How to Make the Perfect Pitch

Virginia Smyth teaches students how to make the perfect pitch in Seattle writing classes.

Virginia Smyth teaches students how to make the perfect pitch in Seattle writing classes.

Pitching story ideas is a critical skill for every freelance writer. Virginia Smyth, the executive editor of Seattle Magazine, recently spoke to my Seattle writing classes about how to make the perfect pitch.

“One of the most important questions in a pitch is, ‘Why now?’” she said. “We try to always have a timely angle for our stories.”

Smyth encourages potential freelancers to read the magazine carefully so they’ll know what it publishes. She says that every magazine has a formula, with columns, features, and other kinds of stories. For example, Seattle publishes a lot of stories on the food and dining scene in the city.

“When you pitch, I don’t care why you want to write the story,” she says. “Why is it right for the magazine? Make me think it has to be in my publication. I want to know why it’s right for Seattle. Do your homework. Be familiar with the publication, I get a lot of pitches where it’s obvious the writer has not read the publication.

“What’s the tone? What the demographic? Most publications have Writers guideline to help with this. Think of the elevator pitch: sum it up in three to five sentences. Make sure there’s a hook. What is great about the story? Use the pitch to demonstrate your writing style.”

Making the perfect pitch, also requires that you mention the research that you will do for the story.

“In another paragraph, tell what sources you will use. What are your sources? Why are you the right person to write the story? I’m working on a story with a writer about the Native American community. Why are you the right person to tell the story?”

Make sure to include examples of your previously published work, preferably as links, when you’re making your perfect pitch. “I want to have some confidence that you can tell the story for the magazine,” she says. “Then wait 30 days or so before getting in touch again. Be persistent but don’t stalk.”

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Ten Top Tips for Pitching: How to Get Happily Published

Publishing has changed a lot over the years, but writers still need to pitch, something I discuss in my writing classes for The Writer's Workshop.

Publishing has changed a lot over the years, but writers still need to pitch, something I discuss in my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop.

In my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, I always teach students how to pitch, including the Ten Top Tips for Pitching, the first step in getting happily published. There are so newspapers and magazines that neophyte writers often become overwhelmed. Where do they start? How should they approach publications? What’s the best home for their story? These are some of the questions I answer in my Seattle writing classestravel writing classes, and online writing classes I teach for The Writer’s Workshop. I treated the first five tips in a previous posts. I’ll include the second five of these suggestions in this post. Here’s a guide to getting happily published.

1)      CONCENTRATE YOUR EFFORTS – Select a few publications and focus on them. Subscribe to them or read them regularly to understand the magazine’s style, content, history. This is one of the things I emphasize in my writing classes.

2)      WRITE A PITCH LETTER – Your letter should reflect all of your research of a publication. It should interest the editor, provide evidence of professionalism, and convince editor you are ideal for job.  As I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes, the letter should be short, about 250 words.

3)      FOLLOW UP WITH EDITORS – Email the editor within a few weeks of sending letter and/or manuscript. Did he or she get the pitch? Will it work for the magazine? Try to get a response. Once you get a response from a publication, keep going back to the editor. If you publish one story in the magazine, it will be easier to publish more.

4)      SPECIALIZATION – At least at first, zero in on a particular field, develop an expertise that will make you valuable to magazine editors. Specialize in areas you know from your job, hobby, interest or passion. As an amateur vintner, I use that expertise when writing about wine.

5)  PAYMENT – The amount of money you’ll make from a given article is often proportional to the publication’s circulation, from $25 for a local or specialty publication to several thousand dollars or more for a feature in a national magazine.

 

 

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Ten Top Tips for Pitching:

Publishing has changed a lot over the years, but writers still need to pitch, something I discuss in my writing classes for The Writer's Workshop.

Publishing has changed a lot over the years, but writers still need to pitch, something I discuss in my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop.

TEN TOP TIPS FOR PITCHING STORIES FROM THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP

Copyright The Writer’s Workshop

There are so newspapers and magazines that neophyte writers often become overwhelmed. Where do they start? How should they approach publications? What’s the best home for their story? These are some of the questions I answer in my Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes, and online writing classes I teach for The Writer’s Workshop. I’ll include the first five of these suggestions in this post and will include the rest in my next post. Here’s a guide to getting happily published.

