Lessons from PitchJam (Or: “What the Heck is a PitchJam?”)

As you may have seen me tweeting, I took part in PitchJam this weekend. Similar to a GameJam, this was targeted specifically at giving advice to aspiring video game freelancers. They would send a pitch, it would get forwarded to some randomly selected panel volunteers, and we would give feedback on how to polish it up for submission. We also had a few chats scattered around where writers could talk to us directly. It was a really great exercise for me, both for thinking critically about pitches and putting that feedback to work in a practical way. The Good Games Writing blog has already said it wants to do another, and I’d like to do it again.

None of the pitches I received were outright bad, but everything can use a little improvement. So in the spirit of the event, I thought I’d summarize some of the common bits of advice I found myself needing to tell more than one writer.

Consider where you pitch. This is basic, but it’s an absolute must. When formulating your pitch you need to think through the audience that will be reading it. That will influence how you shape your idea, what kind of pitches you send to which outlets, and how much detail you share. Since word count is at a premium (more on that later), you might not need to go into painstaking detail about a niche game or genre if you’re pitching to a site that specializes in that game or genre. Always consider the audience.

Grab their attention quickly. Editors tend to knock out pitches in a row, and they get flooded with them. Grabbing their attention quickly is important. Your opening line especially, and your opening paragraph in a more general sense, are there to paint a picture. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I like the three-paragraph structure: punchy opening, detailed proposal, closing comments.  But on that note…

Watch the size. This question actually came up at one of our chats, and while the answers differed, we generally agreed that 300 words is around the sweet spot. You don’t want to go too far above that. As I said, editors are busy. And besides that, if your finished piece will be 1,000-1,200 words, you don’t want to write out half the length just to explain it. I’m pretty sure it was the excellent writer Rob Rath who pointed out in the chat that if you’re going on that long, it probably means your scope is too large. Split it into two or more pitches.

Give it credibility. If you’re an expert on the subject you’re writing about, explain why. If you’re not, don’t be afraid to say that you’ll be reaching out to experts. You don’t necessarily need the interviews already lined-up, but having them helps. If you don’t, make sure you don’t over-promise. Simply saying you want to talk to someone who knows about science is more realistic than promising you’ll score an interview with Stephen Hawking. If you need to find an interview subject, I recommend colleges and universities. Professors tend to be very friendly, and love the opportunity to just talk about their passion for an hour.

Tell YOUR story. Sometimes, the most interesting thing you can talk about is yourself. If your own life has given you some interesting insights or anecdotes, think about whether you feel comfortable sharing them. If you do, it will make the piece that much more of an interesting read. People like to read about other people.

Close like a cover letter. Always, always, always say thank you for their time. No matter how casual the site, no matter how well you know the editor. Imagine you’re trying to score a job interview, because you kind of are.

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