Pitch clinic, week 1

Jessica Reed
Feb 5, 2016 · 4 min read

Last week I said I’d reply to a few pitches sent to me by freelance writers or journalism students to critique their proposal here.

As a reminder, if you want to send one my way to get feedback, please email jessica dot reed at theguardian dot com with the subject PITCH CLINIC. Your submission will remain anonymous.


Dear Jessica,

I’d like to start pitching this personal essay out soon in hopes of placing it by September, marking the 15th anniversary of Sept 11th. Thanks for taking the time to do this — it’s really a great idea, and even if you don’t pick my pitch, I’m sure I’ll learn from the others.

This is a good introduction and I’m glad you’re pitching in advance — but reading this in February feels a bit too early for a September piece (unless it involves an awful lot of investigative work, which this would not require).

Objects of Grief

My Summer Internship Sifting Through 9/11

It was a muggy day in the summer of 2002 when I got off the subway in Hell’s Kitchen and approached the fire station alone. “Amy sent me,” I said after one ring of the bell summoned a fireman. I was shown to a windowless room with metal shelves overflowing with paper: collages, drawings in marker and crayon, photographs, pipe cleaner figures and hearts. I was a summer intern and this was my task for the day: to go through the colossal piles of letters and artwork sent to this firehouse since September 11th.

Everyone knows the clichés of 9/11 storytelling by now: “The day dawned bright and sunny, with a sky so blue it was almost insulting.” “It was business as usual for those going to work at the Twin Towers.” “Onlookers watched helplessly as the second plane came in, as the first tower fell.” These details are part of the popular narrative we tell ourselves in order to make sense of one of the darkest days in American history, and to allow ourselves to grieve.

I want to know what you’re writing about right away, and here with this second paragraph you backtrack to give me more context, instead of pushing on to explain what your piece will be about. Get rid of this paragraph. The shorter the pitch, the better (usually).

For me, the grieving began nearly a full year later, when I became the intern to the Chief 20th and 21st Century Curator at the New York Historical Society. Some lost family members, but I didn’t. Some lost a job, but I didn’t. I only felt the loss when my boss held up a set of Venetian blinds she had found in the still untouched rubble of Trinity Church Cemetery, twisted like a modernist mobile, and marveled at its beauty. Or when a special delivery came to our loading dock: the melted, warped front of a police car. Or when I developed a friendship with the chief policeman at Fresh Kills, the Staten Island landfill where the remains of 9/11 were processed.

This is nice because it brings so many sharp images to the readers’ mind: I feel like I want to see the objects! This is where I will ask you: “You do have photographs of those objects, have you?”

This is a story about how we make sense of tragedy, and how sometimes, understanding only comes in the wake of a wave of information. It is that same tangible, personal sense of new reality we groped for after the attacks on Paris in November, or as we watched wave after wave of refugees reach the shores of Greece this past year.

To tie it to the Paris attacks is clever, because it makes the piece a more relevant — so many pieces have been published since 9/11, you need to make it as fresh as you can.

For many my age and younger, 9/11 was nothing but a set of images — images I was pulled out of chemistry class my second day as a junior in high school to witness on TV. For me, it was what I touched and felt and saw piled high in firehouses, museum storage rooms and all around me that strange, important summer.

Thank you.


Why I liked about this pitch: It’s well written, and the author shows a lovely capacity for analysis and introspection.

What I didn’t like about this pitch: As far as an essay goes, good writing is great but not enough. You need a good yarn, a good story, and a good payoff. It needs to keep you on your toes. Right now this reads more like a contemplative piece, which is great for some literary magazines, but not for me.

Would I publish: Right now, no. I feel it needs more substance. You can obviously string words together and you write nicely, but past “I spent my summer touching objects of grief”, did anything happen, except for your internal turmoil? If you don’t have more(no human voices, no anecdotes, etc) the piece will fall flat. You hint at some relationships you have forged (with the policeman)but fail to tell me what it will bring to the story.

It’s an essay: you need rhythm. You need a twist. And you most certainly need to illustrate it with pictures of said objects: have you thought about how? Can one still access the objects for photography purposes?

Jessica Reed

Written by

Guardian US features editor. French. 'We can't stop here, this is bat country' - Hunter S Thompson

Pitch Clinic

Where editors critique your pitch

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