:: There are, indeed, expected ways of communicating with editors of public venues that you can’t possibly know unless someone tells you—or you learn the hard way by making mistakes. You would probably prefer to avoid making those mistakes.
On August 25, 2021, Evette Dionne announced that she’s stepping down as Editor in Chief of Bitch Media. Over a year ago, I interviewed her for the piece that follows on how to work with well with editors if you want to write for the public. However, the piece was never published by the magazine I was writing for. I filed it about a week before Covid-19 shut down the world.
This prefacing anecdote can help us learn something about public writing: Sometimes you write something, and it’s great, and you turn it in, and then it languishes in editorial—not because your editor isn’t doing a good job (mine was) but because other things happen (in this case, Covid-19). My editor tried hard to find a place for this piece, but eventually, after a year, I chose to pull it. I do so respectfully. Graciously. Because I like this editor, and I hope to write for her again someday.
I’m publishing the piece now, here, to share Evette Dionne’s wisdom with you, and to honor the hard work she’s done with Bitch Magazine during the four years she worked there.
(Be sure to check out Rosa Cartagena (@_RosaCartagena) who will be blazing her own path as Bitch’s next editor.)
This essay is part of a series, The Public Writing Life, which provides advice for how to write for public venues. It started as a series of columns in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and now it’s gone rogue.
In the last entry of The Public Writing Life, “Public Writing in Uncertain Times,” I talked about how to write for the public in times like right now—facing a global pandemic, a civil rights movement confronting a hostile and sometimes violent opposition, and, if you’re a higher ed worker, returning to a workplace under unsettled and perhaps frightening conditions.
Writing for the public might seem trivial, but right now, it is more important than ever to have our voices heard.
I drafted this column before the pandemic hit, and I wrote it as a humorous listicle. I’m presenting it to you now in that same format because levity, these days, is something we need more of.
How do you lose an editor in five days?
The Secret Handshake
If you’re very new to writing for the public, you can feel like you’re entering a world where everyone knows a secret handshake but you.
You are correct (if not literally).
There are, indeed, expected ways of communicating with editors of public venues that you can’t possibly know unless someone tells you—or you learn the hard way by making mistakes. You would probably prefer to avoid making those mistakes.
Ideally, this column would help you avoid as many mistakes as you can when you first start interacting with editors. Most importantly, it would help you learn how to build relationships with editors because relationships make writing for the public so much easier. If you build relationships with editors, when you have new stories to pitch, your pitches are more likely to be accepted. Editors enjoy working with writers with whom they are familiar. If they know your writing style, your work ethic, and how easy you are to work with, they’re more likely to accept your pitch. If they know you turn in clean copy, and take criticism well, and file on time, then your pitch will get closer consideration.
And if you nurture those relationships well, one day the magic moment will come when an editor will pitch a story to you. (That’s how you really know you’ve made it.)
But this column isn’t going to teach you any of these things. This column is going to teach you how to burn relationships with editors from the get-go. I’ve spoken with two excellent editors and drawn from my own experience as the editor of a magazine to give you the worst advice possible.
So, look no further, dear reader. Here is all you need to know about how to lose an editor in five days.
Day 1. Don’t Research the Editor or the Venue
Editors strongly prefer it when you pitch a story that is a good fit for their magazine. Therefore, if you want to lose your editor, don’t research the venue, and for good measure, don’t research the editor, either.
I asked Evette Dionne, the (now-former) Editor-in-Chief of Bitch Media, about her favorite things writers do. She told me, “I can always tell when a writer has actually read our publication, knows our tone, and knows the kind of content we publish.” As Dionne explains, the best pitches really fit a publication.
If you want to lose an editor, make sure your topic, or tone, or length, or genre don’t fit the venue you are pitching.
Editors also dislike being called “editor” when their names are right there on the masthead. It’s not the worst thing in the world you can do, but failing to use the editor’s name shows that you haven’t done strong research about the venue. I edit a magazine on disability culture called Disability Acts, and when I receive pitches with the salutation “Dear Editor,” I’m fairly certain that the writer knows nothing about our little magazine.
Another reason to research the editors is to figure out which editor handles the pitches of the type you are submitting. Larger publications have editors for different topics or types of pieces. To be successful, you need to be sure you are sending your pitch to the right person.
In short: The best writers do their research about a venue and its editors before they ever sit down to pitch.
