Writing about video games is easy. Breaking into the competitive world of gaming journalism is not.
Luckily, it’s entirely possible to get a foot in the door if you know what you’re doing. That means hard work, dedication, and avoiding the common mistakes that writers make when pitching their ideas to editors.
This last point was exactly why hundreds of guests at PAX East 2012 attended a panel entitled, “How Not to Succeed as a Freelance Game Journalist.” Five ACTUAL game publication editors and one successful freelance game journalist sat down and discussed why 96% of all pitched ideas for game-related articles get turned down. [Edit: this is a sample rate of rejection from one of the panelists, not necessarily the whole industry standard] Panelists included editors from big-name publications: Susan Arendt (Managing Editor, The Escapist), Justin McElroy (Managing Editor, Vox Games), Kyle Orland (Senior Games Editor, Ars Technica), AJ Glasser (Managing Editor, Inside Network), Andrew Hayward (Editor, Mac|Life) and freelancer Rob Rath. So believe me, these folks know their shit. If you’ve pitched articles anywhere, there’s a good chance they were either the ones turning you down or personally know the editors who rejected your idea. It’s a small world of editors, according to them.
Throughout the course of their presentation, these fine folks delved into the various ways in which well-meaning aspiring game writers sabotage their chances of being accepted into the ranks of publication. Many examples seemed pretty obvious: typos, inappropriate sexual language, insulting the publication, etc. (But as it happens, those are some pretty common mistakes.) There are subtler issues, however, like self-deprecating language or (conversely) being too cocky, or not being aware of the publication’s voice when making a pitch. So, if you want some advice on how to avoid these common pitfalls, here’s the breakdown:
- Your pitch had typos in it. By this, I also mean grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Sure, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. You forgot to dot an ‘i’ or missed crossing a ‘t’–you’re not perfect, after all! But the reality is that these editors are responsible for reading and fixing up dozens of articles a day on top of reading dozens of pitches like yours. Time is precious to them, and they cherish writers whose work they don’t have to edit extensively. Remember that you’re trying to put your best foot forward here–and if your best effort still includes simple errors, it reflects poorly on you. Note: Most editors on the panel admitted that if your typos are minor enough and your idea is clear and engaging enough, there is some room for forgiveness. But why would you risk it? Because that’s the next mistake….
- You gave them an excuse to reject you. Hundreds of emails a day pour into each editor’s inbox, filled with any number of crazy, cockamamie ideas that clack their way out of a brain and into an electronic format. To avoid being completely overwhelmed, editors need to be able to quickly and easily narrow down the playing field. Thus, they will use any excuse you give them to hit “Reply” and copy/paste their rejection letter. You’ve got tons of competition, which means they can afford to be choosy. Used “their” instead of “they’re”? REJECTED. Can’t convey the point of the article in the first two sentences? REJECTED. Used the phrase “Creamed my pants”? REJECTED. The pitch is attached as an 18-page word doc? Hm, maybe I’ll read that during lunch–wait, no, REJECTED. Do not give them an easy excuse to toss out your idea–your pitch should be intelligent, polished, clear, and concise.
- You pitched yourself beating a dead horse. Anyone who’s written editorials knows that there are no “new ideas.” Your “original” idea is actually floating around out there, and someone has written about it already. But some ideas in particular are so overdone that you should be embarrassed to even think about pitching them. Throwing out ideas like, “How to get your girlfriend to play video games” (personally guilty), “Why old video games are better than the new ones,” and “I’m a cynical, funny asshole, listen to me rant” will get you rejected outright. By suggesting these topics, you show that you lack a fundamental awareness of the gaming journalism climate. If you’ve paid even a little attention to the gaming world outside your own brain, you’d know that this stuff is overdone. This mistake is doubly costly: in addition to having your article pitch rejected, you also run the risk of showing that you might not be a suitable candidate for game journalism in general.
- You didn’t research their publication to see if it’s been done. Speaking of embarrassing yourself, a lot of the time people will pitch ideas that a particular publication has already posted about recently. Sure, you may have come up with the idea all by yourself–but did you check to see if the site you’re writing to has already posted an article about that subject in the past 6 months? If there are similar articles on the site, is yours at least coming from a unique perspective that will add to the conversation, rather than rehash it? Being guilty of this one has good and bad aspects: On the one hand, it shows the editor that you’re not thorough in your research or interest in the publication; on the other hand, at least you came up with an idea that they might have published… if someone else hadn’t gotten there first.
- Your idea doesn’t jive with their voice. Believe it or not, plenty of people are dumb enough to pitch FPS-centric articles to MMORPG-only publications. This is an obvious gaff, and sadly is not uncommon. Don’t do it. It’s easy to get so excited about your idea that you pitch it all over the place–even to sites that don’t ever publish articles involving your topic. But please, stop yourself. This just makes you look bad to the editors, and you will eventually get a reputation for sending them crap that they should just mark as spam.
