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« Lesson 19: Are You Selling Freezers or Refrigerators? (finding your genre before you pitch) | Main | Lesson 17: A Pitch That Sticks »

Lesson 18: Three Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot When Pitching to an Agent or Editor

**This Lesson is part of the January series “30 Pitch Lessons – 30 Days.”  Pitch University Pitchfest weeks and Expert-In-Residence weeks kick off the 1st full week in February.** 

Elizabeth_Lyon_HrElizabeth Lyon has worked as an independent book editor and writing teacher for two decades.

Elizabeth is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, and National Directory of Editors & Writers.

Chuck Leddy, a reviewer for The Boston Globe, selected Lyon’s sixth book, Manuscript Makeover, in the December 2008 issue of The Writer, as one of “8 great writing books in 2008” and as “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.”

The Writer, Writer’s Digest, 2008 Guide to Literary Agents, and other guides and handbooks have published her articles.


Mistake #1: Talking for more than 30 seconds.

Suggestion: Less is more in time-limited one-on-ones.

If you want a request to see your manuscript--as well as help, advice, referrals, brainstorming, and a deeper understanding of your writing--polish and practice your pitch.  Practice what you will say in 30 seconds, about 125 words, and then zip those lips.

11-01-21 Zip Your Lips

Prepare to listen. Listen in a way that you are actively open to absorb, understand, and quickly figure out possible nuances and gaps, and where you are able to capture sparks of possibility.

Leave room for the agent or editor to respond, ask your questions, and create a dialogue. Keep your answers short and your defensive explanations to yourself.

Mistake #2: Expecting only one of two answers: yes or no.

Suggestion: Totally unexpected, serendipitous, sometimes life-altering opportunities arise out of these powerful dialogues between creative people.

To gain a request to see your writing is one, albeit an important, desire. However, be prepared with questions such as these:

"How might I improve my ____ (pitch, query, opening, chapter)?"

"Where do you see my writing on the continuum between novice and professional?"

"Who else might be interested in ____?"

"From what you have seen, what aspect of my writing stands out the most?"

"Would you recommend any books or other resources to help me with this problem?"

You can, and should, prepare a list of questions, like these, and perhaps have them printed out to consult when your hands are shaking and your mind is blank.

Mistake #3: Presenting manuscripts that do not have correct format and presentation.

(Bring your pitch on paper--a pitch sheet--and your book in case you get a request.)

Suggestion: Would you go to an interview for an office job in patched shorts and a dirty t-shirt? Would you turn in a resumé that you've dashed off?

First impressions are all but impossible to erase. Learn correct format and presentation.

A short course: 12-point NON-CONDENSED font (not Times New Roman), one-inch margins, double-spaced, one space after all punctuation (a rule that changed 15 years ago), five-space indented paragraphs, a header (with your title, last name, and often flush right page numbers).

Avoid these three mistakes and follow the suggestions to see maximum gain from your pitch.


For 20 years, Elizabeth Lyon has worked intensely with writers from all over the world, seeing publication of about 40 of her nonfiction book clients while some 20 novelists have found agent representation and a dozen have published.

Elizabeth lives in Springfield, Oregon.

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Reader Comments (1)

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Use your real name. Agents, Editors, and Experts will be using their real names. Show up with yours. If your profile isn't your name, please sign your name in your comment.

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Free of Snark, Finger Pointing, and Personal Attack

This is a professional environment. Be professional. No one is fooled by the phrase, "I'm just being honest."

Agents and Editors will be viewing your comments. If you can't be kind toward your own fellow-writers, the thought is you'd make a pretty miserable client.

Don't be* that* writer.

January 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterDiane

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