Writers’ Room 101: Pitching Tips

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In the last post, I gave you a general overview of what pitching in the room is like. Hopefully, the information wasn’t too overwhelming. If it was…don’t panic! I’ve got some specific pitching tips that’ll make it all make sense.

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Pitch Solutions, Not Problems

This is an expression you’ll hear a lot, and it’s probably the number-one rule of pitching in the room.

“Pitch solutions, not problems” means exactly what it says: if you hear someone else’s pitch and realize there’s a flaw in it, you’re allowed to (politely, please!) point that out. But while you’re doing so, you damn well better have a suggestion for how to fix it.

This doesn’t mean you have to have THE perfect solution for whatever the issue is. But keep in mind that while it’s easy to point out something you don’t like about your coworker’s pitch, unless you’re also attempting to actually help solve the problem, the room is now no closer to a solution than it was before. Plus you’ve planted the seed of doubt about the pitch in everyone else’s mind, too. Don’t be that writer. Because if all you’re doing is constantly shooting down other people’s pitches, you might get saddled with the unfortunate nickname…

“Dr. No”

This isn’t the James Bond character, it’s the writer who always has something negative to say about whatever is being discussed, but never offers a way out. You do not want to be viewed this way. “Dr. No” isn’t a term of endearment in the room. What it means is that the rest of the staff have become conditioned to expect nothing but negativity from you, and it makes for a very uncomfortable working environment.

So remember: be optimistic. Be a problem solver. No one wants to work with a sourpuss who sucks all the oxygen out of the room.

“This is the bad pitch”

Having said all that, it’s not at all uncommon to preface your pitch with the oft-spoken disclaimer, “Okay, this is the bad pitch…” and then pitch the idea that you have in mind. This is permissible because it gives your fellow writers a heads-up that, while you know that what you’re about to pitch isn’t necessarily the Best Idea Ever, it’s simply meant to verbalize an area of thought and keep the discussion moving forward. Often, the “bad pitch” will cause a lightbulb to go off over another writer’s head, and they’ll suddenly have a good idea that they might not have come up with had they not heard the bad pitch and found a way to make it better.

Two Tears in a Bucket

This is crucial: if you pitch an idea and no one likes it, you have ONE additional shot at re-pitching it. But don’t use this as an opportunity to simply repeat the exact same pitch. That’s lazy. And it smacks of desperation. Repeating a pitch verbatim is like re-telling a joke that nobody laughed at the first time. You’re just going to make the listener feel bad for having to sit though your second failed attempt.

So here’s what you do: when that pitch bombs, figure out what it was about the pitch that was problematic. Then you can adjust the idea in a way that hopefully addresses the problem and pitch a modified version.

But if the pitch fails a second time, LET IT GO. No matter how brilliant you think the idea is, you get two turns at bat with it. Not three. I’ve heard this concept expressed as “Two tears in a bucket, fuck it.” You won’t be doing yourself any favors by beating a dead horse. Take comfort in the fact that you’ve got many more ideas where that one came from, and just move on.

Seen and Not Heard

If you’re working on your first show, you’ll be an entry-level writer with the title staff writer (we’ll discuss writer titles in a future post). And on some shows, everyone is expected to pitch no matter what their level. Those are the best environments in which to find yourself. But every now and then, there’s a show where staff writers are either directly or indirectly discouraged from pitching. The idea is that staff writers are meant to be seen and not heard. In other words, sometimes staff writers are viewed as too inexperienced to make useful contributions to the pitching process, so they’re expected to speak only when called upon lest they slow down the progress the room is making.

But don’t let that scare you. Odds are, you’ll end up in a room where everyone from the showrunner down to the writers’ assistant is encouraged to speak up, and the best idea wins, no matter where it came from. Still, if you find yourself in one of those less-friendly rooms, use it as an opportunity to listen and learn from the more experienced writers on the staff. It’s on-the-job training.

“I was JUST gonna pitch that!”

Sometimes you’ll come up with a pitch that, for whatever reason, you’re not confident enough to actually say out loud. And because you’re part of a team that’s moving towards the same goal, there’ll be times when another writer gets the same idea you had, pitches it, and everyone loves it.

When this happens, you’ll be tempted to say, “I was just gonna pitch that!” Resist that urge. You missed your opportunity, and speaking up now will only look like you’re trying to glom onto the other writer’s successful pitch. Nope, if you lacked the courage to risk pitching the idea, you don’t get to share in the glory. Suck it up. And take the chance next time.

“Yes…AND.”

Improv actors are trained to say “Yes…AND,” meaning they take what their scene partner said and build upon it with a line of their own. The same goes for writers. You don’t literally have to say the words “yes and,” but the concept still applies. If someone else’s pitch inspires you to think of an idea that expands upon the original pitch, go with it. It’s just good teamwork.

Pitching Etiquette

And finally, here are some quick bullet points to wrap this up:

  • Because of the open-discussion nature of pitching, you’ll often run into situations where two or more people are trying to pitch at the same time. And if they’re both talking at the same time, neither can be heard. So even if you’re excited about the idea that just popped into your head and can’t wait to get it out, if you find yourself overlapping with another speaker, one of you will have to stand down and let the other go first.
  • Don’t hog the floor. Even if you’ve suddenly come up with ten great ideas all at once, pitch one or two and then yield to whoever else wants to speak. Unless you’re the showrunner, no one wants to sit and listen to you rattle off a laundry list of ideas, one right after the other. Take your time and wait your turn.
  • DO NOT take credit for someone else’s pitch. I hope that one’s self-evident.
  • Conversely, GIVE credit where it’s due. If someone’s pitch sparks a new idea in your head, when you pitch it, take a moment and say, “What John pitched just gave me an idea…” John will appreciate it, and you’ll appreciate it when one of your fellow writers acknowledges you in the same way.
  • Formulate the most concise version of your pitch that you can. You don’t want to ramble, forcing everyone to follow a bunch of twists and turns in your pitch before you finally get to the good part. Challenge yourself to whittle the idea down to as few words as possible while still conveying the core idea.
  • If you’re confused about a particular story area that the room is exploring, be honest and speak up. No one will hold it against you.

In Conclusion

Like the previous post, this one ended up being a lot longer than I expected. But hopefully, it’s given you an overview of what pitching in the room in like. Once the showrunner is satisfied with the quantity and quality of the pitches she’s heard, it’s time to move on to actually breaking a story. And that’s where we’ll pick up next time.

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