- You put yourself down during your pitch. “So, I know I’m not the best writer in the world, and you probably won’t read this”–DELETED. People put themselves down so that, inevitably, when they get rejected, they somehow gain solace knowing that they were at least right about how much they sucked. It’s a common defense mechanism. But when editors see this, they automatically get turned off. Imagine saying to a date at the beginning of the night, “So, I kind of suck in bed, but you’re probably not going to ask me over tonight anyway, so….” If that’s the case, then why are you even trying? Plus, see my second point above, about giving them any excuse to reject you. Deal with your self-confidence issues on your own time. They’ve got hundreds of other emails to get to, so fast forward to your idea!
- You tried to convince them that you’re the God of Game Journalism. One of the editors told a war-story about how he’d just graduated college and applied to place by just talking himself up in his application, about how they absolutely needed him on their staff because he was the shit. In the meantime, he failed to include any examples of his work. We all had a hearty laugh when he admitted that they never got in touch with him. Point is, find a balance between confident and cocky. Being sure of yourself is one thing, but remember that you’re not worth an offer until you can prove that your ideas are good and your writing is sound. Even if you CAN prove those things, editors don’t need a diva on their hands. So the general rule here is: “Don’t be a dick.”
- Your tone was too casual or inappropriate. Keep in mind that while the tone of some articles you read might sound casual, like gamer-to-gamer banter, when pitching to an editor you’re still trying to present your abilities in all seriousness. Before they offer you money, they have to be able to take you seriously. On top of that, they are not your friends. They don’t know you. Write to them like you would a stranger you need to impress. This also means that any colloquialisms you share with friends should be excluded from your vocabulary. The example given was someone writing in saying, “This game made me cream my pants.” To your buddies, this is hilarious; to our editor panelists, this is an unpleasant mental image of a gamer geek experiencing premature ejaculation over a game cartridge. Keep it professional.
- You’ve flamed editors for rejecting you in the past. Rejection is hard on everyone, and it takes confidence and practice to allow it to roll off your back and move on. But that is no excuse for writing back to an editor–who, just yesterday, you wanted to pay you to take your talents and opinions seriously–with angry flaming, cursing, and insulting language. Maybe it makes you feel better to hit that send button after writing a giant ball of degrading bile, but who are you really hurting here? The editor has the power to bestow gamers with money for writing about games. You don’t. They also have a small world of fellow editors, and they can black-list you. In all facets of the gaming industry (and most any industry, for that matter), writing hate-mail is considered professional suicide.
- Make yourself memorable. With hundreds of emails coming in, finding a way to distinguish yourself in a positive manner is key. Make them laugh with an intelligent quip, express a really unique perspective that’s short and simple, or say something intriguing that makes them want to know more.
- Name at least one thing you can do that others can’t. This is an extension of making yourself memorable, by distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of other applicants and pitch-people. If you can do this, and your one unique thing can be an asset to their publication, you’re ahead of the game.
- Tell them what you can do for them. Speaking of being an asset, the best way to pitch is by showing how you and your ideas will be a boon to the publication. Human psychology states that other people listen more carefully when they hear something that involves them in some way. So try to frame your pitch to show what you can offer them, not why they should give you a chance.
- Practice brevity. All the editors openly admit to just skimming your pitches and applications. Be brief, clear, to the point, and highlight the important stuff.
- Have an appropriate email address. This one is for a few reasons–chiefly, that it’s hard for an editor to convince herself to write a paycheck to someone going by GrapeJellyBumRaper@poobrains.com. But also, there come situations when an editor will be looking for an expert on a particular topic and vaguely remember that you pitched something of the sort. Using your first and last name in your email address is a big help to them in this situation, not to mention a big help to you in snagging some work.
- Use clear Email subject lines. The panelists suggested a couple formats.
- Article Pitch: Insert your pitch here.
- Subject, verb. Context.
- Link directly to specific examples of work. If your idea is what they’re looking for, the editors will want to see that you’re capable of stringing together an article on that topic. But they’re very busy people. Your chances of having a shot are much better if you link to specific work that exemplifies your writing. If you have a blog, link to an individual article rather than your blog’s home page, because they might get to your email on a day you posted something derpy. And that’s what they’ll go by.
- Pitch happy, heart-warming stuff. Editors’ inboxes are flooded with angry gamers wanting to rant about their opinions on this game or that. And there’s always some “doom and gloom” perspective in the mainstream media to address, such as when journalists decry the degradation of our society because of brain-melting video games. While fanaticism and fear mongering do grab people’s attention, it can also get exhausting. Pitching a positive topic is appealing to editors because it gives them something to shake up all the negativity that’s out there. You’d be upping your chances of getting accepted.