Back to the point: Why did “Failure to be interesting” make the list?
Lots of reasons, but they all meet in the same center: Your idea might be dazzling, but your pitch falls flat. It fails to sell.
Have no illusions: Whether you are pitching a story as a freelancer or in your newsroom, you are selling it to editors. Those editors may not have your same interests or sensibilities, are distracted by competing demands, have to serve the priorities of their publication, and have to deliver. So their first take when they scan or hear a pitch is not to dig for the sparkle buried in the wall of words — or, as the old saying goes, find the pony in the poop — but to wonder: Will it deliver? Guarantee of delivery, to them, needs to check off all the boxes listed just above. Even those who are gifted at mining for that gemstone need to attend to all the rest. It’s their job.
That makes it your job to hand them a proven vein of ore that, with some pickaxe work on your part, will yield precious metal. Or better, hand them a chunk of rock that, with a little polishing, will shine. You have to interest them not in the wishful thinking of a raw idea, but in the promise of it.
Enough with the extended metaphor. How do you do that?
First, when an editor asks you why a story matters, never utter these words: “Because it’s interesting!” You’ve just lost your sale.
Second, honor the basics of pitching — those mundane-seeming items like following publication protocols and writing clean copy and doing a standard clips search. Those things might not seem to reflect on the dazzle factor of your idea, but the lack of them will distract busy editors enough to undermine their attention to your idea.
Third, once you’ve attended to those basics, here are some thoughts:
- If you have a fascinating story in your sights, prove that to an editor by writing a fascinating opening. Don’t seize up and try to write in stiff language; you’re writing a story pitch, not a grant proposal. Write a tight opening that engages a reader the same way the lede to a story does. Find a character or scene from your pre-reporting that brings an editor into the world you want to write about, and makes them want to enter that world.
- Don’t have enough pre-reporting to craft a scene or character? Then build an engaging opening around the provocative question you plan to pursue. Make it a question that begs to be answered. This is especially important if you’re exploring a subject that’s been written about before. Your pitch needs to quickly make an editor think about a known topic in a new way.
- Write that opening in the voice you want to write the story. Again, ditch the stiffness and demonstrate that you know how to write the story you are pitching. Is it whimsical? Authoritative? Mysterious? If you’re a known staffer in a newsroom or contributor to a magazine, editors know what to expect from your keyboard and can focus on the idea you’re scratching at. But if you’re a newbie or a freelancer, you need to show your style.
- After that engaging opening, consider the big sell, aka the nut section of your pitch. Summarize the primary point or reason for the story. A lot of writers are tempted to get into the weeds of background. But before you can fascinate an editor with minutiae, you want to get them invested in the big picture — the why, why now, and why here — of your idea.
- Next, or even maybe just before the nut, sink the hook on what makes the idea — or your approach to the idea — novel. This is where you want to reach past an editor’s broad knowledge of lots of subjects and get them thinking about something they didn’t know before or thinking about a known subject in new ways.
- Go back to the weeds a bit. Not with a magnifying glass, but with enough detail to let an editor trust that you know how to get the story.
- Be direct. Stay professional but get comfortable. You’re speaking to an audience of one: that editor you want to sell. So think of your pitch as a letter to that editor, or even as a conversation over coffee or beer. Make your writing lean forward and look the editor in the eye. Don’t sell anything you can’t deliver — but do sell confidence in your idea.