 

  • DO SOME MARKET RESEARCH: Go to the library, book store or internet and read publications. Magazines and newspapers have distinct personalities, almost like people. Get to know them to find the right target publication.
  • READ WRITERS GUIDELINES – Google the publication’s writer’s guidelines. What is their audience? Socially conscious? Upwardly mobile? Cigar Aficionado will not want your story on the evils of second-hand smoke but Mother Jones might pick it up.
  • PUBLISHING HIERARCHY – The publishing world organizes itself in a distinct pyramid. There are a number of factors that go into this: circulation, payment, prestige of the publication. The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, etc. have all three things going for them. The competition is intense, making things difficult for newbies.
  • PICK A REALISTIC TARGET PUBLICATION – Local, regional, specialty publications are a great place to break in. Editors will be more willing to work with you on your first and later assignments.
  • PICK RIGHT DEPARTMENT – What part of the magazine is easiest to break into? Short profile? First person story? Book review? The writer’s guidelines will make all of this clear.
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Brine Your Turkey!

Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.

Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.

In my travel writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, I emphasize telling stories about a place through highlighting the key moments, feasts or special occasions. Thanksgiving is clearly such a feast in the U.S.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the advice about cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. Everyone has a favorite recipe, which is great, but sometimes the details become overwhelming, especially if you have to pick up relatives from the airport, buy food and drink before the stores get completely jammed, and make sure you have a chance to take in that great football game.

My advice is to focus on one thing: brining your turkey. This is simple, easy, and will make a huge difference in the success of your meal, yielding a juicy, full-flavored bird. Turkey meat is relatively lean, especially the white meat, which is prone to drying out. Like you, I’ve eaten way too many dry, overcooked turkeys in my life. I don’t need to eat any more.

Brining a turkey ensures the meat will be moist, tender and flavorful. A brine is a solution of water and salt, which allows the meat to absorb moisture as well as salt, which seasons the meat from the inside out. In addition, salt breaks down some of the turkey’s muscle proteins, which makes the meat juicy and tender. I put my turkey in a bucket with cold water and salt the night before. I’m doing this shortly.

Buy a free-range turkey if possible, for maximum flavor. I buy my turkey from B&E Meats in Seattle, which consistently sells flavorful birds. Avoid brining turkeys labeled kosher, enhanced or self-basting. You can brine a frozen or partially frozen bird but you need to allow additional time.

Thanksgiving morning you can take the bird out of the brine and begin cooking. I prefer to smoke my turkey, which adds an additional flavor, and produces a juicy, succulent bird. But you can also cook your turkey in the oven. Be prepared for a pleasant surprise if you’ve never tried brining. The resulting bird will be a big improvement over ones of the past.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nick O’Connell

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Best Wines for Thanksgiving

Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.

Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.

In my travel writing classes, I have the pleasure of visiting places that have had centuries to find perfect pairings for food and wine. We Americans are newer to this, but we keep getting better. Practice makes perfect!

It’s hard to beat champagne as a classic wine for Thanksgiving as it goes well with everything: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, even pumpkin pie. Widely available Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot Brut NV are excellent choices. They give dinner a celebratory, special occasion quality that I prize, if they cost a bit more. Thanksgiving is a day for giving thanks and celebrating our family and friends and country. Champagne is a great way to do this.

Closer to home, domestic sparkling wines offer great value. I especially enjoy the crisp, food-friendly wines from Washington’s Domaine Ste. Michelle, such as Brut or Brut Rosé from the Columbia Valley. These pair well with Thanksgiving fare. California’s Roederer Estate makes consistently dry, appealing sparkling wine. Check out the estate’s Anderson Valley Brut Sparkling Wine.

Rosé is often considered a summer patio wine, but it goes well with turkey. There are many great affordable rosés from southern France, including Campuget or Domaine Sorin. My favorite French rosé is Domaine de la Mordoree, which I had the pleasure of visiting as part of one of my travel writing classes in Provence. It’s more expensive, but has a beautiful blood-orange color and a deep, savory, satisfying flavor. In Washington, Barnard Griffin makes a lovely Rosé of Sangiovese that is delicious and affordable.

