Pitching from the Outside In

Back in December, a discussion on Twitter with Daniel J. Older made me start to think about the difficulties inherent in approaching mainstream publications from outside the typical, privileged journalistic career arc of elite college > unpaid internship > paid staff job > freelance (the arc my own career broadly followed). Pitching a story is tricky enough if you’re already in the game, and much, much harder if you’re doing it for the first time; harder still when there are divides of ethnicity, class, culture, history, and social experience between you and the editors you may be pitching to.

As an editor, I’m constantly frustrated by these divides and the ways in which our current system perpetuates them.* David Dennis, writing in the Guardian, sums the problem up succinctly:

Many … voices have been muted just because they simply can’t navigate the landscape of privilege that most modern journalism encourages.

The journalists who can tell my story – the story of urban or inner-city America – have taken a job in marketing while disseminating their opinions on blogs, which only small portion of the general public ever see. This is a loss to the art of journalism and its ability to tell the whole American story.

On Twitter, I proposed writing a guide to pitching from “the outside.” This is my attempt at that guide. Here, I’m going to try to lay out the basics of pitching, while also trying to address some of the particular hurdles facing writers of color, or writers from any community that historically hasn’t had access to a major-media voice. I’m not aware of all the hurdles that exist, of course, but my hope is that this post will continue as a dialogue in comments and elsewhere, on the web and off it.

How to Pitch

First of all, be fearless. I’d even say, “be entitled.” That is part of the hustle. Having a voice in the media is your birthright – proceed from that assumption. Twitter and blogging are great platforms, but you should also get in the habit of asking yourself whether what you’re writing on Twitter or your blog belongs on Slate or Gawker or the Atlantic.

If you don’t see stories about your community in a mainstream publication, pitch some. If you disagree with a point-of-view piece in a mainstream publication, or if a writer has only addressed part of a story, pitch a rebuttal or counterpoint. If a journalist has quoted from your Twitter without contacting you, get in touch with her editor and pitch your own piece expanding on the material that was quoted.**

Ironically, when major outlets publish pieces that co-opt, erase, or ignore your experience, it creates an opportunity for you to sell your own piece.

And of course: if what you want to write has nothing to do with any of this, go ahead. Pitch your passion. Pitch a story you are burning to write. If you are fascinated by something, whether it’s a reported story, an opinion piece, or memoir, chances are greater that editors and readers will be, too.

How do you get in touch with an editor? Simple. Most publications have an “about” page and if you click around you’ll usually get to a masthead listing all the editors with email addresses. If you’re not sure who to pitch to, call them up and ask (there is usually a phone number somewhere around the site, even if it’s just the subscription hotline – ask for the newsroom or and they will patch you through). There is also nothing wrong with physically walking into an publication’s office and asking to talk to an editor. I sold my first story that way and I’m currently editing someone who walked in at our magazine with a story.

If you’re pitching by email, you don’t have to be either formal or cute. Just go for it. Something like this:

Dear [editor’s name],
Last year, [so-and-so did this amazing thing] that [was either so amazing I don’ t have to tell you why it’s interesting, or was slightly less obviously amazing but nonetheless infuriated/captured the hearts of/caused widespread pandemonium among a segment of the populace]. Now, [there’s this new development that is even more amazing/is about to be more amazing], but [no one has written about it yet/no one has written about it yet the right way].  I’m in touch with [this principle player in the story]. Are you interested in having me write this for you? Here’s a link to some of my writing. (NOTE: do not use the words “my blog” here, even if it’s just a link to your blog).
Sincerely,
[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]

or

Dear [editor’s name],
Currently, [there is a thing happening that is extremely interesting to anyone with a pulse,] but [no one has written about it yet/connected it with this other surprising thing]. I have already talked to [these five people] who are directly involved and I want to write about it. Are you interested?
best,
[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]

or this one:

Dear [editor’s name],

Your publication ran a piece this week by [so-and-so] about [this phenomenon or event]. While well-written, the piece seemed unaware of [this illuminating historical/cultural  context I’m aware of]. I’d like to write the other half of this story for you. Interested? Here are my clips: [website where you have some writing up]

Looking forward to hearing from you,
[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]

or

 Dear [editor’s name],

Your piece about [that one thing] which ran yesterday quoted liberally from my [Twitter/Tumblr/blog]. But I have much more to say on the subject. I’d like to write a fuller piece, expanding on the quotes you used, but also addressing [this other timely point], all drawing on my experience from when [this related stuff happened to me]. Does this sound like something that you’d be interested in publishing?

