How the Game of Telephone Is Ruining Your Pitch

I recently took a new position in development at the production company I’ve been reading for and it’s giving me an insider’s view of that mythical fortress – the ProdCo – all of us spec writers are trying so hard to storm.

Before I begin my ProdCo work, I do switch hats from writing to development, but don’t think for a moment that the writer in me isn’t always listening closely and taking notes. The game of telephone, and how it applies to a screenplay pitch, has been my first lesson.

A screenwriter friend shared a script with me as a potential submission to the ProdCo. She also shared her logline and, in trying to clarify a point, mentioned another produced film as a potential comparison. The other film not only bombed at the box office but was equally terrible as a movie. The first thing I thought was I should never mention that “in the vein of” when talking about this script. But the seed was planted and hell if it didn’t grow when I wasn’t looking.

A few days later, I’m chatting with a ProdCo colleague and we’re discussing ideas that have been floating our way. We hit upon the genre of the script my friend had given me and I tried my best to remember the exact logline. I kind of remembered it, but boy did I wish in that moment the logline had been a little snappier, with more of a hook, because as hard as I was trying (and writers, know, I was trying), I was doing a terrible job of re-pitching this idea.

It wasn’t working, I saw no spark of interest in my colleague’s eyes and my brain scrambled for how to position this script. Then, there it was: The seed that had grown into a putrid flower, that regrettable “in the vein of” line, bubbled up in my head and popped right out of my mouth.

As the pitch flopped on the carpet, gasping for air, I did what any working Joe in my shoes would have done; I averted my gaze and moved on to the next project.

But the writer in me made note.

Most writers know how important their pitch is and work hard to craft a great one they can deliver. But what I certainly hadn’t thought much about is the fact that as writers we’ll probably, if we’re lucky, get to pitch one employee of a ProdCo and then they’re the ones who’ll go around the company trying to recreate our pitches.

Ever play telephone as a kid?  Now imagine your pitch told and re-told by other people.  What are those key words and ideas that will be remembered and passed on? Is there anything in your pitch that’s working against you, such as a comparison to a bad film or a character name or location or minor detail that will trump more important aspects of your story in the re-tellers mind?

If you’re practicing your pitch, you’re probably already pitching it to friends and family to help refine it. Try adding another step: Wait a few days after pitching to a friend and then ask them to try to pitch your idea back to you. Listen closely for what they remember, where they struggle and if they are able to re-pitch your idea with anything close to the enthusiasm with which you pitched it to them.

Like it or not, pitching is a big old game of telephone. You have control over what words and ideas you use to start the chain, but after that, you have no idea of the storytelling skills of the folks down the line.

We’re all working too hard on our writing careers to get stuck at the pitch. If you whisper in the first ear “an adventure comedy about two bumbling musicians on the run from the mob” and all the last person in the telephone chain can remember is “in the vein of Ishtar,” then you need to rethink that pitch.

Literary Boogers: Why Writers Should Grab a Tissue and Start Editing

If I were a surgeon by trade and found myself having to remove a kid’s splinter on the playground, with a group of parents watching, I’d ease out that little chunk of wood with such finesse, you’d hear the tale sung of my derring-do for years to come. But why should I care? Getting the splinter out, any old way, would lead to the same result: a splinter-free kid. For me though, the answer is simple. It’s all about pride.

Pride is a valuable tool when wielded thoughtfully. It’s what gets you to do a quick nose check before leaving home because you’ve got more pride than to walk down the street with a booger hanging out.

Circulating your writing before you’ve given it the attention it needs to really pop is the literary equivalent of the hanging booger. While the offense may be quick to fix (with a tissue or some light editing) the fact is you didn’t and everyone saw. Everything a writer posts, hands out or publishes is a writing sample, whether you intend it to be or not. It will be judged and you will be assessed as a writer by its quality.

Your blog is a form of self-publishing, and while the photographer’s blog isn’t judged by its words, the writer’s blog sure as hell is. A blog post should have a beginning, a middle and an end, clearly make a point and be entertaining. It should be carefully edited. You are both writer and editor of your blog. When you’re done writing, have your writer-self leave the room and then edit the crap out of the piece… like your reputation depends on it.

If you’re submitting an article to an editor, this isn’t the time to fall back on believing it’s their job to get it right. It’s not; it’s yours. It’s also your job to make the editor’s work on your piece as easy as possible. Cleaner copy leads to happier editors leads to more jobs. Submit your work after meticulous editing, as if they’ll run the piece without ever reading it. Then, when you get notes back, you’ll get the editor’s insight on how to perfect your story conceptually, rather than having your editor bogged down revising weak prose you could have handled yourself.

Creative writing requires a somewhat different approach, since it’s customary to receive feedback during the process to improve the final story. Your goal when soliciting feedback should be to receive notes that will push your story forward. If you give a reader a story you completed just ten minutes before shipping it off, the likelihood is high that the reader’s feedback will be exactly those things you already knew were problematic. But if you finish the piece, put it aside for a bit, then come back to it with fresh eyes and a no-nonsense edit, when you do get feedback, the reader will be able to access your story and intention more fully and give you ideas and suggestions that may actually elevate your work.

Writing is such an arduous process that it’s a relief to complete something and all any writer wants to do at that point is share it with the world. But once you get beyond that initial flush, you realize what you really want is to share it with the world and have them think it’s awesome. It’s the awesome part that requires a little patience.

Look at each opportunity to share your writing as a chance to show what you can really do and put in the extra effort to nail your pieces every time. You’ll be viewed consistently as a writer with skill, talent and promise. Don’t take it lightly whether people think you’ve got the goods or not. Everybody wants to back the winning horse and to flourish you’ll need all the backing you can get.

So let’s wipe our noses, pull out our red pens and show them our literary derring-do.