Why Your Personal Essay Pitch Needs Both Substance and Style

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A good pitch includes both substance and style.

You need to explain your subject in a way that suggests you can write a good story. Otherwise your pitches won’t make it out of the ballpark.

This month we’re going to look at a personal essay pitch that has a lot of substance but needs a bit more style to be successful.

Jenny Holmquist’s “My Fandom Life” pitch

Jenny Holmquist is a writer, YouTuber, and artist. She runs two blogs: Nerdy Monsters, about running a small business; and MagicCatJenny, about fandom and creativity. We’ve been familiar with each other’s work for about five years, and when Holmquist began adding freelance writing to her portfolio she reached out to ask if I could help her fix a pitch that wasn’t working.

This pitch is for Hello Giggles’ “My Fandom Life” series, in which readers share personal essays about how specific fandoms have changed their lives. (Full disclosure: I had a “My Fandom Life” essay accepted last year, about the Jonathan Coulton fandom.)

Here’s Holmquist’s pitch. What do you think she does well, and where do you think she can improve?

Hello,

I’d love to write a ‘My Fandom Life’ article about the musical Cats and how it expanded my creativity. Ever since the late 90s I’ve been in love with the musical Cats. I’ve since seen it live multiple times, one being in London on it’s original stage before it closed. At age 14 I directed and produced my own (very unofficial) production with 13 of my friends. I drew fan art in countless notebooks, created multiple costumes of my favorite characters, and even created more original characters and stories in my very long fan fiction. To this day I occasionally paint my face as the characters for my YouTube channel. I’m well aware it’s a widely made fun of musical even (and perhaps most often) by the musical fan community, but that does not change my feelings. I learned to write, draw, sew, and act because of Cats.

I have photos of all everything I mentioned that I can provide for the article and titles are: ‘How Cats Expanded my Creativity’ or ‘Why I’m Proud to be a Cats Fangirl’

Here are my writing samples:

Vlogging vs. Blogging on Kitty and Buck

YouTube Celebrity Culture on International Geek Girl Pen Pals Club

From my blog:

The Engagement Ring

Do You Wanna Collab? | The Struggle of a Shy YouTuber

A bit about me:

My name is Jenny Holmquist and I am a freelance YouTube optimizer and content creator. I own an Etsy shop selling nerdy and feminist buttons and plushies and I also have my own geeky lifestyle blog. I like to write about; creative fan works, making videos on YouTube, and trying to live light yet struggling with my ever growing nerdy collections.  

I look forward to hearing from you!

Jenny

Adding “sparkle” by adding detail

This is a difficult pitch to fix because there isn’t anything obviously wrong with it. All of the basic components are there: Holmquist explains how the Cats fandom changed her life, includes links to writing samples and gives a very short biography. She even provides two potential headlines, Pitch Fix suggestion from Carol Tice of Make a Living Writing.

I’d consider this pitch structurally sound. What it’s missing is the sparkle.

A sentence like “I drew fan art in countless notebooks, created multiple costumes of my favorite characters, and even created more original characters and stories in my very long fan fiction” is a great way to communicate a depth of interest in a subject. But it doesn’t show an editor that you can write about the subject in an interesting way.

A pitch like this also indicates you might not yet be clear on what makes your own story compelling. A lot of people draw fan art or write fan fiction, for example. What’s unique about your fandom story? How can it inspire other readers and fans?

With that in mind, I asked Holmquist for a few more details and then rewrote her pitch:

Hello,

A lot of musical theatre fans have that one musical that captures their interest at a very young age. For me, that musical was Cats. I loved it so much that, at age 14, I convinced 13 friends to stage our own, unofficial production. Instead of hanging out at the mall or watching TV, we danced and drew and wrote about the characters and the story.

Cats wasn’t just my introduction to musical theatre; it was my introduction to creativity. Today, I regularly post stage makeup tutorials on my YouTube channel and I use my expert sewing skills — honed from making my own Cats costumes — to sell plush toys, themed apparel and more on Etsy. I spent way too many of my teenage years writing Cats fan fiction, and now I’m a professional writer.

Like much of the internet, I’m very into the Hamilton fandom these days, but I’d love to write about that other big musical that changed everything. Potential titles: “How Cats Made Me a Creator” or “Why I’m Proud to Be a Cats Fangirl.” I can also provide photos illustrating both my childhood and current fandom.

Writing samples:

Vlogging vs. Blogging on Kitty and Buck

YouTube Celebrity Culture on International Geek Girl Pen Pals Club

From my blog:

The Engagement Ring

Do You Wanna Collab? | The Struggle of a Shy YouTuber

A bit about me:

My name is Jenny Holmquist and I am a freelance YouTube optimizer and content creator. I own an Etsy shop selling nerdy and feminist buttons and plushies and I also have my own geeky lifestyle blog. I like to write about creative fan works, making videos on YouTube, and trying to live light yet struggling with my ever-growing nerdy collections.  

I look forward to hearing from you!

Jenny

I took the basic ideas in Holmquist’s pitch and made them stand out: “I occasionally paint my face” became “I regularly post stage makeup tutorials,” and so on.

If you’re writing a personal essay, adding compelling personal detail is a must — especially if your story is about something unusual, such as staging an amateur production of Cats with 13 of your best friends.

Holmquist’s response

Here’s how Jenny Holmquist responded to her Pitch Fix:

This is great! I think sometimes I forget that not everyone else thinks about or is familiar with the things I’m into, so “sparkle” is what it needs to get the message across. Also, since I am pitching my writing skills, I need to show them off in my pitch, not just explain what I want to write about.

Holmquist makes an excellent point, one that some writers don’t consider when they send out pitches: The pitch itself is a sample of your writing. It needs to reflect both your own voice and the voice of the publication you’re pitching.

Explaining what you want to write about is the substance; the way you write your pitch is the style. Good pitches combine both — and add just the right details to make the pitch sparkle.

What advice do you have for Holmquist? Do you think of pitches as writing samples? How do you combine substance and style in your pitches?

Got a pitch that’s striking out? If you’d like to be an upcoming Pitch Fix subject, please contact Nicole Dieker at dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.... .

Nicole Dieker | @hellothefuture

Nicole Dieker
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Comments

  1. Hey Nicole,

    This is great, and I just shared it with a few writing groups I run. What I particularly like about your example is that you use a personal essay that isn’t confessional. So many essays focus on major life changes or stories that garner negative opinion, so the details in some ways matter less with those than the shock of confession.

    I love that this shows a way to tell a story out of something else.

  2. Brilliant article, Nicole. I love how you make everything do double-duty: your very writing about Holmquist’s pitch demonstrates how writing should be done. It’s like Showing how to Show, in a way. Very well done. Thanks!

  3. This was great Nicole! The thing I liked most was how seemingly small tweaks make such a huge difference.

    I think we sometimes feel like we have to completely destroy our pitches when they’re not working but sometimes they just need a touch of finesse. Cheers!

  4. Pitch as writing sample is spot on. I work in corporate communications and conduct a lot of interviews for my team. Candidates who can’t present a well-written, well-structured resume are automatically at a disadvantage because their resume is their first (and sometimes only) writing sample I see. If they can’t manage a good resume, how will they manage a large-scale communications campaign?

  5. Pitching truly is a tough game Nicole, thanks for sharing your perspective. will have to practice this skill I am absolutely lame in this field. 🙁

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