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Five lessons I learned while writing my first formal pitch

I have several half-written blogs sitting in my drafts, so now that I'm *finally* a college graduate and have some more time on my hands, it's time to wrap these blogs up. Writing my first pitch was a huge lesson in and of itself, even though it's such a regular part of the job for a professional journalist.

I'm assuming (and really hoping) that the first pitch is always the hardest because beginners don't know what to do or say or write, but I feel so much more confident after pitching my first story. It's wild how just one pitch taught me so much. So I'm here to share five lessons I learned in the process:

1. I'm convinced that writing a pitch is more difficult than writing the actual story.

Before my Conservation Storytelling Fellowship with Atlas Obscura, I was never required to submit a formal pitch. I didn't know how to write one, what to include, and what happens after it gets accepted or denied. Before I got started, Jason Goldman, one of my fellowship mentors, wrote to me, "Pitching means walking along a knife's edge. You need to include enough detail and color to convince an editor that there is an interesting story here and that you can tell it, while not including so much information that your pitch is already a first draft."

In theory, it didn't sound that difficult, but looking back at my thirty pages of notes and transcriptions, I was overwhelmed by the idea of paring down all of my ideas into a three to five paragraph pitch. Within those few paragraphs, I needed to:

  • A) Impress the editor with my writing skills

  • B) Set the scene and introduce the characters

  • C) Show that this is a story worth telling

  • D) Prove that I had a unique take on the story

  • E) Demonstrate that I know what in the world I'm talking about and that I'm the right person to tell this story

  • E) ...Did I mention I only had a few paragraphs to do this?

I originally wrote a pitch that connected culture, ecotourism, and conservation in Tambopata. But that was a topic, not a story. Jason suggested that I dig a little deeper and connect my idea to a greater global issue, like youth outmigration or the environmental effects of traveling. That got the ball rolling for me — it helped me cull the content I needed and craft a story around it. Having Jason, an experienced journalist, share his thoughts and edits on my pitch helped me settle into a headspace of "Oh, this is how I should be thinking about this" or "So, this is how pitching supposed to work." I learn best when I learn from others so that I can see what good work is supposed to look like and how to get there from start to finish. Without Jason's guidance, I would've been stumped from the beginning. More to come in Lesson #5.

2. What content makes it in and what to leave on the cutting room floor.

When I returned from Tambopata in September, my head was exploding with stories. I was fascinated by the wildlife, amazed by the people I met, and more in awe of this remarkable planet than ever before. I prepared as much as I could before leaving for Peru by researching and reading about Tambopata, but I didn't know what content I was going to actually be able to gather until I arrived there. So I spent the week recording every word and asking various questions about a wide array of topics, making sure that I would have enough content to work into a story later. It was tough, and I didn't realize how tough until Jason reminded me that journalists usually go into the field with a specific assignment in mind. Ah, that explains it. As much as I researched and tried to prepare beforehand, there were still so many unknowns until I actually arrived to Peru, so I was putting together a story as I went along.

That was a lesson in and of itself, and I ended up with great content that didn't end up tying in with my final pitch: "How ecotourism can remedy youth outmigration in the Peruvian Amazon." It hurt my heart not to highlight every person I spoke with, but that wasn't going to be possible. I decided to invest all my journalistic energy into developing this one great story and then come back to the rest of my content at a later date. After all, I had already done the hard part of collecting it.

3. Narrative writing ≠ news writing.

One of the first classes I took in my journalism coursework was called Media Writing. I felt confident going in, since I had a knack for writing, but the first few assignments absolutely caught me off guard. There were suddenly all of these new rules, and I had to adjust to writing in a traditional news style: lede with who/what/where/when/how, followed by a quote, introducing new facts, and moving down the inverted pyramid.

It felt almost formulaic, like I was plugging in facts and quotes into an already existing equation. I don't mean for this to sound like news writing is as simple as plug-and-chug or that anyone can do it — it certainly holds its own set of challenges, and a talented news writer takes a story to new heights. But news writing comes with certain constraints, so I learned to leave my voice out, follow the facts, and stick to the structure. Going into journalism, I didn't realize how different media writing is than any other kind of writing. I applied what I learned from that class to my internship at Virginia Tech's Fralin Life Sciences Institute, where I wrote about our faculty's new research for press releases and feature articles. It felt great to write about science, and those basic media writing skills provided a sturdy foundation. I got some great clips out of my time at Fralin, and I could feel my science writing skills improving with every piece.

When I had my first Skype call with Jason and Phil for my Conservation Storytelling Fellowship with Atlas Obscura, they mentioned the writing samples I submitted for my application, which were all science news writing clips from my work at Fralin. Phil gave me one of the kindest compliments I've ever received, saying that my writing was like playing a classic song on the piano. I hit all the write notes, followed the music score, and that my piece was exactly how it should've been. But news writing doesn't encapsulate the emotion and engage audiences the way a narrative does. Jason and Phil challenged me to shift my writing skills from news writing to narrative writing, which gives the author more room to build a relationship with the audience and get them to care about the story, which is a crucial piece in science communication. When I started writing the pitch and first draft for my ecotourism story, I had to actively remind myself that colorful descriptions were okay, that I didn't have to follow a rigid structure, and that I could describe characters and emotions more openly. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable writing more narratively again, and I'm honestly still getting used to it.

4. Your angle is everything.

So I came out of my fellowship with an idea to tell a story about ecotourism. But with a topic as big as ecotourism, I had to make sure that I had an angle that differentiated my work from anything else that had been written about. I focused my story on the Ese'Eja and emphasized the importance of place and culture.

As I said earlier, Jason gave me the idea to connect my idea to a bigger, global theme. I decided that writing about ecotourism as a possible solution to address the problem of youth outmigration. I haven't seen much coverage about ecotourism and youth outmigration, so I rolled with it. I had to constantly remind myself not to make generalizations or assumptions -- it wasn't my place as a journalist to analyze the situation, just to objectively report on it. It was tricky, but I think I got my draft to a point that I feel confident pitching it again.

5. Having a great mentor makes it all possible.

I think I would've given up on journalism a while ago if it wasn't for the incredible mentorship I received from people at Virginia Tech, Nat Geo, and Atlas Obscura. Everything I knew about journalism I learned in a classroom, but that probably covered ~1% of what it takes to be a journalist. I couldn't tell you the first thing about pitching, working with editors, finding sources, etc. What I didn't know absolutely overwhelmed me.

My fellowship with Atlas Obscura was incredible in every possible way, and one of the most important aspects of it was gaining the greatest mentors along the way. I have to give the biggest shoutout to Jason, who was so patient with me as I wrote my first pitch (which started as a hot mess) and developed my story. There are so many nuances to science writing and freelancing, but Jason made it all feel less intimidating. He reminded me that I could handle it. That I have the skills to do this and to do it well. It's just going to take a big push to get started.

So to all the newbie science journalists like me — and I cannot stress this enough — find a mentor you click with. I learn best when I'm learning from others, and I'm so thankful to have someone like Jason there to help me when I need it. Journalism is so competitive and daunting as it is, and I truly believe that I would've pivoted away from this field a while ago without the mentorship and encouragement that I feel so lucky to have. So thank you, Jason! You're the best.

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