MAPH might not seem like the ideal time to get your freelance and internet writing career started. But trust me, it is. I thought that, in advance of next week’s GradUCon “Making Writing Work” festivities (and the general ongoing conversation about getting intellectual-ish work), I’d share a few thoughts about pitching successfully–and about writing pieces that you don’t have to feel badly about.
And I hope that some of our alum writers / current students will weigh in (?)
1) First of all: Writers write. Period. (READ ON…)
Anyone with any expectation of getting published in any venue has to start by forcing fingers to move across keys. Don’t be concerned with your talent, your “fitness” to a particular form or genre, or your perceived chances of being recognized by anyone other than your mom. No writer that I know gets anywhere without working regularly (writing every day); or at least on some kind of regular schedule. And this can be really hard to admit to oneself, especially if you’re a smart student working at a top-tier university.
Because, as Deborah Eisenberg once wrote in an email to me:
The more truthful you are with yourself, the more discerning, and the higher your aesthetic and intellectual standards, the more difficult it is. And when you start out, this is likely to be absolutely shocking, especially if you’re accustomed to being able to do things easily, to the satisfaction of other people.
This might sound like sentiment more appropriate for poetry or long-form fiction and journalism, but I promise you that the best stuff on the Internet worth reading–don’t believe the hype, there are some flat out great writers working on the inter-tubes–takes just as much effort and attention to detail.
- On blogging: it’s a platform for you to write regularly. You don’t even have to write for an audience at first. Write for yourself. Write no more than 1,000 words on topics that interest you. The point here is not to generate your own following. Rather, it’s to build up a strong foundation of content and to get used to writing well at high speed. You’ll use your best work as clips.
- On Twitter: Managing editors (the people you want to target when you find places to publish) often don’t have email addresses. But they will have Twitter feeds. You need to follow these people. When the time comes, it’s appropriate to send them links to your work when that work might be legitimately useful to them. Twitter, as a tool for writers, works best when you position yourself as a real-life person with useful writing/analysis that can help other people
- At my page, I have a list of other MAPHers that you can follow.
Blogging and Tweeting aren’t enough. If you want to shout into the void, go for it. But if you’re interested in taking the next step and getting into actual publications, it takes some cartwheels.
3) Identify Publications that You Are a Good FIT for: Don’t email The Atlantic and just assume that, because you’re a great writer, you’re going to get on their site. The gatekeepers at smaller publications are likely lower on the totem pole than you think. BUT, the catch is that you do need to be something other than “a really good writer.”
People can see through you when you don’t read the publication you want to write for. My advice is to spend a few weeks reading a publication before you send a pitch. Identify five publications, and the managing editors at each of them.
- Avoid emailing editors@ or managingeditor@ or whatever
- Find email addresses for real people
- Alternatively, find managing or submissions editors on Twitter and follow them. You can send Direct Messages to them to ask if you can forward a pitch email. They might not respond (I have about a 50% response rate).
4) Pitch. Use Jeff McMahon’s lecture on Problem Construction (or, if you took LRS, LRS stuff) to structure your pitch:
Dear Hilary -
I’m a graduate student and freelance writer based in Chicago. I’m interested in contributing to The Fortnightly Whatever and have a pitch that I thought might be appropriate for your site:
[Pitch paragraph. Structure it like this]:
- One sentence stasis: who “out there” has an opinion that you want to deal with?
- One sentence instability: how will you be destabilizing it?
- One sentence consequences: what will readers get by reading your piece?
- One sentence main claim: What’s your solution to the problem that you’ve identified?
I am a blogger at [I hope they like me]. Clips can be found below. I’m happy to follow up as appropriate.
Thanks for your consideration.
You’ll feel like an idiot when you don’t get a response or when you get a “no.” I sent something like 45 pitches before I got a single yes. Every time you get one no, send three more out. Keep sending pitches until you get a yes.
And when you get a yes, send six more.
4) Hit your deadline with a strong piece, and queue up the next pitch: DON’T phone it in. Write well and clearly. Don’t miss your deadline. This is not grad school. Publishers will forget about you if you miss your deadline. Get your piece in on time and keep writing. When you submit, be sure to say something like “I’m working on [x issue, film, artwork] this week, and will send another pitch when I have a better sense of the argument.”
5) Be professional. Don’t be pushy. But when you get a no from a publication that you really like and think are a good fit for, email again in 8 weeks with a new idea. Once you have more clips under your belt, you will be a better candidate
Go make MAPH and your mom proud.