Best,

[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]

 

Like that. If there is any kind of drama, human entrails, or body fluids in your story, make sure you mention it right quick.

This is where I am supposed to say that you should be familiar with the publication and know that this is the type of thing they cover, right? And to make sure your pitch letter is spellchecked and the name of the editor is spelled correctly, right?  But you knew that, already. So I won’t.

Remember: Journalism is the one profession that (in theory) has no bar against entry. There’s no license to be a journalist, no test you have to pass, no diploma you have to show. It helps to be a good writer, yeah. But really, there are only three things editors want: 1) Have a good idea. 2) Turn the draft in on time. 3) Don’t make shit up. That is it.

A Note on “Voice” and the Editing Process

I’ve been on both sides of the editing process, and it can be very harrowing to be edited, even for seasoned pros. There is a lot of ego involved, yours and theirs. I treat it like a survival situation: I make it a point always to have food on hand during editing sessions so that no one’s blood sugar dips too low. Ideally a good editor will make the story better. But editing is also when some problems can arise.

We talk a lot about “voice” at the magazine, as in: Is this the right “voice” for us? By which we mean, does it have the right combination of style, directness and flair.

Inevitably, this privileges particular dialects, vocabularies, and aesthetics over others.

This is an area where I don’t have a lot of expertise.  It’s true that many of the greatest American writers coopted that privileged “voice” and turned it to their own purposes: Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Junot Diaz, Ta-Nehisi Coates. (In my opinion, Frederick Douglass invented what would become the dominant style of modern American letters: straightforward, streamlined, understated. There is no Ernest Hemingway without Frederick Douglass.***) So it can be done; authentic, powerful stories can be told this way.

That said, editing for style is always a form of voice policing. For example, it is common practice for editors to completely rewrite stories by beginners or interns, to the point where the only thing left of the original is the reporting and the byline. Even if this does not happen, there are insidious ways in which editors can police your voice: “Your tone is too angry.” “No one will understand that term.” Meanwhile you’re in the difficult position of trying to stay true to your experience and protect your story while not pissing the editor off.

My best advice is to try to stay calm, stay strong, and pick your battles: “Ok, we can take out this phrase, even though I like it, but no one in this community would ever use this terminology here. It has to stay.” Ask editors to walk you through their changes.

If you really feel that you’re being bulldozed, you can always take the piece and walk away. More on that below.

Again, this is the area where I have the least expertise, and I would love to hear people’s thoughts and experiences.

Conflict, Control & Rejection

When I asked Daniel Older about what it’s like to pitch as a writer of color, he spoke of “the sense that you’re throwing a thing that matters into the void. A black hole.”

That void is real and all writers know it. But for a writer on the outside, it’s never clear if a rejection was for the usual reasons – the pitch didn’t land, the editor was busy, the stars weren’t in alignment – or if it had to do with your ethnicity or background. You may never know that for sure.

This sucks. All writers have to battle demons, but this particular demon is one that writers of color and writers in other marginalized communities particularly have to contend with. Its twin is the demon that tells you your piece got accepted because of your ethnicity or background. Persecution complex and imposter syndrome – both of them are the attendant demons of writers, and both of them are  poison. You already know this, of course, so you know that if you start thinking that way it will eat you alive.

Here’s the important thing: keep pitching. Like I said, this happens ALL the time. You’re going to have more misses than hits at first. Keep pitching. If an editor gives you feedback, take it in. Keep your eyes out for stories. And pitch again. Rejection is just the universe telling you you exist.

