don’t stack the odds against you by making simple mistakes or being a jerk.
First, There are no blank checks. Find a story and tell it. Don’t just say “I want to write about X”. No one will let you do that. You can leave some room for discovery, but you can’t just ask someone to give you free reign. “I’m not going to give anyone a blank check to write whatever they want—I need to know exactly what you’re going to say about X game or Y event, or what you think you’re going to say about it at least,” says Rougeau. That isn’t to say that you have to have the entire thing planned out, that’s the wrong approach too. But you have to have a plan of some kind to your editor know where you’re looking to go. “That angle can change in the process; maybe you want to write about how X game’s portrayal of female characters is flawed, but when you play it you’re pleasantly surprised,” says Rougeau, “Great! That’s the story now.”
Second, take all feedback you get. It’s rare that someone will have the time to help you workshop your idea, so even the tiniest bit of advice is super helpful. If you can’t take rejection or advice when pitching, you’re going to have a world of hurt ahead of you when you go through editing. If you’re turned down, simply thank the person and move on. You won’t accomplish anything by giving them a piece of your mind, you’ll only hurt your chances of getting serious consideration next time. If your pitch isn’t accepted, that isn’t the end of the world. Most editors truly mean it when they ask you to pitch again, it means they see something in you. “When I ask people to keep pitching, which I don’t do on every pitch I turn down, I’m being sincere,” says Kuchera. “It means I think the writer has something to say but that particular pitch isn’t a good pitch. The worst response to being turned down is a nasty e-mail telling me why I’m wrong, or personally attacking me.”
Why deadlines matter:
If you manage to get a piece accepted, congratulations! Don’t mess it up. One of the easiest ways people mess up freelance work is by not taking care of deadlines. Notice I didn’t say meeting tight deadlines. Not everything needs to be turned around right away, but you need to be aware of how important deadlines are. For some outlets, they’re planning on your content being ready on the day you agreed to. If it isn’t ready, there won’t be a story to go in that slot and that’s unacceptable. For others, like Playboy, they often don’t matter too much because of the evergreen nature of the content. If it’s tied to an embargo or game release, that’s an entirely different story. It’s something you’ll have to discuss with your editor ahead of time, but if they set a deadline, you need to meet that.
If you aren’t going to be able to complete the submission in time, you better have a good reason and be willing to answer for the delay. More importantly, you need to have this conversation with your editor long before the deadline, not the night before. I once had to delay a piece I was writing for Polygon. I was waiting on an interview that would tie the whole thing together and the subject just wasn’t being cooperative with finding a time to be interviewed. I emailed the week before, requesting an extension and was met with a lot of questions. I was scared — this had never happened to me before. Would they work with me again or was I too far gone to be respected? I was given the extension and pushed harder than ever to meet it, driven to show that it wasn’t a precedent, but a much-needed moment of grace.
Deadlines are an important test of your professionalism. If someone can meet a deadline, I’m likely to rely on them in a time of need. If someone can’t meet a non-timely deadline, it’s going to be a tough sell to use them again. “Professionalism is the mark of a writer editors wants to work with over and over,” says Ben Kuchera. He’s right. Someone who can’t meet their deadline shows a certain disrespect for both the people and the work. Rougeau agrees, “If you miss that window, the piece won’t do as well for us and it makes everyone involved look bad.”
However, if you can hit your deadlines and handle edits with grace, “your pitches will always be considered,” says Kuchera. Miss a deadline or delay at the last minute? You’ll find people a lot more weary to go through that again.
What if they say no?
If they don’t want to publish it, don’t trash it just yet. If you get feedback, take that to the bank. Adjust your pitch. Find the right publication. Work on your elevator pitch. Don’t just give up because someone said no. If you’ve exhausted every avenue and you’re still not getting anywhere, take a break from that story. Write another one, let it cool down and go at it with a fresh mind filled with success. You’ll find that experience makes everything better and there’s always room for improvement.
If you skimmed that, go back and read it. These are the people you’re potentially pitching to and they’re giving you a guide on how to succeed! This list should be your pitching bible. Let’s recap.
- Be concise. Your pitch needs to be super tight, cut the fluff. This is your elevator pitch.
- If you’re cold pitching, give them a reason to choose you. Share past successes and why you’re the right one to tell this story.
- Be specific with your pitch. Don’t say, “I want to write about X game.” Say why you want to write about X game and what direction you’ll take. That can always change throughout the process, but you have to provide some plan for an editor to trust you with that.
- Know your outlet. This is important for pitching and keeping consistent work. Some outlets are super strict on deadlines, others aren’t. Knowing your outlet could give you more time and keep you from embarrassing yourself on the first go. Go above and beyond to ensure that you aren’t just turning something in at the last minute, but that you’re making things as easy as possible for your editor. It’s a great way to ensure that you’ll be given another shot down the road.
- Be receptive to edits! You’re submitting to an editor, let them edit. They know what they’re doing. For the most part, they’re only trying to make your piece stronger. In some cases, it’s a tonal fit. Most of the time, there’s a better way to say what you’re saying and they’re trying to help you find that.
- Be concise. This wasn’t an error — it’s just worth reiterating due to its importance.
No matter how good you think your pitching skills are, there’s always room to learn. Read this advice and apply it to your pitches. You’ll find that these principles were developed for a reason. They work.
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