So, if you want to lose your editor, don’t do those things—ignore the publication completely—don’t even read it. And definitely don’t find out who the editors are. You’ll lose your editor on day 1. Excellent work!
Day 2. Don’t Read the Submission Guidelines
Oh no! It’s day two, and you haven’t lost your editor yet. Don’t worry, there’s still time. All you have to do is avoid reading the submission guidelines.
Submission guidelines are the instructions that editors carefully put together to instruct prospective authors about how to pitch to and write for their magazines. Guidelines are crucial to the operation of a magazine. When wading through a vast amount of submissions, the guidelines help editors figure out, quickly, what kind of piece is being pitched, and whether it is timely (that means “urgent”), which editor to pass it on to, and more.
Editors put a lot of thought into their submission guidelines. Kelly J. Baker, editor of Women in Higher Education (among other magazines), described to me the effort she spent writing her guidelines: “As editor, I took the time to describe the audience of my publication, the style and voice, the word count…and the types of articles that I actually publish. I even have a guideline on how to write a proper pitch.” After all of that effort, when a writer ignores an editor’s guidelines, an editor can tell that a writer is unprofessional. In fact, many editors (including me) won’t even read a pitch if it strays too far from the submission guidelines. Editors can tell the difference between a writer who made an honest mistake and one who just didn’t bother to look.
On the other hand, someone who takes the time to study and follow the guidelines can win an editor’s respect. In fact, Baker told me that carefully reading her guidelines is one way to win her editorial heart: “When a writer, freelance or academic, emails me a pitch for an article, and I can tell they not only looked at the submission guidelines but read some articles, I sort of swoon. It’s a beautiful thing.”
If you want to lose your editor, dear reader, don’t make them swoon. Avoid submission guidelines, and you will lose your editor by day 2, guaranteed.
Day 3. Don’t Write a Good Pitch
Yikes! It’s day 3, and you still haven’t lost your editor. What do you do now? Don’t worry, you still have to write your pitch, and you can write a really bad one.
Dionne told me that she “really appreciate[s] writers who send over fleshed-out pitches that explain what their idea is, why it’s the best fit for Bitch, and why they are the best person to write it.” So, if you’re going to write a good pitch, you have three things you need to cover: (1) your piece’s idea, (2) your piece’s “fit,” and (3) your piece’s writer (you!). That’s not so hard, if you think about it.
Sometimes Dionne receives a good idea lodged in a bad pitch—and she has to turn the pitch down: “It is not ideal to receive the germ of an idea of a writer because I don’t always have time to help writers flesh out their thoughts. I feel bad declining pitches that are simply not as thorough as they could or should be, but that’s the reality.” Thus, when describing your idea in your pitch, make sure you go into enough detail to explain what you’re going to write about.
The advice I give to writers is to start with three main points about your topic: your argument, your angle, and your assessment of the current conversation on your topic. If you touch on those three things, you’ll have some substance to your pitch.
Also, editors prefer it when writers are polite in their emails. Baker told me, “Being kind and courteous in a first email is a must. Show your enthusiasm and that you can be a team player.” So in addition to the three things you need to cover in a pitch, you need to be respectful, kind, and polite.
As an editor and a freelance writer, I can tell you that addressing a magazine editor by their first name is just fine, but you should still use a formal salutation such as “Dear.” If you were pitching to me, then, “Dear Katie,” would be a fine way to address me in an email. However, I don’t enjoy receiving pitches addressed in this way: “Dear Mark.” My name is not Mark. (Yes, this happens.)
When I receive pitches addressed to Mark, or Mary, or Marvin, I know that I’ve received a cut-and-paste pitch. And that means that the writer has likely not done the research to show how their piece will fit well with my publication, or to figure out who I am as an editor. And clearly, the writer has shown me they don’t pay attention to detail, which is never a good thing.
A cut-and-paste pitch might raise my ire, but things can get worse, as Baker explains: “I receive emails from folks who have a good idea for an article but are complete jerks to me. They’re arrogant, condescending or mean.” What a relief! If you accidentally send a great pitch, you can still lose your editor by being rude.
So, dear reader, how do you lose an editor when you’re pitching? Simple! (1) Make sure your piece’s main idea is incomprehensible or vague. (2) Fail to explain why the piece fits the venue. (3) Don’t explain why you are a good person to write it. (4) And finally, be impolite.
