Arrows on a wall

Forgive the movie reference, especially if you long ago ditched the Mel Gibson fan club. But a moment early in “The Patriot” offers apt wisdom when struggling with a story pitch.

The short version: Colonial settler Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has armed his two youngest sons with muskets and positioned them in the forest, above the road where the British are dragging his oldest son, who is to be hanged as a traitor to the Crown. Martin will do most of the blood work himself, but his boys need to take out a couple of Redcoats to give him an edge. He reminds them to target the officers, then calms them with a primary lesson of hunting:

“Aim small. Miss small.”

It may sound like a negative — a prediction of failure, with a caution to keep aspirations low. But it really is quite brilliant shorthand for one of the most effective approaches to story pitching: Focus. Martin is reminding his sons that the narrower their aim, the more likely they are to hit their target.

There are all kinds of things that can tank a promising pitch. But if there’s a chronic, central weakness in the pitches I’ve received and reviewed, it’s lack of focus.

Lost in the weeds

Reporters have to learn a lot to tell a little, and they can get tangled in the weeds of everything they learn. Multiple sources whisper in their ears. Their minds swirl with curiosity and connections. Every bit of information is linked to another, and then another. They aren’t sure what will most interest an editor, so they lay out a smorgasbord, hoping something will appeal.

It’s the pitch version of a notebook dump. But unless you’re working with an editor who knows your work, and knows you will deliver after you muck around a bit, you’re not selling your idea or yourself.

A clear, focused pitch demonstrates confidence and professionalism. It shows you’ve done enough pre-reporting to find the heart of a story idea, to know how it fits the publication you’re pitching, and to know where you’ll find sources. It shows you won’t make an editor wade through the thicket for you. It shows you have the discipline to include necessary supporting information, but to leave out detail that may be interesting but too often becomes clutter.

And if your pitch is accepted, it means you’ve already done a lot of the hard work. You can use that pitch to navigate if you lose your way when reporting. It’s a compass you can refer to again and again, helping track down the right sources, know what questions to ask, craft your lede and nut, even shape a structure.

Of course, touting the value of a focused pitch isn’t helping you know how to write one. There is, alas, no handbook or checklist you can follow. Each idea presents a constellation of possible stories; each story can be done multiple ways for different publications. But you can help yourself along the way. Here are some ideas how:

  • Honor the other rules of good pitching. It’s especially important to study the publication you’re pitching to: Does your idea fit their mission? Have they written about it before? What style or type of story do they feature? When you’re pre-reporting your story idea, don’t skip this step.
  • Grab a copy of “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark and study Tool #40: Draft a mission statement for your work. Clark’s method includes a quick summary of both the subject and purpose of the story he’s pitching, but also a sense of how he wants to approach it. Putting those goals into writing is the first part of finding and testing his focus. It also allows him to return to the mission statement and adjust it if things change during the reporting.
  • Find a peer coach (story buddy) and send a quick note summarizing your idea in three sentences: What it’s about, why it matters, and how you will frame it. Ask the coach what, of that, they find interesting. Would they be intrigued by that as the kernel of a pitch? What more would they want to know to support the pitch?
  • Boil your mission statement or your story note down to one sentence. And no, not a sentence with seven clauses. Imagine you’re introduced to a stranger at a party. When s/he finds out you’re a writer, s/he asks what you’re working on. What would you say in one sentence? (This, by the way, is the most effective step in finding the lede and nut of your eventually story, so you might as well get started.)
  • Not ready to commit to a declarative sentence? Then frame it as a single, driving question, or what I call a wonderment. You want to write about Subject X: So what do you wonder about it, at heart, and why?
  • Find a grounding mini-scene or anecdote that provides an interesting entry point to your idea, then opens to the necessary working parts of the pitch.
  • Those working parts:
    • Back up the central idea or question with just enough exemplary information to prove its worth to the publication you’re pitching; beyond that, avoid info-clutter.
    • Expand on the relevance and freshness of the idea, and the kind of story you want to pursue.
    • Identify the core sources and likelihood of access to them.
    • Sketch out your work plan: Time, travel, proposed length.
    • Summarize why you are the one to do the story. Don’t skip the passion. (Again, if you already have a relationship with an editor, you can probably skip this step.)
  • Offer options. Maybe. You don’t want to lard your core pitch with tangents that could be other storylines or story approaches. But if you know you could pursue the same central idea in another way, consider a quick note at the end of your pitch.

A bit of a footnote: Doing enough pre-reporting to support a full pitch is an investment of your time, and we all know investment comes with risk. So you might try sending an email to an editor with the kernel of your idea — that central idea or driving question — and asking if they are interested enough to want to know more. Not all will play, but some editors welcome that approach.

Further Reading

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