Conference info

How to master the art of pitching with BBC, GQ and 1843

Having an idea is one thing, pitching it effectively is another. This afternoon’s panel brought together Stuart McGurk of GQ, Rosie Blau of 1843 and Finlo Rohrer of BBC News. Hosted by Chris Stokel-Walker, the three discussed what makes a good pitch to them.

Rohrer says, “One of the most important things is you can immediately see it on the page.” For him, the person needs to have a coherent idea of what they want to write and that needs to come through in the pitch. He wants to know how you’re going to approach it in detail. You should be able to answer the obvious question: “What’s the headline?”

“Most stories need some pre-reporting,” says McGurk, “You need to have done some digging.”

Blau agrees. “The worst thing you can do is pitch something you don’t yet know yourself,” she says.

When editors’ inboxes are constantly receiving pitches, they make quick decisions about your pitch. A pitch that is too long won’t get chosen because it tells the editor you don’t know what’s important within the story. “It can always be shorter,” says McGurk.

If you catch the interest of the editor, they will then ask questions to get more detail from you. Blau believes the pitch reflects the quality of your work, explaining, “if you haven’t taken the time making it short, I can’t rely on you writing the piece properly”.

Editors are busy, so pitching at the right time in the production cycle can make all the difference, but generally, first thing in the morning is a good idea. To get McGurk’s attention, he says to email him “first thing when I’m in ‘coffee, email, getting admin done’ mode.”

On top of this, write a specific subject line to catch her attention, “‘Hello’ or ‘An Idea’ is a rubbish subject line,” Blau says.

She says the magazine relies on freelancers, and welcome their pitches but have to reject many of them because they are not detailed enough. “People keep pitching subjects instead of stories,”  she says.



“Tell the subject through the story is always the mantra,” adds McGurk.

Blau wants to be surprised, and a surprising pitch is more likely to be picked. She says, “There should be a sentence you can tell me that makes me think ‘that’s amazing!'”

If you’ve been unlucky enough for your pitch to be ignored, it’s always worth chasing up.

Rohrer says, “You definitely should follow up.” Even if your pitch isn’t right, it’s worth finding out. “I’ve always tried to give people feedback on why we haven’t taken something.”

For those who haven’t freelanced before, it can be hard getting an editor to take a chance. Blau says, “I really want to know you can do it.” If you haven’t got long clippings to include, say what you have done that makes you specifically qualified to write this. For new writers, she asks they “include two things of what they’re most proud of writing.”

Words by Corrie David

Conference info

The business basics of going freelance

Freelancing is tricky at the best of times, getting commissions, getting paid on time, chasing up late fees when you’re not paid on time. On top of that, cutbacks throughout journalism and publications falling into administration threaten all journalists, but none more than the freelancers.

The panel, hosted by Mun-Keat Looi, commissioning editor for Mosaic, is made up of three freelancers who began in different ways.

Sally Hayden was a news writer for Vice before being laid off and forced to go freelance.

Olivia Crellin has moved back and forth between freelancing and staff writing; she also founded PressPad, sourcing free accommodation for writers getting work experience in London.

Simon Akam, apart from working for a brief period at The New York Times, has always freelanced.

To start out, they unanimously agree they needed savings. Akam was lucky enough to have parents to support him, Crellin had a job teaching English in Chile, and Hayden had a severance check to see her through for a little while.

These savings allow you the time to hone your pitching skills and make the most out of your ideas. Akam credits the scariest thing about going freelance is facing rejection, but “if you’re working for yourself you constantly have to front-load the frightening stuff.”

Crellin worked as a staff writer first which enabled her to get a mortgage on a flat in London, which she now rents out.

Working as a freelancer, you need to ensure you look after yourself. Hayden works a lot on trauma and injustice, and she notes she needs to expand her portfolio. After covering a story of refugees being tortured, she fell apart and there was no one to check on her. “Since then I’m very conscious that I don’t want to always be doing emotionally draining stuff,” she says.

Looi interjects here encouraging freelancers to ensure they give themselves holidays.

When it comes to pitching, Akam sticks to a strict schedule. Every Monday he drafts a pitch and Tuesday he sends it off. If there’s no reply by the following Tuesday, he’ll chase it up via email, if he has nothing by the third week, he’ll call.

“You need to get your head around this and lose all of your shame,” Akam says, “I won’t let them ignore me.”

Finally, they recommend setting your pitching sights on America. Akam reveals, “The top of the British market will pay £1 a word and think it’s lavish, the top of the American market will pay upwards of $2.”

However, he does recommend writing for The Guardian as “it’s well edited and a good shop window.”

