Register Sunday | December 17 | 2017

Pitching: An Editors' Roundtable with Haley Cullingham and Erica Lenti

Erin Pitching by Justin Leonard.


This past Monday, I met with This magazine Editor Erica Lenti and Hazlitt senior editor and former Maisonneuve Editor-in-Chief Haley Cullingham to talk about pitching, editing, and byline and masthead diversity. Haley and Erica both had great tips for newer writers on what to do—and what to avoid—while pitching, and we also discussed editor preferences that can be confusing to writers, like why we all prefer pitches to finished pieces.

Andrea Bennett: I’ll start with a really basic question: What are you looking for in a pitch?

Haley Cullingham: I was having lunch with another editor last week, and we were talking about this, and it struck me that the answer to this question is more outlet-specific now than I think it has been in a long time. At Hazlitt, we want something that has all the building blocks of a more traditional pitch: ideally, an example of a scene, at least a couple of source suggestions, a good theme statement, and a sense of why you’re the right person to write the piece. Where we differ from other places, I think, is that the subject matter can be pretty weird and unexpected, and not neccesarily tied to a news peg. But the basics are the same for us: short scene-y intro that shows me a sense of your writing style, theme statement summarizing your piece, short graf about sources, research, etc., and then a graf telling me about yourself and why you’re the person to write this piece for us.

Erica Lenti: I think there are some core themes that pretty much every publication looks for: good characters/subjects to carry the story, a strong theme or thesis or argument, conflict/resolution/tension, and obviously a good story with scenes or colour to bring it to life. But I agree with Haley that outlets nowadays are looking for really different things from one another. At This, we’re interested in stories that aren’t being told by mainstream politics magazines but need to be told. And while somewhere like Maclean’s,for instance, might be more interested in covering party politics, we care a lot about personal politics (race, sexuality, gender, etc.).

HC: For outlets with shorter lead times, these days, you can even send a paragraph that summarizes what you’re hoping to do and get a sense of their interest. That’s something I would have told writers not to do a couple of years ago, but now, some editors want to see that before they begin the conversation. So I guess what hasn’t changed is having a good feel for the outlet you’re pitching before you get in touch.

AB: I’m wondering if we can get a bit specific with pitch-related pet peeves. I sigh a bit when I see—and I’ve definitely been guilty of this myself—the series-of-questions approach to the third-ish paragraph of a pitch (e.g., “What will this mean for Canada?” “How does this affect broader gender norms?”, etc.). I’d prefer to have the pitcher answer those questions. How do you feel about this tactic? Is there anything else you’d suggest pitchers avoid?

HC: I agree with you—if I’m interested enough, I’ll email back and ask for those answers, but I’m going to want them before I assign you something so it’s better to just have them ready. (I would also like to admit to sending some truly horrendous pitches in my day. There are certain editors who I feel I owe apology notes to for the stuff I made them read.)

A couple of other pet peeves for me: this is a pretty classic one, but the “Hey, so this thing is happening” pitch, or the “I read this book/heard this album/saw this movie” pitch, which is clearly just an expression of your interest in something and not an idea. “I had a feeling today.” For the record, I have sent these pitches. I understand why people send these pitches. But your rate of return will be much greater if you put a little more research and substance into the pitch, at least for Hazlitt or similar outlets. Also, getting a sense of what’s been written about the subject before you send a pitch about it is always a good idea.

Another thing that’s frustrating is not following an outlet’s guidelines. At Hazlitt, we have pretty comprehensive pitching info on our website, and we get back to every single person who pitches us. But, for example, we don’t run reviews and I get a lot of pitches for reviews. We also don’t accept full drafts as pitches, which is written in bold at least twice on our submissions guidelines, and I still get pitches saying “I know you don’t accept these but…” which is frustrating. I wish we had time to read those drafts, but we don’t, and so I just have to turn them down.

EL: Ditto on not reading the guidelines. At This we have each section of the magazine broken down in our submission guidelines, and yet we still receive pitches for non-existent sections or stories that are impossibly long for the section the writer is pitching to. I also get pretty peeved when writers send me grandiose ideas that aren’t actually stories. I often refer people to Drew Nelles’ “How to Write a Magazine Pitch” and that typically helps people understand that stories are built on characters, conflict, scene material and strong arguments. But sometimes I just get a thought or an idea pitched in a paragraph, and I simply don’t know what to do with it. And in addition to that, sometimes I get ideas that, if the writer ever read anything This has published, they would know it’s a bad fit.

