5 Ways to Get Work When an Editor Posts a Call for Pitches

This time last week, I was fording my inbox, which was awash with messages from more than 200 writers who were responding to a call for pitches I had posted in two Facebook groups and on my own wall. A couple dozen more messages waited in Facebook Messenger.

Truth be told, I’m still wading through them, since I pledged to respond to everyone who expressed interest in the gig because I consider doing so a professional courtesy.

It had been quite some time since I’d posted a public call for pitches, enough time to have really forgotten how very many off-the-mark pitches an editor receives when they post a call.

Is your pitch on the mark?
Is your pitch on the mark? (Photo by Hey Paul Studios, Flickr Creative Commons)

Having been reminded, I thought I’d offer five suggestions for standing out in the crowd and improving your chance of getting the gig when an editor puts out a call.

1. Make your response relevant.
When an editor issues a call for pitches, they’re generally fairly specific about what they want to see. Some are extremely detailed; others are a bit more open-ended, like those posted by Pacific Standard’s Ted Scheinman on twitter. But the bottom line is this: If the editor is requesting pitches about penguins in Patagonia, don’t email them to say, “Well, you know, I can’t write about penguins in Patagonia, but I have this GREAT story about flamingos in Florida!” — at least not yet. (More about that in #5, below.)

And if I say I’m looking for a writer in Asheville, please don’t message me to say “Well, I’m in Austin!”. And definitely don’t bait me in an online setting with a phrase like, “Where’s Anaheim?!” If I have work for Austinites or Anaheimians, I will let you know.

2. Give what the editor asks for.
If I say I need clips, I need clips.

I work with, mentor, and hire many new writers, but there are certain assignments for which I must have clips, and if I say that, then I mean it, especially if I don’t know you or your work. Avoid using a call for pitches to try to convince me that I don’t need what I’ve asked for.

3. Keep it short…
I can usually tell from the first sentence whether someone is going to be a good fit for a project, and so can most editors. Don’t send your life story or all your bona fides; if we need more, we’ll ask for it. Until then, see #2 again.

4. … but also: Give me something to work with.
If I’ve indicated I want to hear from a writer who can cover Minneapolis, I don’t just want to hear that you live in Minneapolis or that you traveled there five years ago. Tell me how you know it and what you love about it.

5. If you’re just dying to pitch something the editor isn’t asking for, save it for later.
You do NOT want to be that person in the editor’s inbox who is totally off the mark and slowing things down — not at the moment that a call for specific pitches has been issued. Save our names and emails and pitch us later — a week or two afterward is good. We’ll be recovered from the inbox onslaught and will probably be happy to hear from you then… even about those flamingos in Florida.

Have more questions about pitching? Sign up for my six-week class on the subject at Writers.com. The next course starts July 6.

From “Good” to “Great”: Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

As a writer, editor, and translator, I spend my days (and nights) surrounded by words.

I’m lucky: I love what I do and I’m regularly reminded why I love writing and why I think it’s important. Just today, for instance, I received a submission for Matador Travel from a writer whose opening lines read: “As the rooster announces the arrival of morning, Grandmaster Dai Kang’s slippers hit the concrete. It is 4am.”

It’s a perfect opening: the details are plentiful, yet the phrasing is tight. There’s an economy of language that confirms the writer’s skillfulness while successfully putting the reader in a specific place and time. The writer also introduces a character and provides just enough intrigue to engage the reader.

I knew the piece “worked”, but I sent it to a couple of other editors for their input. “Amazing,” one e-mailed. “I actually read it twice.” Another editor responded, “Fantastic.” Everything about the piece was well-crafted, and we look forward to publishing the piece so that other readers can enjoy it as much as we did.

For every moving, entertaining, or informative piece I read, though, there are many that fail to impress, that fall flat and leave me wondering what can be salvaged and reworked. As an editor, I view my job as including the tasks of determining whether the piece is thematically and stylistically consistent with the format, vision, and interests of the publication for which it has been submitted; asking the question: Will this be meaningful to a large readership?; and nurturing the writer’s own voice and style while making sure the piece meets the preceding two criteria.

It’s not always an easy task, or a fun one–many writers are notoriously sensitive to criticism and rejection. But it’s through my own experiences as a writer that I’ve come to understand my work as an editor. It’s in that spirit, then, that I offer the following observations and tips for writers who are hoping to be published:

1. Trim the fat. I once heard a writer refer to revising and editing as “killing my babies.” As someone who writes long, Saramago-esque sentences myself, the metaphor resonated with me… it can be painful to cut the words we’ve worked so hard to birth onto the page. It’s true that some stories and subjects warrant 3,000 words. Many, however, do not. And in either case, even the most devoted, enthusiastic reader has a limited attention span.

When I say “trim the fat,” I don’t mean that you should force your piece into a word count (unless the publication requires that). Don’t kill rich details. Don’t omit a crucial character. But read through your piece before submitting it and ask yourself: Is every word absolutely necessary? Does every word advance the narrative? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, start trimming.

