So the reason I started a ~personal blog~ in the first place was so that I would have writing on the internet to show to editors whom I wanted to let me write on their part of the internet. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to neglect the blog because the dream of writing for a living became a reality so I’ve prioritized professional writing over imparting my own profound WISDOM and building my BRAND unedited here. Until now, friends. Until now.
I sold a book on proposal two weeks ago and have been told by a lot of smart people that maintaining a blog during the writing process is a good idea so I’m going to be more committed to updating here. There isn’t a whole lot to report on just yet but selling the book and overcoming the delusion that I’m still struggling as a writer makes me want to be helpful to people who are starting out and it is easier to write about it here than in endless private conversations with emerging writers.
So I am starting with pitching, the part of writing that so many people really dread but that I’m really fortunate to not mind at all. Instead of explaining my process or whatnot, I am just including pitches that worked to some extent, their context, and how it turned out. They cover story pitches, cover letters, and even a bit of help-seeking fan mail. The truth is, more people are reading emails from strangers than people like to imagine and getting it right is not rocket science as much as it is research, courtesy, and relevance.
So let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start….
Pitch 1: First pitch EVER, March 13, 2013, for a personal essay
Sent To: Assistant Editor at xoJane, a personal acquaintance
Results: Accepted same day, I submitted a day earlier than the deadline and it went up here. I wrote 25 stories for xoJane in just over a year and I still consider it some of my best writing.
Why It Prob Worked: Until I started being invited to write for publications, this was the only pitch I ever sent to an editorial staff member whom I actually knew and I am certain that this helped open the door to writing there. It was also super casual and to the point, much like other writing on xoJane.
Other Things: When I published this, THREE different people told me I was making a huge mistake because it make my Google results embarrassing. Haters: they are going to hate.
Pitch 2: First pitch for a non-personal essay, October 31, 2013, for a religion/politics opinion piece
Sent To: General submissions email at Religion Dispatches
Results: Accepted that day, pubbed here. After writing a second piece for RD, I was invited to blog 2-3 times per week for Religion Dispatches, which I did.
Why It Prob Worked: There was a hook to a bigger media article, it was concise, I included a bit about my background in religion because I didn’t yet have writing in the same area, and I actually delivered it the next day as promised.
Other Things: The reason I was invited to write for them was not my religion writing, but my personal writing. My editor Evan happened upon an xoJane story of mine and wrote, “I happened to follow a tweet to your XO Jane post on non-compliments… which was GREAT. …So it got me thinking. You have this great voice that you temper in some of your other writing, which of course makes sense, but we’d be interested in having you blog for RD in whatever way suits you best. In other words, Lisa and I both loved your post and don’t see any reason why a blog on religion has to be more sober or pertinent than a blog on any other topic.”
The point of including this is not to BRAG about how I’m super funny but to show that you are not nearly as stuck in your niche as you think you are. Branch out like as far as you feel capable!
Pitch 3: Cover letter applying to be web editor for the soon-to-be-launched redesign of The Baffler, February 10, 2014
Sent to: Noah McCormack at The Baffler, after a friend of a friend passed me a job listing, no previous interaction
Results: I am still dying of embarrassment at how cheesy this cover letter is and I didn’t get the job because I frankly wasn’t qualified for it. BUT, Noah really liked the cover letter and invited me to pitch them, which I did and resulted in my publishing a lot of my most fun criticism there and opening new editorial doors.
Why It (Kinda) Prob Worked: Because I made it clear that I knew the spirit of the publication and wasn’t scared.
Other Things: Showing that you care is way more important than looking cool.
Pitch 4: Asking pitch advice when I didn’t know where to pitch, April 10, 2014, on a think piece about the sexual economy of thinness
Sent to: Author Roxane Gay, cold email after reading this story that she wrote, no previous interaction
Results: Gay wrote back with comments and suggestions on where the piece might find a home, which ended up being here on The Beheld blog on The New Inquiry. It was my first Twitter “hit” and convinced me of the importance of maintaining a presence there.
Why It Prob Worked: The first reason is that Roxane Gay was an editor at the time and was known to care about the success of new writers, which she still does. I was complimentary but not over-the-top and I also made sure that I sent this particular story to someone with a very related and relevant piece. I gave plenty of outs if she didn’t want to write back so it didn’t seem super-entitled either.
