Leading travel authors and editors share what they look for in the perfect pitch and lead. For more professional advice, consider enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.
DON GEORGE, Lonely Planet’s Global Travel Editor, explains a perfect pitch in succinct terms: “A perfect pitch is where a writer puts themselves in the mind of the editor.” We describe this in our travel writing program as part of getting into a “publication mindset.” The end goal isn’t necessarily a single pitch but more about the overall process of communicating with others over the long term. Let’s look at how a few of these elements work together:
- Visualizing what the editor will think when receiving your pitch / submission
- Presenting yourself and your work in a sincere way
- Networking with editors and other writers
Visualizing what the editor will think when receiving your pitch / submission
Put yourself in the place of your editors. They have dozens, maybe hundreds of emails to read each day. Even if your pitch complements a publication’s editorial vision, do you think they’re going to take it seriously if it’s not presented in a transparent, considerate way — a way that shows you’ve read their publication and submission guidelines? Or that you’ve taken the time to find out who they actually are or how they spell their names? Do you think they’ll open queries addressed simply “hello” or “dear sirs”? How about pitches built around dense, page-long paragraphs they’ll have to parse just to get to main story ideas?
Wide open. How do you communicate your style as a writer, traveler, human, to others? Image by Zach Dischne
Presenting yourself and your work in a sincere way
Editors don’t have time for sales pitches. Most of us have a natural aversion to rhetoric, and so emails explaining how “This story would be perfect for you because…” or “I’m perfect for this magazine because…” often have the opposite of their intended effects: They tend to distance or alienate the editor from the writer. What moves people is sincerity, authenticity, a sense of connection. But don’t take this as an excuse to be lazy either; a pitch simply explaining how you’re about to travel to X and “would you be interested in any stories from there?” wastes everyone’s time. In general I like to see:
- A single short (2-3 sentence) paragraph with…
- The central story idea presented right away and condensed to one line, or ideally a working title.
- If it’s the writer’s first time potentially contributing to Matador, a single url to their most representative work / projects.
- Evidence (not explicitly stated as in the examples above, but more implied through the way ideas / projects are presented) that the writer “gets” our editorial vision and specifically wants to work with us.
- A style or attitude that exudes a lack of pressure, anxiety, or need for handholding, even going so far as to offer a potential disclaimer or “escape route” inviting the editor not to respond (Ex: “…and if this isn’t the right fit for Matador, no worries, I’ll keep you updated on future projects.”)
Networking with editors and other writers
Some people have a tendency to keep their communication styles so myopic or “compartmentalized” — micro-focused on the work at hand — that it makes the whole correspondence feel boring or bleak, even if the project is potentially cool. Yeah, it’s a documentary on endangered orchids, I get it, but damn dude, where’s your stoke?
Pitches that mention friends, encounters, life outside the immediate project can momentarily draw an editor out of the gnarly heads-down “video-game email-response mode” and into a more receptive head-space. So if you’ve actually met an editor or have some kind of connection through social media, definitely open with it: “Hey Don, we spoke briefly at the __________,” or “Hey Don, _______ forwarded me your email; we went to school together at UNCA.”
A word of caution though — if name-dropping contains even a whiff of venality, or a sense that you’re exerting pressure, leveraging, or implying entitlement to a favor, then it totally kills any potential stoke you might’ve otherwise conveyed.
While not an actual pitch, here’s a simple editorial correspondence I got last night that has this sense of “life outside the project,” stoke, and above all, a lack of pressuring:
Hey just got back to California earlier this week. Getting back on track with writing, etc. I’ve finished a piece for the book, which I’ll forward on to you and Candice in a separate e-mail, and y’all can give me feedback. I’m also nearly finished with this piece on intermediate travel & summer commune, which I’ll be able to send over tomorrow afternoon. Had a great summer and a great road trip, but psyched to be able to sit down and pound out some more pieces for Matador. Also getting excited about the Canada trip in a few weeks.
Maybe we can chat on Skype next week, let me know when you’re free.
Hope all is well,
While pitches are a key part of the publication process, ultimately as writers what matters even more is how we write our stories. The story lead or opening is crucial, as it determines whether the reader will engage / finish your story.
While I agree with the spirit of Kugel’s statement above — “The best leads are the ones unlike anything else you’ve ever read” — there isn’t really, in my opinion, anything fully original in language itself. Language is linear, monophonic (i.e., you can’t make a “chord” with words), and has a finite number of actual sentence structures. So perhaps a more accurate statement for me would be: “The best leads feel unlike anything else you’ve ever read.” Originality, then, comes in the form of characters’ (including the narrator’s) conflicts, insights, and voices.
This all said, let’s look at how we can combine different sentence structures and characters:
1. Lead with the narrator in a problematic or overtly stressful situation.
Three days ago I projectile vomited from an auto rickshaw in Varanasi, India, on the way to the train station. This was after a week of flights from Vermont to Chicago to Colorado to New York to Brussels to New Delhi to Kathmandu. The night train from Varanasi to Calcutta was only mildly miserable, and I found a cheap room off Sudder Street with peeling yellow wallpaper.
Readers naturally empathize with a narrator — and tend to be pulled right into the story — when he / she is faced with an immediate difficulty or hardship.
2. Lead with a disarmingly simple and short declarative sentence.
I met Johann on a Greyhound bus going from Boston to the nation’s capital.
Simple declarative sentences — especially short sentences — tend to draw readers into the story because of their natural readability. The reader quickly gets through the first sentence and starts right into the second one, rather than being slowed from the very beginning.
3. Lead with an apostrophe to a specific character.
We spent a summer on the road between your home and mine.
An apostrophe is a literary device in which the narrator addresses some abstraction or personification that is not physically present. Because the narrative isn’t directed “towards” the reader, it can generate a layer of irony, a sense of voyeurism — allowing us to examine intimate emotions, relationships, and details that we might not otherwise.
4. Begin in-medias-res, with descriptions placing the reader in the middle of a scene.
The cliffs at the bottom of the gorge were steeper than I thought, and it was touch and go for about an hour, punching holes in the snow-pack and hanging on to any shrub I could find, hoping the whole face wasn’t about to slip-slide away into the stream below, dog-tired, and the sun way past gone down over the jagged tri-peaks of Mt. Ashibetsu.
Strong, visceral descriptions work on multiple levels. Notice how the narrator describes things that are both literally underfoot (“punching holes in the snow-pack”), as well as distant (the sun having set “over the jagged tri-peaks of Mt. Ashibetsu”), as well as his own feelings (hopefulness, worry), all in a single sentence.
5. Lead with an assertion.
You can’t walk through a door in Latin America without greeting the “place” itself.
Assertions, or simple claims / statements of belief, can be super effective as leads when they engage the reader directly. Similar to #2, opening with an assertion is especially powerful when the sentence is short and simple, allowing the reader to immediately digest the assertion, form questions in his or her mind (“What do you mean ‘greet the place’?”), and quickly move on to discover the answers.
6. Lead with dialogue.
“In the wintertime it can get pretty lonely,” said Martín, a young refugiero on Cerro Piltriquitrón. “Sometimes a week will go by with no climbers, nobody, and you have to start climbing up and down just to do something.”
Leading with dialogue works effectively when the reader is thrust into the story. But these kinds of openings can also be disorienting, as the reader knows nothing yet about the characters. If you begin with a character speaking, it’s important to think about just what part of the “conversation” to start with. Notice how in this example Martín is “introduced” through his expressing an issue or problematic situation.
Please note that these are only some of the common sentence structures and ways to lead a story. There are dozens more.
* MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.