Just follow these instructions, and you will be sure to lose your editor on day 3.
Day 4. Don’t Accept Revisions
I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s day four, and you still haven’t lost your editor. That means you have researched your venue and editor, you’ve carefully read and followed the submission guidelines, and you’ve written a strong pitch that is not only polite but also strongly outlines your piece’s idea, your piece’s fit, and why you’re the best writer for your piece.
Well: you can still lose your editor, but you have your work cut out for you.
Dionne shared that she “enjoy[s] writers who turn in clean copy on time.” As a new public writer, especially one transitioning from higher ed or another highly specific audience, what you should take from these words is that public venues are operating under deadlines far tighter than the ones that you have been accustomed to in the past. Instead of months’-long turnaround times, online venues can have turnaround times measured in hours.
Thus, new public writers should take both parts of Dionne’s advice seriously if they want to be successful: (1) When you turn in your writing, it needs to be not only free of errors, but as print-ready as you can possibly make it. Your editor needs to focus on content, not grammar or style. (2) You need to meet your deadlines, and even beat them if you can. No editor ever complained about a piece being filed early. They might not be able to edit it early, but as an editor I can tell you that it’s a relief to know that a piece is already in my inbox, and that I don’t have to run it down.
Once you’ve filed your piece, you will most likely receive edits. If you’re new to public writing, you will most definitely receive edits. As Dionne says, “Collaboration is crucial to producing a thorough piece, so writers have to be open to that.” Dionne points out that it is difficult to work with a writer who doesn’t understand the editorial process: “Edits are not suggestions, but they can be tweaked based on the writer’s preferences. Rejecting every single edit is just not ideal, especially when working with an editor for the first time.”
Baker shares similar opinions: “A writer doesn’t have to accept all edits on an article, and I’m open to talking about things that writers want to keep. I’m not open to writers who want to fight about every single edit and assume that they know more about my job than I do.”
(Readers: You do not know more about an editor’s job than they do.)
So what do you need to do to lose your editor? This should be a no-brainer, right? File your piece late, full of errors, and then reject or fight about every editorial suggestion your editor makes.
Follow my advice, and you will lose your editor faster than the Road Runner loses Wile E. Coyote.
Day 5. Don’t Be Polite When Your Pitch Is Rejected
If you’ve made it all the way to day five and you haven’t lost your editor, don’t lose hope. This is your Hail-Mary opportunity to alienate an editor forever.
Suppose your pitch is rejected. What should you do? Should you reply politely, thanking the editor for their time and use the opportunity to build a strong relationship? Or should you dash off and angry email and burn that relationship forever so that you can never pitch that venue or editor again?
Baker has dealt with many responses to rejection. She tells me, “Writers respond to rejection in a lot of different ways. [As a writer,] I hate having an article rejected because it feels personal to me. It’s not personal though, so don’t act like it is.” Baker’s right: It can be really hard to separate our personal selves from our writing, but if we are going to be professional writers, then we have to do so. If your pitch or story is rejected, the rejection is not a reflection on you as a person. Most often, it has nothing to do with you at all. (Unless, of course, you were awful to the editor in your pitch. See Day 3, above.)
Baker has good advice for how to respond to rejection: “The most effective way to respond is a quick ‘Thank you for considering this article’ email, even when you don’t want to send it.” It can be hard to send that gracious email when you’re stinging with rejection, but do it anyway, because your graciousness can pay off. Baker explains: “Remember what a writer is trying to do is build a relationship with an editor.” So the best writers suck it up and send that thank you email.
The ones who don’t? Baker has plenty of experience in that department: “Sending me an email telling me that I’m stupid for rejecting your article isn’t the way to go. … Asking me to explain my decision is also not the best approach. I don’t have to accept the pitch you send me, and I don’t have to explain why I decided to pass on it. Sending me an ALL CAPS email to contest my rejection is the fastest way to guarantee that I won’t work with you now or in the future.”
There you have it, readers! The best advice, straight from the editor’s mouth. Hit that caps-lock key and express your anger at being rejected, and you’ll lose your editor forever.
Alternatively, you can take the advice Dionne and Baker have given you and me during this difficult time and use it to share your writing via public venues: by forming excellent relationships with editors and writing like seasoned professionals.
🌟 🌟 🌟
If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy reading more of my work on writing for the public, here: