How to craft the perfect pitch
I round up a few stand-out pitches I recently commissioned at the Telegraph across music, film and popular culture, as well as my top pitching do's and don'ts
First of all, there is no such thing as the perfect pitch. I can’t tell you how many times somebody sends me an amazing idea, pitched exquisitely, tailored perfectly to the Telegraph, and I still have to say no.
Why? Because a staffer or another freelancer has already thought of the same idea, we’ve been tipped off that another publication is doing something too similar, we’ve run out of budget, or we are simply under-staffed and there are no hands on deck to pick it up. So much of a pitch’s success is down to timings and a bit of good luck. I know how frustrating this can be for freelancers, and I think the best thing we can do as editors is feedback honestly, and encourage them to try again next time.
It’s also a question of expertise – which I find is often the reason for me turning down a pitch. Newspapers employ critics who have decades of experience in their field, and so big interviews, reviews and comment pieces will automatically go to them first. A pitch to interview Billie Eilish from a writer with one byline, is, no matter how good the pitch or how great the byline, simply never going to be commissioned. What’s more, editors will have had interview requests in with PRs for these big names for months already themselves. One of my most important tips to writers who haven’t written for a publication before is not to pitch big-name interviews.
These kind of interviews are often major pieces that will sit in print and receive a lot of eyeballs from head honchos across the publication, and so without proof of competency it is a big risk for editors to commission them from writers they have never worked with before or who don’t have bylines for similar publications. On several occasions when I have done this, I’ve spent days on the re-writes, and ended up getting bollocked by my own editor for commissioning it. Because yes, all editors have an editor!
I would always recommend writers pitching an editor for the first time go to them with an idea, not an interview – something the editor can’t get from anyone else. Often, when I commission a new writer, it’s off the back of a personal essay, or a quirky, unique angle on a national talking point, or a little-known story about a well-known bit of culture.
The same rule around interviews applies to important reviews – these have to go to our music/film/theatre critics who we have employed specifically for the authority of their opinions, have a dedicated following and an existing relationship with our readers who trust what they have to say. I think this is the same protocol for most UK titles.
Be careful too when pitching comment pieces – you need to explain why you have the expertise or personal experience to write authoritatively on a subject. Generally, readers don’t care about what a random writer (no matter how good they are!) thinks of x, y or z unless they are an expert, or intrinsically connected to the subject matter.
I also receive a lot of pitches that miss the mark. You’d be amazed how many I get addressed to the wrong publication or calling me by a different name (immediate delete), pitches that describe pieces that we (or a rival title) already published (always Google your idea’s key words followed by the name of major publications!), or pieces that wildly clash with a publication’s political position.
Anyway, that was a hell of a lot of don’ts, so on with the do’s, which I thought would be much more helpful as a series of commissioned pitches lifted straight from my inbox.
Here they are below, copied in their entirety (with the writers’ blessings!), because I know for some journalists how to address an editor/introduce your pitch might also be confusing. I have also put the writer’s email subject line in bold. Below each pitch, I’ve included my notes on why the pitch works in italics and a link to the published article.
Pitch: 'Ladies and gentlemen...The Weekend’
I have a pitch that I'd love to hear your thoughts on.
I have just interviewed Miles Riehle, the 18-year-old Orange County kid behind the extraordinarily popular Twitter account @CraigWeekend, which has amassed 266,000 followers in less than a year and every Friday tweets a four-second clip of Daniel Craig introducing The Weeknd on SNL. "Ladies and gentlemen," Craig says, flapping his arms, "The Weeknd."
I would love to write about the power of accounts like @CraigWeekend in the pandemic as a way of evoking a sense of community. Like a religious ceremony, Riehle's Friday tweet acts as a way for people to unite and give thanks as the weekend begins. "I do see it a little bit as a public service," says Riehle, who is a remarkably clear-headed and articulate teenager interested in public transportation. "Regardless of your political beliefs or regardless of your religion or regardless of your moral beliefs, you will typically look forward to the weekend."
Riehle has refused to use the platform to tweet anything about himself and has turned down offers to monetise the account. His story is a charming one, and is a lovely window into a positive side of the internet. If you thought it necessary, I could also try to interview other accounts that do a similar thing as the weekend nears, but Riehle alone would be a great example of the phenomenon.
I look forward to hearing from you!
All the best,
Usually, I would never accept a pitch from someone who had already done an interview, because the Telegraph is very particular about giving a brief and making sure the terms of the interview are right for the paper. That said, Ralph Jones writes for the Telegraph regularly, I trust him, and so I knew the interview would be great. Plus, the interviewee isn’t a big name who needs to be asked certain questions to achieve certain news lines – the interview can be much less prescriptive.
What’s great about Ralph’s pitch is that he immediately sets out why readers should care about Riehle and includes a very good quote to hook me in. He then contextualises Riehle in terms of the rise of community within the pandemic, and so making the relevance of the story much more compelling.
A quick check on Google to make sure Riehle hadn’t done any UK interviews already – nope, just a very short one with the LA Times – and it was a commission!
You can read the very fun piece here.
Pitch: interview with Lauren Hough
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Lauren Hough, but her memoir about growing up in a cult - Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing - has just been released in the US, and is already on the Amazon top 100. It’s going to be released in the UK at the end of the month.
Her writing blew up in 2018, when an essay she wrote about her time as a "cable guy" went viral. Now she’s written a bestseller, the audiobook of which is going to be voiced by Cate Blanchett. So, she’s had a fascinating life, is a phenomenal writer, and I think an interview with her could work well for you.
The book is also about her sexuality (she was kicked out of the US army for being gay), so that’s obvs a big area of interest for me.
Let me know. Hope all’s good!
This pitch captures the value of short and sweet, as well as the type of interview editors are much more likely to commission (a lesser known name with a story to tell). I hadn’t heard of Lauren Hough, but Eleanor Margolis made her sound extremely interesting – I am always much more persuaded by a person’s fascinating backstory than by stats to show how successful they are. This is a big issue with many of the pitches I receive: reeling off views, listens, awards and accolades will never persuade me to commission an interview if the person doesn’t have an interesting life as well. Otherwise, the piece will be boring, even if the name is big. Of course, that’s not to say a few choice stats/evidence of their rising stature isn’t still important when used in conjunction with a good story, and reference to Cate Blanchett here was convincing.
As I said earlier, the question of, ‘Are you the right person to tell this story?’ and, ‘Are you the right person to do this interview?’ is also important. Eleanor often writes about LGBTQ issues and her own personal experiences, so she was the right person on both counts.
You can read her brilliant interview here.
It's incredibly raunchy - makes Bridgerton look like CBeebies, but it's also got real heart, and I think after 18 months of intermittently being locked down the problem of loving but no longer fancying your partner is very, very common. I would suggest it should come with a Netflix warning label though - I've seen dozens of relationships end because of going open/poly. It's seriously playing with fire territory.
I work with Rebecca Reid a lot – she is the Queen of the Telegraph comment box. The reason why is that she understands the readership very well, and pitches ideas that she knows taps into their core interests (in this case pandemic issues, marriage problems), even if the subject itself might be slightly alien to them (an erotic Netflix show) or if they might disagree with her. What Rebecca is brilliant at is writing about pop culture in a way that is digestible to an older demographic, being completely fearless when she has an opinion, and weaving in her own personal experiences masterfully.
This pitch came about after I asked her if she’d watched the Netflix show Sex/Life, and this was her reply. With an opinion unlikely to be read elsewhere, and her own experiences of polyamory, (which she talks about in the piece), she was the perfect woman for the job. Plus the idea of a warning label is quite radical and was sure to get the readers talking. Sure enough the resulting piece has been one of the Telegraph’s most read pieces of the entire month, and received 168 comments below the line.
Read it here.
PITCH: ‘Silk Road’: the story of the world’s first dark web drug kingpin comes to the silver screen
On March 22, Tiller Russell (director of Netflix’s Night Stalker)'s Silk Road will arrive on digital streaming platforms.
A “jaw-dropping crime saga for the digital age” adapted from David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone article 'Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall’, Silk Road tells the story of the rise and fall of “the first millennial gangster”, who, in 2011, created an “Amazon for drugs” on the dark web. From the trailer, it almost looks like the evil sibling of The Social Network.
In May 2015, 31-year-old Ross Ulbricht, the real-life creator of the Silk Road, was sentenced to a double life sentence plus forty years without the possibility of parole for his part in the establishment of the world’s largest and most notorious online drugs marketplace.
Part of the sentencing was informed by allegations that Ulbricht had paid $730,000 in murder-for-hire deals targeting a least five people, who had threatened to reveal Ulbricht’s involvement in the enterprise.
The dark web and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (which the Silk Road site was built on) — and the entrepreneurship that surrounds them — remain sources of fascination in popular culture today.
With the news this week that Elon Musk has bought $1.5bn of Bitcoin causing the currency to massively spike in value, no doubt this fascination will continue in coming months. Off the back of the success of Netflix’s Night Stalker this year, the release of Silk Road will surely attract a lot of interest.
