How to pitch an article
What editors want - and definitely do not want
Pitching is hard work – it can be harder than actually writing an article. Thinking about how to present yourself and your idea, then working out who to contact and how, can be a really anxious endeavour – I know, because I’ve been reading and writing pitches for 25 years. So here are a few things to bear in mind when you’re pitching feature or interview ideas at a commissioning editor. I’ve geared this toward video games but really the advice works for books, film, music or any cultural medium. I’ve also spoken to three brilliant, highly experience editors about their own requirements.
Okay here goes…
Have a good, clear idea
This sounds obvious, but honestly, the number of pitches I’ve received which are basically “How about I write something on Call of Duty?” is shocking. A good feature tackles a topical subject in an interesting way with a challenging slant and a strong cogent throughline. It isn’t just a collection of facts, it’s an argument, a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end and there needs to be a central point driving readers through the text. To make the pitch compelling you need to show that you have a) access to information no one else has, b) a unique angle, and/or c) the writing skill to bring the subject alive.
Experience isn’t vital, but you need to show the thing you want to write about is something you’re totally comfortable with and can interest other people in. As Chris Plante, editor-in-chief at Polygon, says, “Ask yourself: would I read this story if I saw it pass through my Twitter feed? Not share it. Not bookmark it for later. Would I actually read it? Also, use Google to see if the angle you’re pitching has been published elsewhere already.”
Wes Yin-Poole, editor at Eurogamer agrees. “I need to see evidence of a strong angle, an idea that is accessible but attention-grabbing, and tells a story that hasn't been told before. Maybe it's about a developer. Maybe it's about a community. Maybe it's about a player. I love stories anyone can understand, and everyone will want to talk about.”
List features are okay, honestly, but they need to be interesting and valuable to the readers, and you need to be prepared to put the work in. A good list feature is one that provides readers with new, valuable information on familiar games, movies or whatever. It feeds curiosity and fandom, and it sparks debate.
A helpful exercise is to read the video game (or film or music) headlines every morning and come up with five ideas for each of the main stories. Think of an interview idea, a quote-led opinion piece, a list feature, a piece of serious analysis, a history piece and a newsy piece. Just get into the habit of analysing and riffing off news in this way. Oh and read good feature writers, columnists and interviewers - and look at the things they always do. I apologise for using the phrase “riffing off” - maybe don’t do that in a pitch.
Do your research on the publication you pitch
Don’t pitch any publication until you know it inside out. Learn its house style and interests, be completely up to date with what its covering, know its history. You don’t want to pitch an idea that the publication ran last week or that is completely out of its scope of interest – you just look badly prepared and, to paraphrase the Walking Dead games, editors will remember that. Don’t send the exact same pitch to multiple editors at the same time - they spot that shit instantly; and also, they talk. Tailor your pitches and send ideas out one at a time. It’s a pain, it’s time consuming, but it means treating people with respect and that’s a good working practice.
Also, does the publication have a guide for prospective contributors? Find out and read it. Chris Plante again: “We wrote a guide on how to best pitch our editors, including email contacts for our various areas of coverage. I beg new writers to make time to read these pitch guidelines before pitching a publisher. A considerable percentage of the pitches we receive don’t follow the guidelines.”
Every editor I spoke to said pitching by email is fine - it’s convenient, easily accessible and it gives us time to mull over the idea. But it’s really important to know who you’re pitching at – find the name of the commissioning editor and email them directly. And make sure you know exactly who you’re talking to. When I asked Sam Loverage about the mistakes new writers often make, she was really clear ab out her pet hate: “Calling me Mr. Loveridge,” she says. “It takes two seconds to do your research”. In fact, I’d steer clear of such formalities anyway. A pitch isn’t a letter to your bank manager; call editors by their first names and speak to them like human beings.
Your subject header is important. Some editors like it to be proceeded by the word PITCH - it stands out in your in-box at least. But the rest needs to be a snappy and inviting. Look at the way good publications use sub-heads and standfirsts for inspiration. As Chris puts it, “The subject line is your chance to sell me on a great angle, then the email can seal the deal.”
So what should your pitch look like? I want a paragraph at MOST, with an attempt at a decent header, and maybe a strap (or standfirst, whichever slang you prefer). Chris has some great advice here, “For me, a good pitch is like a blueprint. I don’t need a rough draft. Give me a concise summary of the topic, your unique angle, and a general idea of the structure. Then tell me why your skill or expertise makes you the person to tell the story. One big red flag: I get tons of pitches that raise an interesting question, but don’t have the answer or even the path they’ll take to find an answer. This is where bylines matter. I might trust an exceptional writer to go on that journey, but then again, most exceptional writers wouldn’t submit an incomplete pitch.”
A really important element, then, is being able to show that you can deliver on the promise of a good high concept. Prove you can answer the questions you set up, and make sure you can deliver on ideas. As Wesley says, “If you have a plan for how you will actually make the article happen (interview targets, for example), that would be worth including.” Do not pitch an interview feature with a major industry figure unless you’re extremely confident you have an ‘in’ with that figure. Do not tackle a feature on Unreal Engine, machine learning or graphics card specifications unless you’re super comfortable with those technologies. A pitch isn’t wishful thinking, it’s a business proposition - albeit an informal one.
