Monday, May 18, 2015

Five Tips on Getting Non-Fiction Pieces Published As A Young Writer

This piece benefited from contributions from Julian Baird Gewirtz, a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at Oxford whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and the Atlantic, among others.

I often chat with friends who are interested in publishing an op-ed or non-fiction essay. I have made many mistakes trying to do this which hopefully you can avoid; here are some tips. Take this with a grain of salt; it’s just one approach, and others may work better.

1. Maximize the odds that someone actually reads your piece. Here is a list of people ranked by how likely they are to respond to you:

  1. an editor with whom you’ve previously published.
  2. an editor with whom you have some other connection (someone you’ve met, a third-party intro, be creative).
  3. an writer / editor you’ve found online. This is often how I pitch something (do not feel like you need a personal connection to an editor to send them writing!) Here’s how I find an editor: after identifying a publication, I look through its articles to find one that’s similar to what I’m trying to publish (if you can’t find an article like that, you might want to find another publication). Hopefully the author is an editor with an email address I can find; writers are okay too. If this doesn’t work, you could try checking the publication’s masthead. I try not to email anyone with a job title that sounds too important.
  4. the general submission email for the publication. I have never had success emailing “opinions@publicationX” or “tips@publicationX”. Greg Smith, who published this widely read article, sent it to the NYT general op-ed address, had no luck, and emailed it to four editors, who responded. I’m not saying don’t ever email a general submissions email, but I haven’t had luck doing this, and I would try a real person first if you can.

Do not submit a piece to multiple editors simultaneously. I know, it’s tempting to save time, but it’s considered a faux pas by many editors and if they find out that you’re doing it, you risk pissing them off.

Okay, so you’ve found an email address. Keep your initial email short. Here is a recent representative pitch I sent to an editor.

Dear X,

I am a computer scientist who has written previously for the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, and Quartz. I have a piece which I hoped might be of interest to the Atlantic: it's about what analyzing email data can tell you about love. The piece is attached and also pasted below.

I hope your weekend has gone well, and thanks very much for your time.
Emma Pierson

I modify how I describe myself depending on who I’m writing to (this email was to a computer scientist). Shiny credentials are probably helpful but don’t go crazy with them. I often use an email address that does not reveal my gender. I always attach the full piece (and also paste it into the email).

Some people also pitch short descriptions of a potential piece without having written it; I don’t have much experience with that, but Julian does. He adds: “If you have a specific idea for a piece but are worried that it will require more research or time than you can realistically spare without knowing that an editor is interested, it’s very common to send a (slightly more detailed) pitch to an editor before actually writing the piece. I’ve never had a piece accepted only from a pitch, but I have had editors express interest, which motivated me to write something that they subsequently accepted... and, in other cases, something they subsequently rejected. Of course, you have to be sure that the piece is viable, and that you’ll be able to get the access you need. (Two exceptions to this are book reviews, where the publication will get the advance copy of the book on your behalf, and interviews, where the publication’s brand will often be essential to getting the interview.) I’d recommend only doing this for pieces that you are pitching for print, to weeklies, monthlies, and the like. In my limited experience, online editors usually prefer just to read the piece and accept or reject it based on that; they’re not working on lengthy timelines.”

2. Ways to break in. Okay, but how do you get started if you’ve never published anything before? Mostly, aim high and pitch a lot. Getting rejected costs you nothing; getting published gains you a lot. So, ignore your ego. In many academic fields, people first send their papers to the most competitive journals, expecting them to get rejected; then they move down. I would view publishing articles this way.  Caveat: do not spam editors (I don’t think I’ve ever sent an editor who rejected me a second piece within a month.) Also, obviously, don’t send out shoddy work. I don’t send anything out for publication unless at least one person whose opinion I respect has read it.

One way to ignore your ego: do not take a rejection as a reflection on the quality of the piece. There is so much bad stuff that is so widely read! Nothing you write can be worse than that. If I have something I think is good, I send it to at least two or three editors before giving up. Also, if I don’t hear back from an editor, I send a follow-up a week later; I try to make it sound like it was my fault they didn’t respond. All of my most widely read pieces have gotten rejected several times before they were published. Learn to love rejection (this also describes my dating strategy).

Also, consider starting a blog. This offers a few benefits:

  1. Gives you a compiled collection of work which you can send to publications that are looking for freelancers (this is how I got started at FiveThirtyEight)
  2. Posts can get picked up by other publications. When you write a blog post, you can post it other places (I use Reddit, Twitter, Hacker News, and Facebook).
  3. Gives you a place to put pieces that no one else will publish (which makes me more willing to write risky or personal pieces).

3. Be sensitive to time-sensitivity. Some pieces are “evergreen” -- they are about perennially interesting topics and will not get less publishable with time. But no one wants to read about a Twitter hashtag that spiked a month ago unless you can somehow make it fresh. Unfortunately, the timescale required for careful writing or analysis does not fit well with the news cycle, and I think you want to avoid turning out something quick and shoddy. Even if you could write a piece in zero time, if you’re trying to get it published with editors you’ve never made contact with, it might take weeks to get someone to pay attention, which is too long for news events. A few potential solutions:

  1. write evergreen pieces.
  2. if you have something inherently time-sensitive, send it to places that are more likely to publish it quickly -- editors you’ve previously made contact with, less competitive publications. I have never managed to get a time-sensitive piece published with an editor I’ve never contacted before.
  3. anticipate events. For example, I wrote a piece about the Ferguson grand jury decision about two days after it was announced. Because I knew the decision was coming, I did most of the analysis beforehand and sent the piece to an editor I already knew before the news broke.

Trying to publish about breaking news events is high-risk (you might not get published at all) but high-reward (because it might get widely shared).

A final note: regardless of whether your piece is evergreen, you can often make it more appealing by adding a hook that references a recent event.

4. Don’t be a prima donna. Keep in mind that editors are older than you, have all the power, and may be talking about you and rejecting your work for the next several decades; don’t be arrogant with your credentials or opinion of your writing. Example of what not to do: I was once working with an editor on a piece right after I had gotten my wisdom teeth taken out. Still a little sleepy from anesthesia, I read the editor’s proposed changes and shot her an email saying, “no, my friend at the New York Times thinks we should do it this way…” The editor did not work at the New York Times, and this did not go over well. Don’t do stuff like that. Also probably don’t email editors while high on surgical drugs.

In general, I am especially deferential when dealing with editors. I happily accept whatever money they do (or usually don’t) offer. I do not complain when they choose a title I dislike. When they are unquestionably misstating statistical results, I say “I think this might be slightly misleading”. When they reject my pieces, I thank them for their time, and when they publish them, I thank them about eight times. When I am actively working with an editor on a piece, I drop almost everything else to work on it. Etc.

5. Write something only you can write. My way to do this is to use data that no one else has. Find the way that works for you. If what you’re writing could be written by any smart person with access to Google, it’s less likely to be published. (Take this piece on income inequality by Nick Kristof, for example. I like this piece and I am glad someone wrote it. But there’s no need for me to attempt to write it because Nick Kristof can do a better job of it than I can and more people want to listen to him anyway.) Other people I know who have gotten published while in school have often leveraged their own special knowledge: for example, Sam Sussman has used his Israel-Palestine expertise, Julian has used his knowledge of China, and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has used Google data.

If you have further questions, disagreements, or tips of your own, shoot me an email so I can update this post if necessary!


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