Monday, July 18, 2011

Pitch Imperfect

(This is one of my longest posts, but I hope you find it worth it!)

Last week, I secured a commission from an American magazine (yippee!) for an article about some of the quieter lakes in the UK's Lake District. The editor made me work for it (quite rightly too), but I thought I would explore this process in this posting, because there are some students who may have been frightened off by the editor's first response. But hopefully, this post will illustrate that when an editor doesn't say, "Yes," they are not always saying, "No," either. Here's my pitch:

Lakeland's Lesser-Known Lakes
When people think of the Lake District National Park, in Cumbria, UK, many think of the large bodies of water, such as Windermere, Derwent Water and Coniston Water with huge boats ploughing thousands of tourists up and down them all day long. However, there are hundreds of lakes, tarns and ponds in Lakeland, and this feature will explore ten of the lesser-known, but just as majestic, waters of:
  1. Loweswater
  2. Esthwaite Water
  3. Loughrigg Tarn
  4. Buttermere
  5. Levers Water
  6. Stickle tarn
  7. Beacon Tarn
  8. Crummock Water
  9. Loughrigg Tarn
  10. Moss Eccles Tarn
These lesser-known waters are just as interesting. For example, Crummock Water is fed by the tallest waterfall in the Lake District - Scale Force; Esthwaite Water is the most nutrient-rich body of water in Cumbria and the one that William Wordsworth rambled around and paddled in as a small boy; whilst Moss Eccles Tarn was owned by the writer, Beatrice Potter, who considered it an inspiration of many of her stories.

I envisage such a piece would be about 1200-words in length, with about 150-word introduction explaining the different names for a Lakeland lake or pond, followed by a brief summary of 100 words exploring each body of water, ending with a 50-word summary.

I can provide several hi-res digital images to illustrate the piece.

If you feel this idea may work better with different word length, I would be happy to accommodate this. I have attached a couple of lo-res images to demonstrate the kind of images I have available for these features.

Yours sincerely

Simon Whaley

Here's the response I received:

Hello Simon,

Thank you for your query. Those are nice looking images.

This sounds promising. That’s an interesting angle, if there’s enough to say. Several of these, such as Buttermere, are very well known, but I’ve not heard of some and I’ve been to the Lakes many times. Are all of these places accessible without being a hill-walker? I like treating the idea in gazette format. Assuming 1,200 words, is 10 the right number, or is it arbitrary? What do you actually have for images?

It’s a start.

Now, this wasn't a "Yes" but, it wasn't a "No" either. The editor's last comment, "It's a start," is a clear signal that he expected me to go away and think about the idea further.

I have seen replies along this theme that some of my students have received from editors and it surprises me how often, many of them think that the editor didn't quite like their idea enough to commission, so they think they should give up. NO! How many times do you hear writers moaning that they never receive a response to their pitches? Frequently! So, if an editor actually replies, then take note!

This is also an example of me not thinking about my pitch enough. (Yes, even I get it wrong sometimes!) I hadn't quite angled this correctly for the editor's readership. It was more of an idea of something that I wanted to write about, rather than what his readers would be interested in. So, what is the editor saying here?

  1. He likes the idea. That's good news!
  2. He likes the basic angle - lesser-known lakes.
  3. He knows the area too - but he is not a hill-walker, like the majority of his readership. My pitch had failed to recognise this, and some of my suggestions would require a bit of a hike to see them.
  4. Why had I chosen ten lakes?
I didn't reply to the editor for 24 hours, but spent the time, instead, focusing on his points. Here is my revised pitch:

Yes, thinking about it, I was suggesting ten, purely as a nice round number. Some of the tarns mentioned would require some hill-walking, so reflecting upon this, would the following seven sedately waters be more appropriate - all of which are accessible by car, one requiring a short level walk of about two-thirds of a mile, and none of which have tourist pleasure boats ploughing from one end to the other!

Loweswater - with its western tip lying less than 500 metres from the Lake District National Park boundary, this is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the Lake District's lakes. Offering mirror-like reflections of majestic mountains on calm days, it's southern shore is flanked by ancient woodland, still home to the Red Squirrel. Hire a rowing boat from the National Trust but don't disturb the locals, one of which is Hunter Davies, biographer for many a celebrity, including the footballer Wayne Rooney, the official biographer of The Beatles, and Lakeland Legend, Alfred Wainwright.