Words by Corrie David

Conference info

How to get that book inside inside you OUT of you

Many longform pieces lend themselves to a book, or perhaps others would be better as a book to begin. Alyson Warner hosts journalist-turned-author Chris Stokel-Walker and his published Martin Hickman as they discuss bridging the gap between the world of journalism and novels.

The book begins with a pitch, something all journalists will be used to. However, Stokel-Walker admits pitching a book takes more anticipated. He had to pitch his idea as something with sustenance, something that would work over 75-80 thousand words.

In terms of what the publishing house is expecting, Hickman says they need to understand how it would work. “Whoever receives it in the narrative house gets the idea of how it would flow,” he says. But what does this mean?

Hickman advises thinking from an editors perspective, your pitch should say, “In a bookshop what shelf it would be on, what genre would it be? What makes you the best person to tell it?” However, the main question they want answering is “will it sell?”

Hickman says the transition from journalism to novelist isn’t easy, “It’s as profound as going from a sprinter to a marathon runner.” From commission, the process of researching, writing, editing, rewriting, reediting then publication and promoting is a slow one. “You should be thinking in terms of years,” he says.

Once you have your book idea, there are three ways of getting published.

Hickman explains, “the first is the traditional route and the best if you can get one is to get an agent.” The agent can shape the proposal for publishers with your interest at heart. They act as the bridge between you and the publishing world. Most charge around a 15% cut, but it is the quickest and easiest way to get published.

The second is to approach publishers directly. However, Hickman explains most are looking to deal with agents and could overlook ignore your pitches.

Finally, Hickman strongly recommends self-publishing, he says, “I do recommend you look seriously at this, particularly if your work is a labour of love and not commercial.” He lists platforms such as eBook, for a quick and easy publication, or Amazon print book. 

“It’s such a difficult transition to make from 10,000 words at most to 100,000,” says Hickman, “You need to have themes in the book, you need to have characters, the chapters need to speak to each other”

Because of this, Stokel-Walker identified the hardest part of transitioning as relying on his narrative voice more and his quotes less. He says, “I had an awful lot of paragraphs and quote that were taken out because there was too much of ‘that character’”

As a final piece of advice, Hickman recommends writers “write a dummy blurb, write the 250 words that are going to go on the back cover and it will give you an idea of whether it’s going to hook in the reader.” If it does, run with it, if it doesn’t, refine it.

Words by Corrie David

Audio Conference info

Maeve McClenaghan on how to create compelling stories in podcasts

Investigative journalist Maeve McClenaghan began The Tip Off two years ago. It began as a side project aimed at listeners behind the scene access to the process of researching and reporting a story. Each episode has a new journalist who takes the listener through their process from idea to publishing.

She joins the Well Told conference on Saturday giving a talk on how to create a compelling story in a podcast. She breaks it down into a few categories: format, tone, structure, recording, publishing and safety.

Most podcasts, she says, are done in people’s free time so she advises creators to “make sure the subject is something you’re passionate enough about.” Then you need to check your hypothesis works and check there’s a market for it. If the market has already been filled, how can you tell that story in a new way?

For format, Maeve highlights the length of the episode. Podcasts do give creators freedom of length, but Maeve advises, “people might not listen for an hour. I find 20-35 minutes works quite nicely for me.” Only include what is necessary.

The tone of the podcast might not have to be the obvious choice. Maeve highlights the Mystery Show for its whimsical tone. She says, “It’s a great example of how even with subjects that aren’t completely serious, you can use narrative storytelling to build up the drama of it.”

Maeve highlights that again, you can get creative with the structure. She explains how linear isn’t always best. “Once I’ve got the story and someone’s told me what they did I think I could start them at the beginning, or I could drop them at this later point and show them how they got there.”

The location of where you record the podcast must also be considered. Maeve highlights the pros and cons of using a studio space compared to other locations. While a recording studio can produce clearer audio, it can be more stressful for a guest. If you are using a room elsewhere, consider how soundproof it is. Maeve suggests looking at rooms with thick curtains or bulky furniture to absorb sounds from outside.

To publish your podcast Maeve recommends the platforms: Libsyn, Soundcloud and Acast. She also recommends creating a cover image that is 1400 x 1400 pixels minimum for high quality.

When it comes to releasing your podcast Maeve says, “Everyone says weekly is better, but I do it fortnightly because weekly is hard.” Weekly works best as listeners get into a routine of expecting it on a certain day, however, don’t force it if it doesn’t work for you.

Maeve has three tips to get your podcast heard. She recommends launching with two or three episodes to give a sustainable impression. She then recommends emailing critics with a press release and hope it stands out in their inbox.

To generate and build an audience she suggests looking at Facebook groups for your speciality and promoting there, she explains “I think once you can get it in front of the right people and a buzz starts happening, that’s how you get your audience”.

