Editors, I Love You, But Nobody is Pitching the Way That You Say They Should
Inside baseball today. Sorry.
I’d like to take a moment and say that maybe the most commonly expressed rule for pitching as a freelance writer, that you always indicate that you are pitching an idea for an essay and not an essay that you’ve already written, is bad and dumb and mostly acts as a form of commonplace professional deception. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been soberly advised to never tell an editor that I’ve already written a piece I’m pitching. Well, usually if I’m pitching, the piece is in my head rather than on paper, and thus I’ve satisfied this sacred compact to never write anything down before pitching. But sometimes the pitch is on paper and sometimes that paper, functionally, is the piece I’m pitching. And the pretense that a piece needs to exist only in the mind for a pitch to be worth accepting is weird and stupid and results in a ton of writers writing something and then pretending they haven’t. Everybody wants to appear to be a Serious Professional so people don’t publicly cop to this, but I know for a fact that quite a few prewrite the piece they’re pitching, at least to a substantial degree, and I suspect far more writers than just the ones I know have done it, too. I can’t for the life of me understand why this dumb pretense persists.
I actually think writers would admit to this reality, but they’re afraid that if they do so they won’t look like a Real Writerer and they’ll lose out on publishing opportunities. Well, I’ve never been respectable, so I’ll be the one to fall on my sword and tell the terrible truth.
It actually goes deeper than people prewriting pieces that they pitch. Some editors want every idea they receive to be original to them, not pitched to anyone else first. But think about this from the perspective of a freelancer. You have an idea. You think it will lead to a good piece. You pitch the idea to an editor. They say no. Should you just let the idea go, like a sad balloon into the sky, certain to eventually end up suffocating an innocent turtle? That attitude seems obviously unworkable, and I doubt many editors would publicly own it; in fact many editors will tell you in their rejection email (should they bother to send one) that they hope you find a good home for your idea. But long experience teaches me that there are in fact a number of editors out there, including powerful ones, who are deeply predisposed against pitches that have been rejected elsewhere. So, you know, don’t volunteer that information. Don’t lie. But no need to lead with prior rejection.
It gets worse, though, when a piece gets killed in progress, which happens more often than you might think. I had a piece for a magazine the Dow Jones Company was starting that was written and edited, with artwork completed, but got killed the day before launch - if I understand correctly, not just my piece, but the whole magazine. Sometimes you have disagreements with editors and it’s clear why a piece isn’t going to go, and sometimes everything is running smoothly and at the last minute somebody higher up says “wait, we’re publishing that guy?!? KILL IT.” So now you’ve got a nearly-complete or complete piece that was someone else’s baby for most of its gestation. It’s not a rare condition. And it’s a situation that really offends the sensibilities of most editors, for some righteous reasons and some stupid ones. But you’ve got work you did in good faith and weren’t compensated for. Again, I would advise you not to volunteer the fact that a pitch is for a piece that was already written for another publication. I again wouldn’t personally lie if directly asked. But would I understand if someone did lie after putting in a ton of work for a piece, seeing it get killed, and had a legitimate interest in getting it published? Yeah. Yeah, I think I would understand.
Those righteous editor reasons I mentioned stem simply from the desire to be able to craft a piece from its inception, to make sure it fits what the publication wants to put out into the world. That’s noble enough. Also, a lot of editors harbor creative impulses that feel unfulfilled and want to put their stamp on the work. This is, in part, a reflection of the odd ways that people advance in media these days, the way that the title “editor” is given out in lieu of the money that people deserve. Wanting to really shepherd an essay into the world is an understandable impulse. It’s also why you should stick a couple of extraneous paragraphs into your draft, which the editor will then remove, and which you will let go without a fight - leaving you with leverage to fight for the stuff you really want to keep. (You’re getting some real pro tips here folks.) The less noble editor motives involve control issues and the dominance of minimalist ideology in American writing, which has convinced generations that writing less is always writing better. It is not.
