Don’t Freak Out.
Hello. My name is Jed Ostoich, and I’m an editor here at Fathom.
By way of introduction, I’ve been working with writers ever since my patroness saint, Dr. Sandra Glahn of Dallas Theological Seminary, told me she was going to make the writing class I’d just joined the hardest one of my educational career. She succeeded. When the dust settled around the shards of my pride two weeks of non-stop writing later, she asked me to come on as her GTA to help shepherd other writers into the trapdoors of their own souls.
Hammering on others’ words has paid my bills and fed the three bottomless pits I call my children ever since. Through the years I developed a bit of trademark line that appears on nearly every piece of feedback I give: “Don’t freak out.” I considered making that the title of this column, but I opted for something a little less dramatic. So, that being said, welcome to The Editor’s Desk. I would say “my desk,” but I intend to share it with people who have more experience and wisdom than I do in the editing world. That’s only if I can find them. It’s going to be difficult.
I start a lot of my editorial feedback with “don’t freak out” because writing is scary. If you’ve written even so much as an email you’re familiar with the adrenaline explosion in your chest and the fire in your stomach that comes with putting your words out there. And then on top of that you have an editor who’ll take those words, smear track-changes all over them, and plop them back into your inbox. And then you freak out.
Why Are We Here?
I want this column to be the fillet knife that trims away the freaking-out from your writing process. At least here at Fathom. In the coming weeks I want to slash at the curtain and reveal a bit of how an editor approaches not just editing, but his or her relationship with the writer. To do that, I’ll cover some topics myself, but I’m also going to rope in the rest of the editorial staff at Fathom as well as veterans of the trade from hither, thither, and thon.
To start this relationship between you and me, between writer and editor, between I-couldn’t-care-less-but-I’m-reading-to-see-what-wrong-things-you-say and sayer-of-wrong-things, I want to talk about pitches.
Pitches form the first steps of a sort of dance between editor and writer. An author tries to put the best foot forward while not stepping on the toes of the editor. And the editor decides if the dance partner in his inbox is interesting enough to get out of his chair for. (N.B. Yes, I finished that sentence with a preposition, and yes, it stayed that way through editing. We’ll talk about rules you can and should break eventually, but that’s a dance for another day.)
As an editor, pitches make or break my opinion of a writer. Good pitches make me want to say yes regardless of the topic. Bad pitches make me want to delete the email and pretend I never saw it. But most pitches fall somewhere in between, and I want to give you three rules that’ll push your pitch into the “accepted” box.
Ask Me to Dance
Step number one in the dance we’ll do over email is to win my interest. In your very first word of your first sentence of your first line, make me want to read what you’ve written. Don’t introduce yourself (at least not yet), don’t tell me where you heard about Fathom, and don’t tell me you like my column about editing.
Your lede should be your absolute strongest demonstration of your writing—let your craft do the talking. And, if you write it well, you can use that intro paragraph as the lede for your article too. If it arrested my attention, it’ll probably do the same for your readers.
Then comes dance step number two: As soon as you’re done grabbing me by the eyeballs with your exquisite intro paragraph, tell me what you want to say in your piece and how. As an editor I can fix bad writing—I can’t fix bad logic. So if I can’t find or follow your train of thought, I’m not going to accept the piece.
If you’re pitching a non-fiction work, give me a sentence outlining your thesis. It doesn’t have to be “In this paper I will prove…” but it does have to sum up what you want your readers to walk away with. Then give me a short, bulleted list of how you’re going to accomplish your thesis. Prove to me that you’ve thought through your idea. I’m not likely to accept a pitch that’s “I want to write about _____ topic please.”
If your piece is fiction, then you need to give me an idea of what the story’s about and how you plan to tell it. Prove to me you’ve done the mental work already, and we’ll get along just fine.
So You’ve Seduced My Heart and Brain
And after we’ve danced through those steps, you can introduce yourself. Tell me why you feel like you’re qualified to write about a subject. Tell me how long you anticipate the piece being and when you can get it to me.
But most of all, don’t get cocky. You’ve held my attention with a good lede and good logic. Don’t throw it away by telling me you’re the greatest writer e’er to writ. You’re one of hundreds of writers that’s trying to get on my dance card, and many of them will be better-qualified. Show me a modicum of humility and we’ll waltz the night away. Make demands, and even your glass slippers won’t save you.
The pitch is, perhaps, the hardest part of writing for a publication. Get it right and you’ll find writing doors opening for you. And, if they don’t, never hesitate to ask an editor what you could improve upon. Most of them will provide really helpful feedback. Take the feedback with a thank-you, and move on.
The process changes a bit once you have a relationship with an editor, or if that editor reached out to you specifically about an idea. But in every other situation, always (and I do mean always) send a well-written pitch. After all, you want the dance to go well—your fairy-tale ending of a piece-in-print hangs in the balance.