Other Things: I sent this email two weeks before An Untamed State came out and five months before Bad Feminist did so Gay was well-known in literary circles but not yet the mega-star author she soon became so I was fortunate to get her feedback. I mention this because it means she was probably more able to spend time responding to a cold email than she is now but more than that, I think it is important to admire and engage writers who are not famous because (SURPRISE!), most talented writers don’t ever become famous and the ones who do often struggle as writers for a long-ass time before they blow up, as was the case for Gay. Intentionally trying to hitch your wagon to The Next Big Thing is tacky and most people are shit at predicting who TNBT is anyway so don’t seek advice based on someone’s Twitter stats, seek advice from people whose work you genuinely admire.
Pitch 5: First reported story, June 26, 2014, on the harms of criminalization of sex workers
Sent to: Editor at Truth Out, I had previously cold emailed her a completed op-ed that was time-sensitive and ended up running it on the blog for SWOP-NYC before she had time to respond but she invited future pitches.
Results: It was accepted the same day and I did the reporting super fast so that I could turn it in the next day. It ran here.
Why It Prob Worked: I established a unique angle, I already had sources lined up, and it was an area they had seen me write opinion pieces on already so they were willing to take a chance on me doing some reporting.
Other Things: My first pitch to Truth Out was a completed op-ed about a Nick Kristof piece to the general submissions email and I withdrew it and posted it on the SWOP-NYC blog before they had a chance to even see the pitch. I was polite and explained myself and the time sensitivity of it so they didn’t “blacklist” me as so many writers fear happens if they even mildly annoy an editor. The truth is, most editors are far too busy editing to have a blacklist. Be kind, offer value, and apologize instead of disappearing if you do something wrong.
Pitch 6: First pitch to a magazine, Pacific Standard, November 3, 2014, cold email after the editor posted his email on Twitter, had previously interviewed there for web editor job with a director Results: So there were three pitches in this email and he fortunately ended up taking the one that I was able to get in the screen grab here and it became the essay/critique of freelance writer abuse here. The story resonated with a lot of other writers and resulted in them asking for work which eventually resulted in me being a weekly columnist there.
Why It Prob Worked: Ryan posted his email address on Twitter when he was actively looking for pitches, which more editors are looking for than you might think. I also had a creative framing for an issue that was already being discussed a lot which made it work. Pacific Standard is also a magazine that I knew to accept newer writers more often than other mags and the fact that they had even considered my job application when they had candidates with a lot fancier credentials than me showed that they were paying attention to people who weren’t always getting it.
Other Things: Part of me is posting this last so that emerging freelance writers will read the actual story and realize that this line of work is a TON OF WORK and that these emails are just a handful of the uncountable emails I’ve sent trying to get work. The other reason I’m posting it is because my next story with them was this one which was the story that made my literary agent contact me which resulted in me selling my first book and being in a position to give advice about writing and actually having some qualifications for doing so.
There is a pernicious myth that the only way to get published is to have a ton of connections. But the way you can make a ton of connections is by introducing yourself to the right people in a way that shows you’re smart and kind and capable of delivering something worthwhile. So go back to Twitter where you likely found this link anyway, start looking for writers editors there who post their email addresses publicly, find out what they want delivered, and tell them how you’re the one to do it.
This is great! Thank you for posting. I’m more interested (personally) in how you got the book deal, as I’m trying to go that route now after deciding freelancing wasn’t for me. I think for now I’m happy with non-writing day job that pays bills and writing books on my own time until they eventually make money to buy me food (which might never happen but hey everyone has dreams.) Did you get an agent first? Was it a cold query with a publisher, or did you have a connection?
Also, I love that one of the pieces I’m most proud of having written only exists because I saw your essay on The New Inquiry and sent a funny tweet about it, and was invited to write a response. Twitter is absolutely invaluable to writers.
It’s in the second to last paragraph that my agent found me by reading an essay of mine that happened by way of cold pitching Pacific Standard. Most of the people I know who have agents and big deals had their agents seek them out in much the same way.
Ah my bad, reading comprehension fail. Yeah, I know a few authors who that has happened to as well. I thought that after 4+ years of online essay writing it might happen for me, but alas, not yet. Everyone’s story is different though. Congrats on the book, I’m excited to read it!