Pitching is a necessary skill for a writer, but it’s difficult to develop a knack for it. The best pitches are economical and effective – a one-move takedown, not a boxing match. You have three hundred words to hook an editor, lay out the story, and sell them on your ability to tell it. The process can be intimidating, even for a veteran, so where do you even start to develop that skill?
Well, you start where everyone does: by taking apart something that works. Deconstruction is a powerful learning tool. It’s why mechanics practice taking apart engines before they build one and why med-school students spend hours in the anatomy lab. Well, get your scalpel and snap on the latex, because that’s what we’re doing today.
Below is a successful pitch I made back in 2011. You can read the finished article if you’re interested, but what concerns us isn’t the final product, it’s why this pitch itself was effective in the first place. After all, I wrote this pitch long before I’d typed a word or recorded a single interview.
Note that I’ve cut out all the salutations and sign-offs, the “Dear Mr./Mrs.” and “thank you for your time” stuff. Likewise, I haven’t included a paragraph about my experience like I normally would. All of that is very important and should always be part of a real pitch, but for the sake of focus I’ve restricted it to the pitch itself. I’m teaching you to sell an idea here, we can talk about etiquette later.
Enough foreplay – let the critiquing commence!
Fire Support Group
While attending SXSW, I networked with several representatives of the nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (the “IAVA”) on possibly using them as a resource for an article about troops playing FPS games while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While speaking to an IAVA PR representative, she informed me that many members of the IAVA have reported that playing FPS games like Modern Warfare and Medal of Honor helps relieve the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
There has been some research showing that games in general, such as Tetris, may help reduce the flashbacks and anxiety associated with PTSD, but the movement has gone much further. In 2008 a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California created a full-immersion game called Virtual Iraq which simulates the sights, sounds, and smells of the battlefield to aid patients in remembering traumatic experiences. There is also anecdotal evidence on the IAVA forums (the IAVA is largely coordinated online) that many veterans are turning to their consoles to relive experiences, and hopefully, relieve their anxieties.
Should you commission the article, my contacts in the IAVA have promised to set me up with at least one vet who would be willing to talk about his or her experiences, and whether “FPS Therapy” has worked for them. I would also pursue an interview with Virtual Iraq‘s creator, Albert Rizzo, who seems to be the best person to comment on the movement, as well as contrast it with normal FPS games (in Virtual Iraq patients are not allowed to fire their weapons). Hopefully, this can also expose some veterans who read your site to the IAVA and what they do, which includes medical advocacy, providing services for families, and even passing out donated suits for interviews, since unemployment is a major hurdle for returning vets.
I like to title my pitches – to me a pitch is a little mini-article, a narrative in itself. Like any article or book or movie, a pitch’s title conveys both the mood of the story while explaining what it’s about. Now, confession time: I’m awful at titles. I’ve been known to send articles in with multiple options, becuase I know how bad I am. ”Fire Support Group”? Heinous title, but it still conveys what the article’s about and has a certain catchyness. Pitch titles are really just place holders, so don’t agonize over it too much – there’s plenty of time to change it later.
This pitch has a pretty conversational lead-in, mostly because I was sending it to an editor I’d worked with before. Even allowing for that, it’s probably the weakest part of the pitch – which is a very bad thing. You don’t want to blow your first impression by looking like you can’t get to the point, and absolutely don’t do what I did and talk about how you came across this story while chasing a less interesting story.
Had I written this today, I’d probably go with something like this:
America’s military has a love affair with war games. Xboxes, PS3s and gaming laptops are staples at bases around the world, with troops even playing deathmatches to de-stress between combat patrols. While it might seem on the surface that young soldiers are simply drawn toward games that reflect their interests, there may be another factor at play. I recently spoke with a PR representative from the veterans’ organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (“IAVA”), who said that an increasing number of IAVA members claim something amazing – that playing military FPS games reduces their symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This is a much better introduction, since it’s a smoother entrance into the topic and presents the main idea clearly at the end of the first paragraph. It also sounds more like an actual article, which can only help your case – after all, your pitch isn’t just selling an idea, it’s selling you. A good pitch doesn’t just tell an editor you have a good idea, it also shows that you’ve got the writing chops to pull it off.