There are many red wines that make great pairings. I recommend pulling out a bottle from the cellar, or the closet, or the store room, wherever you keep that special bottle from an occasion some years ago. Uncork it on Thanksgiving. You never know how long wine will last and it’s a great sorrow to open a bottle that’s past its prime. Bottles like this will memorialize the occasion. I have many bottles like this, gathered from my travel writing classes in Europe. I plan to open at least one this Thursday.

Let me know if this has been helpful or if you have other suggestions.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nick O’Connell

Here are some additional suggestions from Eric Asimov:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/dining/drinks/review-thanksgiving-wines.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_ck_20171103&nl=cooking&nlid=77347986&_r=0

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Dramatic Scene in Seattle Writing Classes

Big Ben London and Seattle writing classes.

Big Ben London: Dramatic scenes and Seattle writing classes.

Dramatic scene is an especially effective way of organizing stories, one of the techniques I teach in my Seattle writing classes. In my Seattle writing classes, I explain how to use dramatic scenes to give life and movement to stories, whether fiction on nonfiction. It’s a technique that also helps you as a writer organize the story. You don’t need to go into detail about everything, but rather just the key moments that made the trip memorable.

On a recent trip to England, I used dramatic scene to highlight some of the adventures of the trip. Although travel stories tend to highlight the pleasures of a trip, I also like to write about the challenges and inconveniences. One of the biggest challenges was driving on the LEFT side of the road, with a clutch in my left hand. The whole operation was widely counter intuitive, with lots of honking drivers, speeding motorcyclists and phone-distracted pedestrians thrown into the mix.

As I tell students in my Seattle writing classes, it’s a good idea to always take a notebook with you to record your adventures. I took a reporter’s notebook and filled it with impressions of the trip, especially those involving driving. The hardest part was rewiring my brain to go left, not right, at key moments. This wasn’t so hard on a straightaway, but devilishly difficult on a roundabout. I followed the car in front of me, said a prayer, and plunged through it, occasionally earning a honk or other gesture.

It was a great pleasure to return the rental car to Heathrow airport and have someone else drive into London. Once there, we took the Tube and buses around, very convenient, but not the great material I found through driving on the wrong side of the road.

For more on writing with dramatic scenes, please sign up for my winter Seattle Writing class, The Arc of the Story.

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Summary Openings Taught in Seattle Writing Classes

Charles Dickens and Seattle Writing Classes.

Charles Dickens and Seattle Writing Classes.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

          This opening from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities is a classic example of a summary lead, one of the techniques we’ll be learning in my fall class, Revising Your Life, which will teach you the five best ways of opening a story or book: summary, scenic, anecdotal, inventory and beginning at the end. Summary leads allow you to get to the point of your story quickly and easily. The trick is to make them appealing as well. Writers using summary leads often employ wordplay or humor to liven them up. The lead from A Tale of Two Cities does a great job of creating suspense, raising questions and leading a reader to keep going with the story. How could it possibly be the best of times and the worst of times? What does he mean by the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness? How can all of this be reconciled?

          The fall Seattle writing classes will also provide key insights into narrative writing, with an emphasis on research, interviewing, first person point of view and how to get your story happily published. The class takes place Wednesday evenings 7-9 p.m. Oct. 11 to Nov. 29 and one Monday Oct. 30. There’s still room in the class; let me know if you’d like to sign up!

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Story Openings in Seattle Writing Class

Seattle writing classes discuss story openings.

Seattle writing classes discuss best story openings.

The story opening is the most important part of any story or book, one of the topics I’ll be discussing in my upcoming Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life. If your lead is not interesting, intriguing or entertaining, the reader may never get any further. Therefore, you want to spend as much time as necessary finding a strong lead. Rewrite the lead until it sparkles, presenting a lively, exciting opening to the story.