And remember, whatever you want to write about, you’re writing for a publication that wants and needs to entertain readers. “Clarity and concision are key,” says Chris. “If you can’t sum up your argument quickly and directly, you probably need to further develop your idea. Please don't confuse ‘directly’ with ‘academically.’ There are places for academic writing; they’re called textbooks.”
All the editors I spoke to also agreed that it’s a major mistake to send an article you’ve already written - almost no one will accept this. Editors like to work with writers on the direction, length and focus of the article and definitely don’t want anything that feels too generic. As Sam says, “Don't send a pre-written feature that it's obvious you're touting to multiple sites. We want something that's pitched with GamesRadar in mind and for the GamesRadar audience.”
So in short: Editors want a paragraph outlining your article, how you will structure it, your unique take and why you should write it. Be professional but not academic or overly formal. If you have examples of your writing online, provide a link - it doesn’t have to be a professional publication; set up your own blog or website if you like, just somewhere the editor can find out more about you. Oh and be super, super careful with your social media profile. The first thing I do when I get a pitch from a new writer is look for them on Twitter. If your feed is just a production line of misogynistic memes, that’s it, game over.
I think it’s a good idea to provide a predicted word-length for the article, and an ETA on how quickly you could turn it around. Be honest on both. You never, never, never want to over-promise and under-deliver. I’m sorry for using that phrase. Oh and one final thing, before you send it, check it for spelling and grammar errors, then check it again. If you can, and it’s a big deal pitch for you, get someone else to check it. You can be totally blind to your own routine, habitual spelling errors.
Do not stalk editors. Do not wait two hours after sending a pitch, then send another five emails and try to DM them on Twitter or Instagram. Be patient. I think one follow-up email three or four days after a pitch is fine – anything more gets very annoying. The hard thing about pitching is, it can sometimes be about luck and timing – your idea arrives at exactly the point where an editor has the time and budget to try a new writer and is looking for the precise sort of thing you’re offering, and away you go. But you can improve your chances at being lucky by watching buzzy stories as they develop and pitching around them, and by following commissioning editors on twitter and being ready when they say “oh wow, I wish we had more Yakuza pitches”. Look at the sorts of features that are in the “most read” sections on your favourite online publications.
The golden rule
Never, ever, ever work for free for a commercial site that can afford to pay you. You’re crippling the value of your work and everyone else’s too. Working for “exposure” is a luxury that others can’t afford; it’s a race to the bottom and one that all writers lose. If you’re not getting work, and have the time, write your own blog, or contribute to a non-profit fan site. I know it’s tough; I’ve been there, believe me, but the only people who gain from your free labour are people who don’t care about you, your subject or writers in general.
What do editors want?
So I asked each of the editors I spoke to what they’re looking for from writers at the moment. Here’s what they said:
Sam Loveridge: Opinion-led features around the big games as they come out – particularly those that offer a different opinion to the review that's already live. Features that explore the big games of 2020 (or the year before), especially live service games. Pitches around really specific features/mechanics in the biggest games.
Chris Plante: I’m sure every editor has said this, but we don’t see nearly enough original reporting. This is partly because of publishers. The video game press is still comparably young and small, with few editors in major magazines or newspapers. As a result, it’s hard for freelancers to get considerable on-the-job training from a smaller pool of editors. When I was freelancing, I wrote outside of games to learn from as many editors as I could, and that gave me the tools I eventually needed to succeed in this space. I encourage all aspiring game journalists to expand their scope beyond games.
I also get surprisingly few pitches for fun-but-smart pieces like a thoughtful list. New York Magazine pieces like “The 30 best kids movies on Netflix” provide a service. Lists like “The 100 best movie musicals” educate readers on film history. Don’t mistake a well-loved format for clickbait. Just because people like a familiar structure doesn’t make it bad or void of creative value.
Wes Yin-Poole: I don't see enough reporting as pitches. We're usually covered for reviews and opinion pieces. But we're always on the hunt for compelling stories about games. If you've got a strong angle and a cool story, you're already ahead. Stories, not subjects!
Me: Okay, so I’m not an editor anymore, but I’ll tell you what I tend to pitch. I like offbeat/in-depth articles on nostalgic games. So if you manage to contact the team behind, say, Colony Wars or Actua Soccer, and can get good quotes from them about that experience, that’s great. Nostalgia sells. I like articles that call on unexpected experts. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell write a great piece for the Guardian where he took a walk through various video game landscape with a botanist - it provided lots of insights into game worlds that I just hadn’t thought of. I also like stories about games communities - the people who are really really into fighting games or food games or hamster sims.
What I don’t really need any more of is highly personal “how game X taught me about situation Y” pitches. They can be incredibly moving and valuable, but there are too many of them, so unless the story is spectacularly innovative or unusual, it’s not really there. You need to be prepared to bring in other voices and experiences beyond your own, and that means research and interviews. The same with op-eds - unless you have a unique position of knowledge and authority, I’m not going to commission someoneI don’t know to write 500 words on why they don’t like Fortnite.
As Wes says, the really rare writers are the ones who can investigate and report on industry issues or hidden stories, and then make those stories interesting to the wider readership. That’s the sort of writer you keep hold of.