It also didn’t hurt to mention that I’d already spoken to IAVA PR – that automatically reinforces the idea that I can network well enough to get an interview.
If the first paragraph is where you present the idea, the second paragraph is where you prove it has legs. In this case, I’ve made a pretty big and slightly dubious-sounding claim in the first paragraph – that games may help PTSD sufferers – so I’ve got to establish the idea’s credibility. The entire second paragraph is made up of the examples I’ll use in the article, along with hyperlinks that send you to a supporting article – not only to prove that the claim’s legitimate, but also to show I’ve done my research and know how to cite sources.
Now, let’s look at the examples I used. All three support the claim I made in the first paragraph. Moreover, the articles I linked come from Psychology Today and NPR, both respected sources. In addition, I mention that Dr. Rizzo’s project is at USC, showing that he’s a respected scientist, not some whackjob I found on a forum. My weakest and most anecdotal source – which I couldn’t cite because IAVA forums aren’t public – comes at the end. It’s more of a chaser, a promise that I’ll flesh out that section once the article’s commissioned.
This is also a great time to mention it if you have any special knowledge pertaining to the subject. Are you a cop who wants to write about evidence collection in L.A. Noire? Then say so! That kind of experience can carry a lot of weight.
By the end of the second paragraph I’ve proved the following: Not only is the idea I’ve presented believable, but there are ample sources available to pull from and I’m fully capable of presenting them in an intelligent, persuasive manner.
So I’ve introduced what I want to say and proved the article’s viable – now for my closing act I need to demonstrate how I’m going to do it and what’s in it for the publication.
This is where you give them your battle plan. Your grand strategy. Where will you get your information? Will you study a government report? Email an expert? Infiltrate Ubisoft Sam Fisher-style and start breaking fingers until you get answers? Who you gonna call? This is pretty easy as long as you’ve got a handle on what the article’s about. After a half-hour of research you should know the top people in the field, the project head you want to talk to or an organization that might be able to help. Give the editor names if you can, rather than just “PR department.” Even if the editor doesn’t know who these people are, she’ll know that you know.
Having said that, it’s best if you aim a little low. Don’t say you’re going to interview someone big like Hideo Kojima or Tim Schafer, since it’ll make you look naive – even journalists with well-established connections have a hard time getting a time slot with industry leaders. Instead target people lower on the totem pole, like level designers or creative directors. Contacting people outside the game industry is always useful too, as they’re less restrained by PR and more likely to answer your questions in a timely manner (pro tip: college professors love to talk about their work).
Next, tell the editor what’s in it for them. Remember, you’re applying for a job here, it’s about what you can do for the editor, not what the editor can do for you. Maybe you’ve noticed that this topic is popular with their readership or the article has something to do with an upcoming release. Perhaps they had a guy who used to cover this beat, but he got hired away to another publication. In my case, I suggested that publishing the article could expose some of the site’s readers to helpful resources – that in addition to be interesting, the article might do some social good.
Pitching With Style
I usually write a pitch in the same style as the article I’m pitching. If I’m hawking a more academic article like this one, I’m more serious and deliberate. By contrast, if I’m talking about an alcohol-soaked indie game festival I’ll keep it loose and fun. The old fiction rule of “show, don’t tell” applies here. When you’re pitching a humor article, the pitch better be funny. An event coverage or travel pitch needs to sell your keen eye for observation. Think of your pitch like a film trailer that gives the editor a little taste of the final product.
Ultimately, pitching is a matter of style. Everyone does it a little differently, and once you start doing it enough you’ll find what works for you. In the meantime, you can do a lot worse than looking at successful pitches and emulating them.
WRITING EXERCISE: Go find an article you like and boil it down to a 300 word pitch. What are the main points of the article? What style is the article in? What can you learn for your own pitch?
Got questions? Ask them in the comments!