No matter what kind of art you produce, you’ll definitely have to try and get someone interested in it at some point. This might mean getting in touch with a gallery owner if you’re a painter, a producer if you’re in the performing arts or film, or a publisher if you write books. And odds are, you’re going to do so via email.
With that in mind, I caught up with Kathryn Burnett to talk about how to write (and how not to write) an approach email. Kathryn’s been a screenwriter for 25 years and a playwright and writing coach for eight years. Early in her career, she used to send approach emails and query letters. Now, she does less of that, but gets lots of approach emails herself. Here’s what she’s learned about contacting someone you’ve never met before and asking them for help.
This is a point that came up over and over again in our conversation: you really need to be concise. Strip your email down to the basics - who you are, what your project is and what you want. You need to do this for a couple of reasons. One, the people who can potentially help you are almost certainly going to be busy. The more of their time you ask for, the easier it’s going to be for them to not read your email at all.
Kathryn Burnett, who runs The Writing Room.
Secondly, you are not the only person sending these approach emails. People who get approached are constantly getting requests. So the easier you make it to engage with your email, the easier it is to set yourself apart from the dozens of other people in the recipient’s inbox.
"The easier you make it to engage with your email, the easier it is to set yourself apart from the dozens of other people in the recipient’s inbox."
A good way to nail this is to test your email out on some friends and family. Ask them which bits of information sound important, and which could disappear. Then just be ruthless: edit, edit and edit some more. Try to get the whole pitch for your beloved project down to 100 words or less - hard, but definitely possible!
When you write an approach email, you’re selling two things: your project and yourself. You want people to be interested in the project you’re trying to get off the ground, and you also want them to understand why you’re the best person to do it.
This doesn’t mean writing a long bio that stretches back several years, but you should include some details about yourself that are relevant to the project you’re pitching. This doesn’t just help sell your idea - it also sells you as a person to work with. This could be useful if the person passes on the specific project you’re pitching, but likes the idea of working with you in general.
Let’s be realistic: nobody is going to instantly fund your project based on a single email. When you contact someone, you should recognise this fact, and instead just ask for the next step towards getting what you want. That might be a coffee, a chat on the phone, or even better, you sending through more detailed information.
No matter what you’re asking for, it will be easier for the person to agree to if it you’re very clear about what you want. Be very explicit about exactly what you’d like to see happen after the person reads your email.
By clarifying what you want from the person you’re emailing, you’re making it much easier for them to say yes, because it’s easier to say yes to a concrete request than vaguely indicating interest in something.
Look into the person you’re emailing. Just Google them. Are they a good fit for your project in the first place? Kathryn told me about a documentary producer who gets pitches from people looking to make a short film. Even if those pitches were amazing (they may well have been!), they were never going to get anywhere. It’s like going into a car yard with your pushbike and being surprised when nobody can service it for you.
You can also use this research to your advantage by dropping in details specific to the person you’re emailing. This helps you show that you’ve done your homework, and helps set your email apart from anyone sending a more generic email without personal details.
These “little” things matter. Proofing errors make you look unprofessional. And if there are submission guidelines relevant to your project, follow them! These things show that you’re taking the process seriously. Remember, if you don’t, someone else will - and that someone else will probably get a call back.
This is an easy one to forget, but there’s always the chance that the person says yes, and wants to see your project straight away. If this is the case, you’re going to have to deliver whatever it is that you pitched to them. Kathryn said she learned this the hard way early in her career, when she pitched an idea, got lots of interest, but quickly realised that she wasn’t ready to send her script.
“It doesn’t have to be 100% finished,” Kathryn said, “but it needs to be something you’re happy to send people.”
So, if you only have the beginnings of an idea, take some time to flesh it out before you start pitching. That way, you won’t be caught on the hop if they say yes.
Your approach email is just the beginning of your relationship with this person. Even if they say no, you’ve still made a connection and they may well be interested in working with you in the future.
"Your approach email is just the beginning of your relationship with this person. Even if they say no, you’ve still made a connection and they may well be interested in working with you in the future."
This means two things. The first is that you should make sure you don’t burn bridges. If someone says no to your project, don’t respond snarkily. You’re selling yourself as a good person to work with just as much as you’re selling the project, and a negative response is not going to do you any favours.
The second involves a bit of admin, but it‘s important: keep a log of everyone you approach. This can be a straightforward spreadsheet or table. By doing this, you can see who you’ve approached in the past and what the outcome was. This helps you avoid embarrassing repeats!
Now you know how to write an approach email, the best thing to do now is to try it out! It might be intimidating at first, but trust me, it gets easier with time.
Kathryn runs The Writing Room, which is an Auckland space for writers to work, hang out and connect with other writers. Take a look at her website to find out more.