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’ve been an editor at a few publications and fielded freelance pitches regularly. I simply cannot believe how many editors don’t respond to pitches even with the form rejection you mentioned. Yeah, yeah we’re all busy and overwhelmed and our inboxes are out of control--shut up. That’s the job. Answering emails is literally the job. This is especially irritating when editors call for pitches on Twitter and then surely get 250+ pitches but never respond ... either say in the tweet “I will only respond if it’s a yes,” or commit to answering the very people you asked to contact you. The way the freelancing business works now is so vexing and ridiculous that it’s a big reason I started publishing on my own.
I work as a lawyer, not a freelancer, but I'd be a little concerned about pitching and idea without having at least writing out a draft. I find that you don't really know if an idea works if it is just in your head. I hate when clients want me to just discuss my evaluation with them, rather than right it out, because it is never going to be full baked.
“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.”
Right on. This goes for all job applications too. If I’ve taken the time to interview at your organization it’s unethical to not tell me the results of that interview, one way or another. Likewise, I’ll always tell employers if I decide to not accept their offer.
I haven't had nonfiction published many places where I wasn't a columnist and so had a lot of editorial control (also, these magazines were small so no one really paid attention to what I was doing), but fiction editors also have some dumb requirements.
Perhaps most closely related to this is refusing simultaneous submissions. Almost no one waits for their story to be rejected before sending it elsewhere because then just submitting a single short story may take you literal years before it gets published (assuming it's good enough to be published, which is a different funny conversation). Some magazines will tell you that they take 3-12 months before they've made their decision, which is a crazy amount of time to tell people to wait for a decision (I know the practical limitations that make this timeline relatively sensible) before seeing if anyone else is interested.
But I've also experienced a fair amount of professional editing and I can often tell just by the number of notes how confident someone is in their position. I think a lack of confidence leads to increased notations, which often just make a sentence slightly different rather than better and sometimes risk ruining the rhythm of a sentence (which probably matters more in fiction than nonfiction, but also not really). I recently had a story accepted and then received the edits that made me think that the editors didn't even understand what they were reading and so I had to spend about two hours defending stylistic choices that were so baked into the texture of the piece that changing them would make the story not only different but quite bad. And, of course, all of this is unpaid labor.
Perhaps the funniest thing about editors for fiction, though, is that the only real qualification required is an email address with "magazine" somewhere in it along with a wordpress site to host stories on. And so the editor may very well just be some random person who woke up one day and said, "I'm starting a magazine!"
Pitching is labour, and the 'we are very busy and cannot reply to all pitches' is hardly solidarity from editors who consider themselves allies to the working class. It's extra frustrating in the days of Gmail algorithms that occasionally send emails into the spam folder, so you have no way of knowing if your pitch was read or not.
I'd also be interested in seeing transparent data on how many truly cold pitches are published and how many are pre-commissioned.
I’m sad this post was not actually about baseball.
Interesting, in that around half the publications I've pitched to ask for a first draft upfront. I figured it was to ensure that a pitcher's idea wasn't half-baked.
If the editor's ideal world is non-simultaneous pitches only, then that's a crazy bad deal for freelance writers.
1) You pitch.
2) You wait for X weeks/months, potentially hearing nothing, all the while not even having a first draft to publish on your own site.
3) You actually get accepted!
4) You spend weeks/months writing a draft, receiving edits, revising the draft, receiving more edits, and so on.
5) Your piece finally gets published! Or maybe it gets killed.
6) In celebration, you spend your few hundred dollars (if you're lucky?) for months of work. First round's on me!
7) Repeat above. Suddenly, a year has already passed.
I write fiction, and the rule is, don't bother submitting anything that is not 100% complete, ready to publish.
Funny how it's different for essays.
"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."
I work in the ad industry, one that has its fair share of client editing and meddling. I remember reading a story about a Creative Director who would always include something like a rabbit or a blue teddy bear in his ad/TV ideas. Of course, the client would latch onto this and ask it to be removed. The client gets to feel involved in the creative process, the CD keeps his idea mostly intact.
This pattern-matches to the job interview process in an unsettling way. Even the part about editors wanting to believe that every pitch was for their publication alone - it reminds me of how some employers are not particularly good about keeping the process going for applicants, as if they aren’t in competition to hire people.
I doubt this is why it's set up this way, but I would be concerned about admitting to having written too much of a piece beforehand because sets you up for being lowballed. You're no longer arguing, "I have this great idea, but it will take me 100 hours of work to pull it together," but "I've got a half-finished piece lying here, let me tweak it for you."
"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."
I'm not in the media business and it's been some time since I considered myself anything close to a news junkie, but for a while I've suspected that much of what's driving staffing and editorial decisions has more to do with sociological pressures within the industry than with the need to put out a high-quality product.
For example, why is there still such an emphasis placed on "breaking news" or on not being scooped? Back when the primary news vehicle was the morning paper and the evening news, I get why you wouldn't want to lose a whole day. But in the age of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, it's not clear to me why this should matter. As a reader, I'd much rather read an accurate, well-sourced piece than read something that's the equivalent of typing "First!" in the comments section. As far as I can tell, the emphasis on breaking news persists as an artifact mostly because editors want bragging rights.
There's probably something similar happening with pitching. No editor wants to be seen by her peers as publishing some other editor's rejects. From the reader's perspective, this makes no sense. I want something accurate, well-written and informative. I don't care about provenance. But it makes prefect sense from the standpoint of the ego and career path of the editor.
"Inside baseball today. Sorry." - Don't be, this was truly interesting! I absolutely love reading your stories, tips, advice, tales of how the sausage is made in the writing/publishing biz.
In software development before a change is accept it has to go through a "code review". It's a process where the rest of the team gets a chance to see the proposed change and provide feedback. Sometimes, some members of a team are constitutionally incapable of simply approving a change without suggesting some sort of edits. A tactic to dealing with that is to include a poorly written piece of code only to have something to fix during the review.
Coming from a design background, I would extend the idea that if you find you can’t develop total emotional indifference to rejection, creative work of any kind is not for you.
Resigning yourself to some degree of unpaid labour is also pretty universal in that broader context, as well.
Just the nature of the beast if your work involves any kind of creative thinking - it's not really something you can turn on and off at will, or draw boundaries around too rigidly.
Or you could tread the path followed by both Charles Ives and Tom Clancy: insurance as the path to riches.
After that you can indulge your creative impulses as you will.