Esthwaite Water - sandwiched between the Lake District's most popular lakes, Windermere and Coniston Water, this lake is often overlooked. Yet it is full of character and history. The most nutrient-rich lake in the Lake District, it is popular with all those interested in fishing (including the occasional passing Osprey) and was frequently paddled in by the young William Wordsworth, who went to school in nearby Hawkshead, and mentions it in his poem, The Prelude.

Crummock Water - fed by the highest waterfall in the Lake District, Scale Force, it is also acknowledged as the source of the River Cocker, which flows through Cockermouth (the town devastated by the flooding in 2009). It is believed that at one point Crummock Water was joined to Buttermere as one great lake.

Buttermere - This is the lake from which many hikers set out to climb Haystacks - Alfred Wainwrights favourite fell, the summit of which holds Inominate Tarn, where his ashes were scattered. The small village at its western edge, was the source of a scandal in the early 19th century, when Mary Robinson, the Maid of Buttermere, reputedly the most beautiful woman in the area, married a bigamist impostor, John Hatfield, which only came to light when the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote about the wedding in a London paper. Avoided by coaches because access to Buttermere and Crummock Water means negotiating Honister Pass, Buttermere offers an opportunity for a level walk around its edge in stunning scenery.

Moss Eccles Tarn - a short walk of about two-thirds of a mile up a gently rising track, starting from Beatrix Potter's House in Near Sawrey, brings you to Moss Eccles Tarn, on Claife Heights. Away from the crowds, this is where Beatrix Potter went rowing, and in the summer months it is full of lillies, which inspired Potter's story of Jeremy Fisher - the gentleman frog. Beatrix bought the tarn in 1913, the same year she got married.

Tarn Hows - Accessible via a single track road, which thankfully, the National trust have now made one way, Tarn Hows is evidence that man is capable of creating beauty, for these tarns, high in the hills between Hawkshead and Coniston, are man-made. Created by the MP for Leeds, they were later bought by Beatrix Potter, and offer great views of many of the Lake District's fells and mountains. A two-mile level path encircles the tarns, which freeze solid during the coldest of winters.

Brothers Water - Found alongside the Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale road, Brother's Water is in a bit of a quandry - it is either the Lake District's smallest lake, or it is its largest tarn. A level footpath from the nearby car park, offers visitors an opportunity to wander along its shores and through some of the oldest oak woodlands to be found in the Lake District. According to Dorothy Wordsworth's diaries, she wandered along this very path, the day after coming across those famous daffodils, which her brother, William wrote about. This was once called Broad Water, but was renamed when two brothers drown in it, in the 19th century.

Whereas many visitors to the Lake District head for the lakes with boats to ferry them from one end to the other, such as Windermere, Coniston, Ulswater and Derwent Water, this feature will focus on the lesser known lakes and tarns, reveal their physical qualities, and historical links, whilst also suggesting how best to explore them on foot.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes


So, my response to the editor's email was to cut the number of lakes from ten, down to seven, and I also went into a lot more detail about why I had chosen those seven particular lakes. And here is the editor's reply:

Hello Simon,

Good show. You’ve done the homework and taken the time to give me a good preview. Yes, let’s do this.

Yes, writers tend to gravitate to the “nice, round number,” but it’s not necessary. I think your seven waters work nicely – and it gives you a few more words per water or for contextual introduction.

We do work quite a bit in advance. I can put this on the edit calendar for the July issue, so you’ve got some time. That issue goes into production late winter; we’re in edit production now on the November issue.

Your pictures are gorgeous as well. You present these as examples, implying there are others. If, in fact, we can illustrate this story completely from your pics, we might do a contract for the text/pic package. If that sounds reasonable, then do send along low res images of whatever else we might like to see. Otherwise, I’m happy to do a contract for the text and we can work on the pics when the time comes.  

Happy weekend.

See? The editor likes the fact that I took on board his comments and I adjusted my idea so that it meets his requirements better. Note his comments too about the 'nice, round number'. Editors love numbers, but here's proof that we don't have to go with the obvious ones all of the time.

So, there you go. An example of how a pitch can be won. Of course, if you can get it right first time, that's much better!

Good luck!