There’s a real labor issue here. Most editors in media hold progressive political views. (Shocking, I know.) And most of them are advocates for labor rights and fairness generally and in media specifically. I appreciate how many of them have gone to bat for unions in media and who have argued that freelancers should be better paid. But there’s a really glaring issue of basic labor fairness in the demand that any pitch they receive should be an original idea for an unwritten piece, for the reason I’ve laid out - it disadvantages writers who are in the inevitable position of having been previously rejected. People always say that pitching before composing is some sort of labor-saving activity, that it saves freelancers from unpaid work, which is not untrue. But it’s essential to remember that the pitch itself is unpaid labor too. Many pitches require you to do a good deal of research, after all. Doing unpaid work to get published is part of the deal for a freelancer. I think it would be better to extend more freedom to freelancers to develop and pitch ideas the way they want to, especially given that at the end of the day, the editor decides what does and does not get published. You as an editor can tell them to do a top-to-bottom rewrite, if you want to, and they as a freelancer can decide if it’s worth it in order to get your money. You hold the red pen. You have the final call. Let go of the process a little.
Honestly, I’m sure that there will be people who will find this déclassé or whatever simply for speaking frankly about the reality of the business. There’s this weird code of professional omerta that you sometimes find about all of the behind-the-curtain stuff, a symptom of the cult of knowingness and the insiderism that are endemic to professional media culture. Well, I think it’s stupid, and I think the pretense that freelancers aren’t regularly writing or half-writing their pieces before pitching does not reflect reality. And I bet you that the people who never prewrite anything act that way because they’re looking to fit this frivolous definition of appearing professional. Sometimes because of my general reputation people assume that I’m difficult to work with as a freelancer, but I think just about anyone who has worked with me would disagree. (Well, except for that one editor at The Observer. I was kind of a dick there.)
Now because this is a piece about editing, here’s a section any editor would cut as extraneous. My thoughts in list form.
Editors have the right to publish or not publish whatever they’d like. Professional freelancers must develop total emotional indifference to rejection for their good and the good of editors, and if you find you can’t develop that indifference, freelance writing is not for you.
No, editors aren’t rigidly obligated to send back a rejection, but honestly it takes a second to copy and paste a one-sentence rejection email and you’re kind of an asshole if you don’t. Oooooh, I’m such an important muckety-muck here at the Daily Deals page at Refinery29, I can’t spare the time to hit the rejection macro! Fuck you.
Freelancers obviously shouldn’t pitch the same idea multiple places at once, and it would be very bad optics if you garnered a reputation for doing that.
However if you as an editor haven’t responded to a freelancer within three business days of their initial pitch, you have no right to complain if that freelancer takes the idea elsewhere without informing you.
Editors are free to tangibly dictate what they want and don’t at the onset of the process, which includes guiding the piece firmly away from the original idea; freelancers who wrote the piece in advance of pitching are out of luck if the pitch gets rejected or the accepted idea is dramatically different from the written piece. That’s the risk you take.
That said, it’s just genuinely none of your business as an editor if the writer has prewritten the piece they’re pitching. You get to shape the idea, you get to make edits to the piece, you get final say on whether or not it ever appears in print. So who cares about the exact genesis of when the words appeared in a document somewhere? I find it very odd that if I take copious notes towards an pitch, that’s being responsible, but if those notes are in paragraph form, I’m a monster. It makes no sense.
But pragmatically, as a freelancer you should really humor editors, in general and specifically by not volunteering that you’re pitching an idea you already put onto paper. Don’t lie if directly asked. If you've already pitched the idea elsewhere unsuccessfully, I wouldn’t volunteer that information, but again I wouldn’t lie if directly asked, personally. Keep the illusion alive, if you can. Editors need a little sugar sometimes.
Editors, this is all hard enough for freelancers as it stands, so please try not to get invested in these weird constructs. I promise it won’t make you any less of a professional.
Editors are good. Editors are nice, mostly. Editing is good. We need editing. Let’s please be adults and be real with each other about the process.
If you need to check my card before you take me seriously on this issue, in print I’ve been published in places like The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, New York, Harper’s, and others. On the web, I’ve been published in places like The New York Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Politico, n+1, Playboy, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Week, The Daily Beast, The Observer, Jacobin, Current Affairs, Vox, and others. I leave it to you whether that is a sufficiently estimable set of credits.