I’m keen to speak to lead actor Nick Robinson (Jurassic World, Love), who plays Ulbricht in Silk Road.
Where does one take inspiration from in portraying a kind of drug kingpin that no-one has ever conceived before (who learned “everything they know… off a screen”)?
How close was he able to get to the source (prison visits? Speaking to members of Ulbricht’s family?) in order to inform his performance?
What parts of his personality and history were left out or changed for this first ever silver screen adaption of the individual?
I think there’s a great story here from the history alone, and Ulbricht is quite a fascinating subject — I’d love to dig deeper!
REFERENCES:- 'Gekimation': Japan takes a post-Ghibli leap into another dimension [The Guardian]- 20 years of Dogtown and Z-Boys: 'It documented a revolution' [i-D]- Brandon Cronenberg on his nightmarish new sci-fi 'Possessor' [The Face]
I’d never worked with James Balmont before, so this was a cold pitch. But the subject line hooked me in instantly (imperative if you’ve never worked with an editor before!), and the way he laid out his pitch was brilliant: timely peg, plenty of fascinating, juicy details about a story that’s going to interest anyone and everyone, contextualisation within the broader story around crypto, and a solid interview suggestion with good questions attached. (Although I think this is the maximum length a pitch can stretch.) Importantly, too, he’d pasted three references to past work, so after reading them I knew he would be able to write the piece well.
It was indeed fantastic, read it here.
Tom DeLonge – How A California Punk Brat Got The Pentagon To Admit UFOs Exist
Hope you're good and had a nice weekend despite the rain!
I've got an idea for a piece I think could be really cool. It's a wild idea - basically, Tom DeLonge from Blink 182 played a massive part in getting the American government to release UFO info and admit that they exist. He tweeted this last night, but it's been a work in progress for a while...
How did a guy who used to sing songs largely composed of toilet humour in Blink 182 end up doing what Mulder from The X-Files couldn’t?
When he left Blink 182, Tom DeLonge started talking about aliens and UFOs. He’d sung about them, but suddenly everyone realised how serious he was about it. When he started doing press for Angels And Airwaves, he kept mentioning it. In 2015, he started To The Stars Academy Of Arts & Sciences, dedicated in part to UFOlogy, and into which he has sunk millions and millions of dollars of his own money, and which, weirdly, has a tech development arrangement with the US Army.
Last year, The Pentagon declassified loads of UFO videos, partly thanks to the work of To The Stars. More of the conspiracy stuff is being admitted to, and Tom DeLonge has been proved right (although admitting the existence of aliens eludes them).
There’s a new Angels And Airwaves record out soon, which would be the perfect opportunity to ask him about all of this. I think now he’s been proved right about a lot of what he was talking about, he’ll be fully ready to crow about it as well.
Thanks! Have a great week!
Nick Ruskell is a writer with a clear beat: he almost exclusively pitches me about rock music, which is a good way of establishing yourself as an expert to an editor, who is then much more likely to come to that writer with their own commissions around that theme.
This pitch has an excellent subject box – I could have run it as the actual headline on the piece – and Telegraph readers love rock music, particularly when its tinged with drama and controversy.
Nick wasn’t able to secure an interview with DeLonge in the end, but that didn’t matter: the story was interesting enough to do as a write-around and profile of DeLonge, using existing quotes from other interviews.
Read it here.
So that’s a wrap! I hope these pitches have been useful to you – please do share this post, and subscribe to Pass The Aux if you haven’t already.
Time for a little plug for my own work. I’d love you to read my interview with YEBBA from Saturday’s Review, who is one of my favourite artists, and who had never done a big interview before. Her debut album Dawn, dedicated to her late mother who died of suicide in 2016, is out in September and has been produced by Mark Ronson. After having become disillusioned with the celebrity interview recently, this chat with YEBBA really inspired me and rescued my confidence. Read the interview here.
And, my podcast co-host Kathleen and I have just launched our new second series of Straight Up, with a brand new format – talking to the biggest names in pop culture about the songs that have shaped them over their favourite drink. We kick things off with director of the moment Zack Snyder. Listen here.
As always, you can reach me on Twitter @eleanorhalls1, or email@example.com. Or by replying to this email!
This is super insightful and thank you for demystifying the process for fairly new writers like myself!
A question from me is about timings/lead-ins. How much advance notice would you expect for a piece? For example, I have an idea pegged to a big anniversary of a very popular song coming up this August. It feels too premature to pitch it now, but then again it would require a good bit of prep work and I'm also afraid that some other writer may think of a similar idea first ('early bird catches the worm' and all that). Appreciate there's no hard and fast rule, but curious for your views!