Freelance pitches are like CVs. Actually, scratch that – pitches are CVs. They’re the first point of contact between you and an employer. Five out of Ten is not EDGE or Kotaku: you wouldn’t send the same generic CV for every job, and so this isn’t isn’t the only advice you should take. All I can tell you is what we’re looking for in a pitch, but these guidelines should be broadly applicable.
This guide will take the form of my least favourite videogame article – a top five list. It starts off as a pitch guide, then descends into general freelance tips and anecdotal regrets disguised as advice. Have fun!
1. Get to the Point
Five out of Ten accepts pitches every few months: as we’re relatively small and only publish Real Magazines™, we don’t have that much space. Last time, I received thirty pitches in a few days. I read every one, ranked them from best to worst, then made some offers.
I don’t have time to read your pitch over and over again to decipher whether it will blossom. You need to convince me of your idea’s potential as succinctly as possible. Don’t make it hard for me: other people won’t, and they’ll be the ones who get commissioned.
Put your essay title in your email subject line. If using a contact form, put it right at the top. Use your title and the first sentence of your pitch to summarise your thesis or argument. If you can’t convey your idea in one sentence, you probably don’t understand it well enough. Then write a couple of short paragraphs to flesh out the flow of your essay (this does not mean “now write your whole essay”). Here, mention sources you will draw from such as interviews – self-conducted or otherwise – related games and other media.
Please don’t tell the editor your life story or what a big fan you are. I will assume you like the magazine if you’re sending me a pitch. Speaking of things you shouldn’t do…
2. Don’t Waste Your Effort
It’s not always as simple as good pitches being published and bad ones being rejected. It’s also about timing and luck: sometimes a publication has space, sometimes they don’t. For example, games websites get busy around trade shows and when there are a large number of new releases at the end of the year. Here are some other ways to avoid wasted effort:
Generic pitches asking for work are pointless. If editors have space to spare, they will ask well-known regular contributors. If you’re reading this guide, that’s probably not you! You need your own ideas. If you do not have an idea, one will not be provided for you.
Pitching articles similar to those that have already been published shows you haven’t done your homework. This is not the same as being inspired to write a response to something you’ve read, which is great and something outlets should publish more often. On the subject of doing your homework, different sites have their own styles. Don’t pitch a personal essay to the Guardian (who would be silly enough do a thing like that?) or a Top Ten list of guns to Five out of Ten. We already know the best gun is the pistol from Halo. There’s a place for mainstream criticism and more avant-garde stuff, and chances are the publications you love reading are the ones you’d love to write for, too.
Once you’ve sent your pitch, it can take time to get a response. It varies depending on the publication, from a few hours to a couple of weeks. It’s fine to send editors a tweet after a few days, which to me feels less annoying than an email. After one week, send a follow-up email (always include the full pitch in the body of second email) and if you’ve heard nothing by the end of the second, send a short courtesy email saying you’re going to try elsewhere.
Don’t ever send the same pitch to multiple outlets at the same time: I’ve never done it myself, but I’ve heard horror stories. If you have followed my advice about tailoring the pitch to the publication then this is a lot harder to do, but if you’re a fresh writer trying to establish themselves as a freelancer this is an easy way to make your life very complicated. Once you get to know editors and how they work, then it’s something to think about.
Which brings me to my next point…
3. Make Friends and Influence People
“Hey, wait a second! What’s that got to do with sending a pitch?”
Journalism is all about who you know, and anyone who says otherwise is frankly being disingenuous. Networking is an important part of the job, not just for getting interviews with game creators and other interesting folks, but for meeting other journalists too. Not only is it good for your mental wellbeing, it’s what causes your emails to avoid the advanced spam filtering techniques of the human eye, especially when your name is as bland as mine.
Meet people. Go to industry events and seminars where you can. Engage with writers and editors on Twitter about their work, send them an email. Just make sure you’re being constructive and not a sycophant (flattery may work with other editors; consult their documentation for details). One thing you should never do is start a careless argument with people online. Your tweets and blog posts will be indexed in Google Skynet forever, so don’t say something you might come to regret later. Think before you argue!
While putting the finishing touches to this, I was thinking about which editors I had riled over the years and tweeted “Writing Tip #1: don’t think about the people who don’t like you and concentrate on those who do”, but it’s actually quite good advice, so do that.
4. Be Yourself
If there’s an area of games writing that matches your experience, but hasn’t been covered much by journalists, work that niche and pitch pieces on that angle. eSports are a nascent area of journalism and old-school journos are struggling to report on events, so go for it! Another obvious avenue, if you live in the area or speak the lingo, might be game development in Africa or Eastern Europe.
You need a portfolio, but for me your personal website is much less important than the idea you’re selling in the pitch. Make sure someone is proof reading your personal blog, though: sloppy copy is a big turn-off, no matter where it is. Likewise, bad blog theming is a matter of personal taste, so use a simple WordPress theme or something like that. Remember that I might be browsing on my iPhone or iPad – if your blog theme uses a horrible ‘tablet’ magazine skin, I will not read it. Try resizing this web page and see what happens: that’s the way pages are meant to behave.
Like your pitch, it’s important to tailor your portfolio to the publication. I am much more interested in some great criticism on your personal blog than a top 10 for a big-name site. But don’t break yourself trying to populate your own fan site, hoping to make it big and get picked up as a staff writer for Polygon or something. Write only whenever you have something great to say, or you’ll burn yourself out and end up hating your own work. Save the crappy failures for a folder somewhere on your computer. I call mine ‘The Graveyard’ and it has countless terrible, finished pieces.
Trying to force a half-baked idea into a pitch never really works. It must grow in the mind like a katamari gobbling up other ideas, until you’ve got a planetoid pitch with its own centre of gravity.
5. A Word of Warning
So far, this has been all about me and what I want. But editors have to help you as well: taking those great pitches and nurturing them to maturity, making sure you get paid on time, giving you support if you’ve got writer’s block, or even other personal problems. If an editor is not supporting you, is just printing your copy verbatim without proofing it or offering feedback, then speak to other writers or editors and see what else is out there.
A useful rule is: “Don’t work for free if someone is making money off you.” That doesn’t necessarily mean “don’t work for no money”, because developing your writing technique through feedback can be just as valuable – no matter how long you’ve been a writer. But if you’re not getting any of that, and the site is monetising your work, then I just don’t think that’s fair.
Part of freelancing is receiving good advice. The rest is about making mistakes and learning from them, meeting the right people and ingratiating yourself with them. It’s about luck.