2. Read with a critical eye. So how do you separate the lean from the fat? Simple. Get rid of filler words. So many words we use in everyday speech are unnecessarily imported into our writing: this, that, these, those, them, there are, there is, it, and etc. are just a few examples. Take a sentence with filler words and look at it critically: what can be eliminated without sacrificing detail? Try this tip consistently. I promise you’ll be surprised by how many words are simply unnecessary.

3. Write with precision…and passion. I recently landed a contract to write a guide to Mexico City for an online travel planning company. I was given a style guide to follow; though it was strict, it was not constraining. I was confident about my subject–I know my second home well–and I completed the guide with passion. I was satisfied with what I’d written and sent it off to the editor, sure it would be accepted immediately with praise and no requests for revisions.

I was wrong. “I just have a few revision requests,” the editor wrote. When I opened the document, I could see red marks all over my draft, the editor’s frustrated notes electronically penned into the margins. “WHY IS THIS PLACE GREAT?!!” she wrote with evident exasperation. “WHY IS THIS RESTAURANT ‘CELEBRATED’?!” I could almost see her, sighing and rolling her eyes, and I felt chastised by her feedback.

As I sat with the draft and reviewed it with fresh eyes and an open mind, I realized she was absolutely right. Words like “good,” “great,” “must-see,” and “celebrated” have no meaning for a reader who has never been to Mexico City. I knew the places I’d included in the guide were good, great, celebrated must-sees, but I hadn’t taken the reader there. I had to be more precise. The second draft–and the final product–were better because the editor pushed me to get rid of vague adjectives, forcing me to be precise.

So here’s the tip: Avoid “good,” “great,” and all other vague adjectives that mean nothing. Remember the 5 “Ws” of writing: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. WHY is the place great? Pushing yourself to be precise won’t just benefit the reader; you’ll become a better writer and you’ll fall in love with your subject all over again as you struggle (and succeed!) to articulate precisely why it’s so important to you.

If you find precision challenging, ask a trusted friend to read your draft. Can he or she understand the place or experience you want to convey? If not, what would the reader like to know that’s currently missing?

4. Be yourself. Recently, I had the painful experience of working with a writer who was simply trying too hard to channel her voice to fit the vibe of our publication. I could sense the talent underneath her words, but so much of her writing felt stilted. Something simply didn’t ring true, though it was difficult to express this to her.

Writers are constantly trying to fit their resumes and themselves into the varied visions and expectations of editors and the publications they represent. Don’t. Be yourself and always channel your authentic voice. When you force your writing to be something it’s not, the reader can sense the inauthenticity. And besides, you’ll be left with the yucky feeling of defeat and compromise. If the piece doesn’t fit, don’t force it. You’ll find your place. In the meantime, keep writing.

What tips do YOU have about improving as a writer? Please share your comments and experiences below!

Photo: thorinside (Flickr creative commons)

What was that you said about lemons and lemonade?

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Over the course of our lives, we hear hundreds of kernels of advice packaged up into pithy, well-worn adages like these.

You can probably reel off 10 of them without thinking.

Like stereotypes, these sayings endure for a reason.

But also like stereotypes, there comes a time when we have to just cut loose and live according to our own instincts and insights rather than the well-meaning advice that others offer.

Just this week, I had an encounter with an editor that left me thinking. I’d pitched him an article idea a couple months ago and initially received a cool reception. My first impression of the editor was negative–not because he wasn’t interested, but because of his lack of professionalism and his confident assertion that every story about my subject had already been told. I set aside my gut response, though, wanting to be convinced by a friend who knew him that “that’s just his style.”

With the friend’s advice, I recrafted the pitch and the editor rubber-stamped the idea. I wrote a draft, sent it in, and waited for a couple weeks–during which he was “really busy”–for some feedback. After reading the draft, he made suggestions that would have changed the piece completely. If I agreed to the changes, it would be his piece, idea, content, and style. If I stuck to my guns, it would be my piece. But, he hinted, if it was my piece, he wouldn’t publish it.

I sat with his recommendations for a month, mulling over whether giving in was worth it. A couple of friends urged me to revise– My piece would appear in a heavy-hitter publication!; The editor is an important person to know!; If I screwed this up I may never have a chance to pitch the publication again! What if I burned this bridge?

What IF I burned this bridge?

Life would go on.

When I quit my full-time 9-5 job four years ago, I realized that there are really only a couple of criteria I need to apply when making any decision: (1) Will my decision kill me? and (2) Will it hurt the people I love most? If the answers to these two questions are “No,” I’m fairly confident life will go on, burned bridge or no.

I sent the editor a message saying I’d chosen not to revise the piece and would understand if he, in turn, chose not to publish it. True to the character he’d shown so far, he sent a snippy, unprofessional reply, saying that indeed he wouldn’t publish it. He added he expected that if I continued to be resistant to changes, I’d have a short, unproductive career as a writer.

Oooh…. I was so worried I opened a new bottle of wine and toasted to the only adage that’s ever served me well but which I ignored for years: “To thine own self be true.”

Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo (and no, those aren’t lemons. They’re passionfruit. And I didn’t make lemonade. I made passionfruit cocktails.)