You can persuade people to do anything given 2 hours. But how do you do it in 2 sentences?

I used to write pieces for the Sunday Times. In particular, the Travel section. It was fun.

The only tough part of my job was persuading the editor of the Travel section that they should pay me to spend a week somewhere exotic.

The wrong way to do it was to go off somewhere and write it up. The editor might not like where I’d been and what I’d done and then I’d be a few thousand pounds out of pocket.  I could have been earning money somewhere else.

And really, she didn’t have time to sit down and wade through my prospective article and everyone else’s.

 

Chris’s editor at the Sunday Times was a big cuddly creature

 

The other wrong way to do it was to sketch out the article and all the wonderful things it would contain. She didn’t have time to read those either.

Instead, here’s how it worked.

Every Monday morning, the section editor had to find 10 ideas to fill 5 slots in her section and walk into ‘Conference’ with those ideas. ‘Conference’ is the regular weekly meeting where the ten other section editors had to pitch their ideas to the overall Editor of the paper.

If there’s anyone that has less time than the section editor, it’s the overall Editor. He didn’t have time to listen to a hundred sketches of possible articles. He needed to know: why’s this interesting? What’s new? Where’s the drama? And he needed it in 30 seconds or less.

So whenever I pitched an article, I was always asked, “What’s the sell?”

“The Sell” is a 2 or 3 sentence description of the piece I wanted to write, which explains the broad idea of what I wanted to do, but it also includes the essential drama that would make someone want to read the piece.

“Chris West wants to go walking in the woods” is not a sell.

“Chris West wants to walk the Appalachian Trail.” – Not really interesting. 4 million people walk it every year. Nothing new there.

“4 million people walk the Appalachian Trail every year, all of them during the summer. Chris West walks the trail in winter, to find solitude, -20°C temperatures, and bears”

Ok, now that’s a sell. Something we know, with some essential drama, giving us something to be resolved.

Here’s the piece: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/travel/Holidays/Active/article180543.ece

If you’re writing a lot for other people, it’s a good skill to develop. If you’re commissioning writers, it saves hours in your day (and their day, too.)

And of course, if you’re writing for yourself, it’s a really useful way of making sure your writing will have some tension in it.

I hope you give it a try.