In my fall Seattle writing class, I’ll discuss the five best ways of opening a story or book: summary, scenic, anecdote, inventory and beginning at the end. Each of these techniques pulls the reader into the story quickly. The type of lead you use in a given story depends on your material and the audience you want to reach. Scenic leads lend themselves to active stories; summary and anecdotal leads often work best with more reflective stories. But there’s no rule about it; go with what works best!

SUMMARY LEADS

These leads allow you to get to the point of your story quickly and easily. The trick is to make them appealing as well. Writers using summary leads often employ wordplay or humor to liven them up.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that “Hell is other people.” And he worked from home. Imagine if he had been one of the millions of us who are forced to navigate the psychic minefields of the modern corporation.”

Summary leads are quite effective, though they are just one strategy for a lead. In my fall Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life, I’ll also discuss how to use scenic leads, anecdotal leads, inventory leads, and starting as the end as strategies for getting a reader interested in your story immediately.

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Seattle Writing Classes Discuss Interview

Winston Churchill interviewing in Seattle Writing Classes.

Journalist interviewing Winston Churchill discussed in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my fall Seattle writing classes, I will discuss interviewing, a vastly underappreciated skill, with application in fiction writing, nonfiction writing, poetry writing and screenplays. As a former reporter and regular magazine writer, I understand how useful it is to interview subjects for background information as well as for a full profile. Many writers are uncomfortable with interviewing, so I walk people through the steps so that they will be ready to take these skills beyond this Seattle writing class.

Interviewing is an essential skill for any writer. Almost all non-fiction articles and books require some interviewing as part of the research. Novelists, poets and others frequently need to interview people. There are several reasons for interviewing: 1) Background info; 2) Support quotes; 3) Full fledged interview for profile, story or memoir or novel background.

1) Explanation of ground rules – Tell subject about yourself and your credentials. Explain where you want to publish the interview, profile, etc. Also discuss how you’ll use their answers, whether they can review the profile before it is published.

2) Contact a magazine or newspaper to see if you can get them to agree in advance to publish the interview. This helps a lot. Famous people want to know that their time is well-spent, that the interview will be published. If you can assure them of this, they’re more likely to grant the interview.

3) Time – Plan ahead: really newsworthy people are frequently difficult to get in touch with. Contact them early, and always double check date and time right before interview.

 

There’s still room in the fall Seattle Writing Classes. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!

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Seattle Class on Research

Seattle class in research.

Warren Winiarski: Seattle class in research helped with his interview.

In my Seattle class on research and other writing topics, I discuss how to research stories and books. Research may sound like a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. In writing about apprenticing in the wine trade, I had the pleasure of visiting with Warren Winiarski, the former owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. In 1976, a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won the best red wine at the Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in Paris, France, a competition that pitted storied French wines against the best American wines. The Americans were supposed to get trounced. Instead, American wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars triumphed, accelerating the growth of the California and the U.S. wine industries.
As I tasted through his Arcadia Vineyard and later sampled a 2013 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Vineyard Cabernet, I was doing research for the story.

In 2007, Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Marchesi Antinori, but kept his Arcadia Vineyard. Named for Roman poet Virgil’s imaginary idyllic land, Arcadia includes soils from an ancient inland lake containing the remains of diatoms. These soils give the Chardonnay from here a lively minerality, an oyster shell taste that matches well with seafood, like a good Chablis. Winiarski bought the vineyard in 1996 partly because it provided fruit for Miljenko “Mike” Grigch, the American winemaker whose 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won the best white wine in the Judgment of Paris.
Over dinner at the Don Giovanni Bistro in Napa, I catch up with the winemaker about Arcadia’s 2016 harvest, hoping to gather insights for Crush: An Apprenticeship in the Wine Trade, a book I’m writing about working in the wine trade. Though I’ve tasted and written about wine for decades, I’m determined to delve deeper into the subject by learning about it from the ground up from some of the masters of the art like Winiarski. Now in his eighties, he remains fit, trim and passionate about wine.

Not all research is so pleasurable, but solid research underlies the best writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. I’ll be discussing research as part of my fall class, Revising Your Life, a Seattle class in research and other writing techniques. There’s still room. Let me know if you’d like some help with your own research and want to sign up!

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