Writers: I Don’t Need You. I Need Your Ideas.
Recently I was promoted to editor at my job, and along with the added responsibilities (like editing) and perks (like being to able to make other people go out and do the stories I don’t want to do) of that role comes a slew of pitches.
I get pitches from PR people, from students, and from freelancers. Some of them work for me and turn into stories. Many of them don’t. I could go on and on about how PR people so often get it so wrong, but I won’t, because they are generally well-paid and I don’t feel that bad for them.
The people I wish could get through to are the people who, just a few years ago, were basically me. They are the cold-callers. The desperate “I’m trying to be a writer” emailers. The “if you ever need anything please contact me” pitchers. The ones who give me so much information about themselves but nothing I could actually print or assign or develop. They are legion, and they may in fact be brilliant, wonderful, talented people, and I never ever call or write them back.
The problem, in my very limited and humble opinion, seems to stem from the fact that we are telling our current generation (myself included) of young people that to succeed in your chosen field, you have to build your own brand and be proactive and grab opportunities. Those things are all true, but they leave out the fact that unknown writers will not get anywhere unless they have ideas and know how to present them to editors and other gatekeepers (or go right ahead and publish their ideas themselves).
When I moved to New York in 2008, I had the same idea. I knew I could “be a writer.” I just didn’t truly grasp what that meant, and was stumped at how to overcome the rejections and silence I received in answer to my applications and queries. I traveled my own circuitous path, paved not by a series of well-placed unpaid internships that I could hardly afford to take, but by working a different career and writing on the side until a new path opened for me. Well, it was more like, I took a hatchet and hacked my way through a couple walls to open up that path myself. And by “hatchet” I mean “student loans” and by “walls” I mean “the skepticism of everyone in my life that paying for a masters degree in journalism was a smart move.”
But it took me awhile to understand the depressing truth of all of us “aspiring writers” in NYC, and to come out on the other side and understand how to get past it. The depressing truth is that we are not even a dime a dozen. We’re more like a penny a hundred, if that. There are too many of us. Most of us won’t make it as professional writers. Most of us won’t see the light of publication beyond Tumblr.
Those who do make it, however (and by “make it” I of course mean “are lucky enough to pull down a salary that barely covers your rent and can live through the constant stress of knowing that media is a
dying changing business and is likely to throw you over at any moment”), figure that out. They figure it out and then realize that while they themselves are not in the least bit unique, their ideas may be. And instead of trying only to sell themselves, they realize that they can instead sell their ideas, their hard work, their experience.
The takeaway to all you writers, desperate to break in somewhere, to get your name and your work out there, is to remember that editors don’t need “you.” They can find you anywhere. Don’t send a pitch saying, “I’m a writer, please assign me something!” Send a pitch saying “here’s my idea.” Write the essay, research the story, do the work. Does it also help to have clips and a reputation and a resume? Sure! But I don’t have time to read your clips and then dream up a story I can assign you, especially when I don’t know you. If you send me a specific story pitch that works for me, I can work with you. And I can usually tell if you’re a decent writer just from the pitch, by the way.
The flip side of all this is that the process at least tends to weed out the unserious. Some people aren’t great writers and don’t have the drive and perseverance to make a career out of it, and those may be the majority of people behind the vague, useless pitches I get. But I also know that behind a handful of them, there are great writers lurking - they just have to find their hatchets.