More troublesome is the moment when you realize that your point of view is so different from your editor’s that they just can’t comprehend your pitch. This also happens to everyone to some extent: “Just because he’s been in space,” an editor of mine once said, turning down a profile of an astronaut, “doesn’t make him special.” (THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I never found out what had damaged this woman’s sense of news — or wonder — so badly.) Another white journalist I know had a story about drug addicts spiked by a heartless editor and was so pissed off that he wrote a novel about it.

But it will happen more frequently, and more damagingly, when you’re pitching from the outside, when there are socioeconomic/cultural/experiential gulfs between you and your editor. It sucks when you have a hot potato of a pitch and your editor doesn’t see it, but it’s worse when the rejection of a pitch is also a denial of your experience, knowledge, and worldview. “This isn’t a story our readers will relate to.” Ugh.

I asked Charles Ellison how he deals with this. “There are so many platforms that I just find another one and publish,” he said, recommending http://Medium.com as a fallback outlet. “Can’t get angry or upset about it. Just circumvent it.”

Again, you can always take your writing elsewhere if an editor is not receptive. Remember, too, that in today’s industry editors move from publication to publication relatively quickly. This can be good in that an editor on her way up will take you with her as a freelancer, but it also means that a magazine where you previously had a bad experience might be ready for your pitches again within a year or so, when the players have changed.

Don’t Work For Free

Suey Park recently wrote an essay about being solicited by the Huffington Post to work for them, for free. She told them to go fuck themselves, quite correctly. Of course, HuffPo is notorious for exploiting writers by having them work “for exposure,” but Park’s essay brilliantly dismantles the ways in which HuffPo specifically uses identity politics as a coercive tool to get young writers of color to work for free. This is despicable, frankly.

So let me just say: Writing is a hustle, and writing for free is a scam. When you work for free, you devalue your product and destroy the creative economy of money-for-writing that sustains journalism in general. It may seem like the only choice. It’s not. Hustle til you find someone who will pay you cash for your gifts.

Don’t work for free.

In Conclusion

As Older pointed out to me, it is not the responsibility of writers of color, or writers from any kind of “outside,” to solve the problem of diversity in mainstream media. That responsibility lies with journalism’s largely white gatekeepers. We need to stop seeing lack of diversity in newsrooms as an inconvenience and start seeing it as a crisis, and we need to find ways to build doors into our fortress. This is a lot more difficult than writing a “how to pitch” guide, but I hope to address this in a future post.

In the meantime, I hope I can continue to be a resource and that the discussion will continue. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.

______________

NOTES

*The situation at my own magazine is decribed  here in a piece we published a few years ago by Howard Bryant.

**I’m thinking here specifically of an incident in which the writer MIkki Kendall wrote a series of tweets detailing how R.Kelly preyed upon teenage girls at her high school. ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg then quoted the series of tweets and used them as the meat in her own article. There was a lot of anger that she did not get Kendall’s permission before doing so. While I am currently of the position that public tweets are public and should not need permission to be quoted, I AM baffled and pissed that as far as I know no one — not ThinkProgress, not the Guardian, not the Chicago Tribune — immediately offered Kendall a contract to write a piece of her own about her experiences. To paraphrase a feminist thinker of our times, if they liked it then they should have put a byline on it.

***To see what I mean, just take a sec and compare the sentences of Frederick Douglass in 1845 and Thoreau in 1854. These texts  are both memoir, but one of these guys is writing in the voice of the 19th Century, and one is writing in the voice of the 20th.

3 thoughts on “Pitching from the Outside In

  1. Pingback: 7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Writing Career | The Freelance Strategist

  2. Pingback: » 7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Writing Career Grace Bello

  3. this was phenomenal. i have so much anxiety around pitching because i was never really taught how to do it. i have a writer’s mind without training into journalism’s culture. i’m learning as much as i can on the fly and it’s been difficult. but i’m getting there! so thank you for these tips, because every little bit helps.

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