Cramming for the Slam

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Few tasks bring more stress and anxiety to freelancers than pitching a story, except coming face-to-face with an editor at a meeting and pitching a story on the spot — in front of an audience. With ScienceWriters2012 and the Pitch Slam in just a few days, we decided to help freelancers prepare by offering up some advice — some specific to this unique pitching environment, and some more general pitch advice from the TON archives.

First, here’s how a Pitch Slam works: Editors on the panel spend a couple minutes describing their publications and their needs. Then, writers come to the microphone and present their ideas in no more than ONE minute. After each pitch, one or more editors respond, discussing whether the story might work for their publications and if so, how the idea would need to be slanted. Even introverts reluctant to make the trip to the microphone can learn from this event because the discussion is like eavesdropping on a magazine’s story meeting.

Editors love a good pitch, and they love meeting new writers who can deliver a tantalizing story idea. Here are some tips to help you hone your idea into a compelling 60 seconds:

  • It’s not necessary to find an idea that would work for every editor on the panel. Focus on your best idea, even if it’s probably suitable for only one of the editors.
  • A good pitch starts with your eyes. Read hard copies of the publication(s) you’re targeting to get an idea of the publication’s scope, tone and voice. (I’ve been organizing pitch events for NASW and for the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) for nearly four years and you’d be surprised how many times editors have told me that it’s been obvious that a writer who has pitched them has not read their publication.)
  • To distill your idea down to its essence, imagine the story already written — and write the 140-character tweet.
  • Lead with what’s cool and sexy about the story rather than with backstory, which can come afterwards.
  • Even in the time frame of sixty seconds, give your idea a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • Since your Slam pitch will be timed with a stopwatch, print it out and practice aloud beforehand to stay within one minute.
  • Come to the Pitch Slam prepared to answer questions about your pitch, as editors who like your idea may ask to speak with you about it afterward.
  • Don’t forget that plenty of editors will be coming to NASW and you’ll have an opportunity to make their acquaintance. Stalking editors is an art form but here’s some advice that Nature features editor Brendan Maher gave last April, on an AHCJ panel designed to give writers an insight into the pitching process. You can download his PowerPoint slides here, with Brendan’s kind permission.

More pitching advice from the TON archives:

  • Read pitch advice from four writers and editors who contributed to our first installment of Ask TON. Journalist and author Maryn McKenna summarizes the essence of a good pitch with this advice: It is not enough to have a topic. A topic is not a story. Topic + news, or + characters and narrative arc, make a story.
  • McKenna’s advice on a short version of your pitch is also timely: Why this, why now, why you?
  • Suggestions on sharpening your idea by imagining the story structure can be found in another TON feature, Sharpening ideas: From topic to story, by journalist and author Dan Ferber.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others in an editor roundtable compiled by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate, in Pitching errors: How not to pitch: Writing a good pitch is really tough. Writing a bad one is easy. Editors see the same mistakes over and over again, even from good writers. A common thread from this post that’s relevant to the Slam is to avoid lifting or paraphrasing material in press releases.
  • If you’re hard-pressed for ideas, read the Ask TON on “saving string” for finding feature ideas from your bits and pieces of information collected here and there. Brendan Maher said in the post that he prefers to compare these bits to kindling: I often think of it as trying to start a fire. First you need tinder. So you look in your pockets for lint, the residue of other stories and reporting projects. Lint is great because it flares quickly, but it also dies quickly. You’ll have more duds than structure fires. So, you have to go search for tinder, kindling, and larger pieces of information. This often means targeted phone calls to key sources. Does that little lint ball of an idea that you’ve been keeping in your pocket have any worth? Does it catch their attention? Do they want to know more about it? Most importantly,does that little ball of lint start a fire burning in you to want to tell this story? If it does, you might be ready to pitch.
  • The Slam is a perfect opportunity to find a new home for a recently killed story. Find out how best to re-pitch a killed story in this Ask TON.
  • Finally, to see examples of how good pitches are structured, check out the TON Pitch Database, which contains dozens of successful pitches.

Happy pitching!

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(Photo at top: Huiswerk/Homework by Nationaal Archief, via Flickr)

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2 Responses to “Cramming for the Slam”

  1. Holly Stocking says:

    Great, timely piece!

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