She ends her talk on discussing the safety of your podcast. When discussing issues such as domestic violence, it’s important to protect your source by changing their names and sourcing actors for their voices. “You might need to take an additional responsibility of protection for them.” To cover yourself, she says to remember to stay within the law and should you publish any accusations, ensure the accused have had their right to reply.


Helpful podcasts:

For tone: Whimsical – Mystery Show, Rich storytelling – S Town, Human Voices – Dirty John

Structure: Twists – Criminal, Set Segments – Reply All/Heavyweight


Other helpful source for tech: Podcasters’ support group

Words by Corrie David

Conference info

Jeff Maysh on ‘the hero’s journey: mythical structure in true crime’

Crime writer Jeff Maysh, originally from Bromley, London but now living in LA, joins Well Told as the final speaker of the night. His presentation focuses on stories that set social media alive and catch the eyes of both readers and film producers. His primary focus is structure and how using screenwriting methods his true crime stories are being reimagined in Hollywood.

Maysh started his career at Loaded magazine but “the less said about that the better,” he jokes.

In 2010 he left to become a freelance correspondent in America, originally covering major breaking news in the Rockies. Today, however, he freelances for publications such as The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and Playboy.

“In 2016 I was tipped off to an amazing story about McDonald’s. The story was about an ex-cop named Jerry, who had managed to rig the Monopoly game for 12 years. Every major game prize was stolen.”

“I pitched the story everywhere, everyone said no,” Maysh says. Due to the time delay between the crime and his pitching, no one wanted to commission the story, stating it was too old. Bloomberg was all for it until they heard the date. The crimes occurred in 2011, yet Maysh was pitching in 2018.

The reason for the story falling under the radar is that the final court case occurred on 10th September 2001 and all the media attention focused on the 9/11 attacks. The story had remained untouched ever since.

Eventually, The Daily Beast commissioned the 8,600-word article and it was published in June 2018.

The story consequently became the number one top trend worldwide on Twitter. “By the Sunday things were getting a bit bizarre,” he comments. That day the story was covered on Fox News and by the evening there was a bidding war for the film rights. The story was wanted by Stephen Spielberg but eventually bought for $1m by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fox.

“I’m not telling this story to tell you I was right and the editors that turned it down were wrong,” explains Maysh. He even comments on how some editors now brag that they turned ‘The McDonald’s Story’ down. His aim, he explains, is to encourage writers to not give up if they believe they have a good story that no one will commission.


Structuring the Story

“I’m obsessed with structure,” Jeff says. He describes how he turns his living room into a Sherlock Holmes-style crime scene investigation board to help him write a true-crime piece.

He uses a three-act structure to construct his stories, influenced by the ancient Greek dramas. The three-act structure is broken up into five stages. The first, he says is the set-up – where you introduce your main character, a protagonist who has a desire. “They must want something,” he explains.

Stage two introduces the protagonist into a new situation, an unknown territory in order to pursue their desire. Stage three shows the progress of the protagonist on their way to achieve their desire. This should take the reader to the halfway point of their journey and it needs a twist. The whole story changes at the midpoint, “Something completely different happens,” Maysh says.

Stage four shows the protagonist facing complications and higher stakes, often facing a major setback. The fifth and final stage is what Maysh calls the ‘final push, the end game’. He compares the four stages to sex; “stage five is a bit like the cigarette that comes after”. It should return the reader to the beginning of the story with a positive end. “The end card is the mirror image but everyone is happy,” Maysh says.

The Hero’s Journey

Jeff Maysh talks about Hollywood and about narrative structure, noting the similarities of the structure of screenplays and longform. In one of his articles, the concluding part even has a kiss scene.

It is no surprise when he begins speaking about literary theorists such as Aristotle and Joseph Campbell, the latter of whom penned theory of the ‘The Hero’s Journey’, which despite it being a literary device, Maysh finds useful in shaping his narrative.

As he walks the audience through a few of his stories and how each follows ‘The Hero’s Journey’, he mentions:


How a Stroke Turned a 63-Year-Old Into a Rap Legend

The Rise and the Fall of the Bombshell Bandit

The Scarface of Sex

The Murder House


The one thing separating The Murder House from other stories he had done was that it was self-published because he could not get it commissioned. It later became the most read article on Medium in 2015.

He wraps up the talk on a positive note.

“You all have stories in you that you can’t get commissioned, but I want to say, don’t give up on the stories you know in your heart are amazing. If you’ve got something on the go that you believe is a killer story, then just go ahead and write it. Publish it yourself if you have to.”


All slides from Jeff’s talk can be found on his website:

Words by Corrie David