Oh, and possibly my biggest peeve of all: pitches over the phone. This is a very small magazine (we only have two full-time staffers, and as an independent we have a small budget to work with). I hope this doesn’t come off as condescending, but I honestly don’t have time to hear your pitch over the phone. Please, please email it to me. When you call, I’m probably in the middle of something else, and my focus isn’t there. I want to give every pitch the time it deserves, and I can’t do that when you cold-call me in the middle of the day.

HC: That’s also becoming more and more true as more organizations are using workflow systems like Slack. Not having a document to share with the rest of the editorial team makes it harder for an editor to sell a pitch to their colleagues—the writer’s description of their story is always going to be stronger than me trying to summarize it after a conversation.

AB: Can we talk a little about the preference for pitches over finished pieces? I’ll start: Maisy has not outlawed the submission of finished pieces, but we rarely accept them, and we very much encourage pitches over completed submissions. I think this baffles some writers, especially anyone who may be more familiar with writing for lit mags. From my perspective, a pitch is a really good tool for an editor—it allows me to see how the writer views the story, what characters will feature, and (maybe most importantly?) why the writer feels that this particular story is an important one to tell. With a finished submission, I need to read it with an eye to trying to figure that stuff out for myself, which is a lot of work. If the opening grafs are weak, I stop reading and decline the piece immediately. So: I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about why you prefer pitches, and what you’d suggest to writers who are used to, or who may need to, write a full draft before they pitch?

HC: Yes! I know it’s confusing for a lot of writers, especially those who come from an MFA program or lit mag background. For us, it comes down to time. We had to make a decision about responding to every pitch and not accepting full drafts, or accepting full drafts and then not having the time to get back to everyone. It’s important to us to get back to everyone, and when we were reading full drafts of pieces, it was taking us months which, especially in the industry as it is right now, felt unfair. And I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said—a pitch gives us a clear sense of the potential of the piece, and allows us to understand it in a timely manner and make a decision about it. And I think it’s fairly universally true that if you’re not yet able communicate the essence of the piece succinctly, even for something very weird, you might not have a handle yet on how to execute it.

I think, if you have a full draft or you’re used to operating in that mode, there’s a pretty easy way to boil that down to a pitch. I would do something like this: Take your best scene, copy-paste. Then, give me one sentence that sums up your piece. How would you describe it to a friend if you were excited about it and feeling great about having just written it? Then, as we’ve said above, tell us who the characters are or what the research will be or both, why you’re the right person to write it, and why it’s relevant. I think writers feel very intimidated about reverse-engineering a pitch, but we do this all the time without thinking about it when we’re describing our work to people. It’s just about formalizing that sell. Another useful idea for somewhere like Hazlitt is to give me an example of one or two pieces we’ve published that feel similar to what you’re hoping to do. This works well, especially, for more experimental or abstract stuff.

EL: For the same reasons that Hazlitt prefers pitches, we want them at This, too. Like I said, we are a small team and I am the only full-time editorial staffer. I just simply don’t have the time to read through an entire draft. But we, like Maisy, don’t outlaw full drafts necessarily. I think the one exception is when we receive an email from a student who has worked on a full draft in a feature writing class, for instance. If they reach out and tell me they’ve been working on this piece, I might be more inclined to read it (we put a big emphasis on publishing emerging writers and students). But yes, your best chances are to send a succinct version of your story to us in the standard pitch format. 

AB: Another thing occurred to me that might not be as well-known for writers from an MFA or lit-mag background: Maisonneuve goes through anywhere from four to seven rounds of edits with a writer, over the course of about two months. The edits can be pretty substantial, and we might have suggestions right from the get-go—like, hey, we think you need to speak with an expert or do some secondary research to bolster this one aspect of your story, for example. My perception is that when someone pitches, they may be more open to this feedback. If they are sending what they feel is a finished piece—something that they have already workshopped and edited quite a bit—they may not be as willing to dismantle the entire thing and start over, which is frequently what would be necessary if the piece was going to fit the needs of a general interest mag over a lit mag.

EL: Just to add to that, I do think one thing that surprises some of our green writers is just how much editing goes into a piece to make it publishable. I think some might think you write one draft, I do a minor edit, and we throw it into the magazine. This surprises a lot of those students I mentioned, too, who have been through an editing process with an instructor in class, and then they get to me and think their story is perfect but then we go through another three or four edits. So, in that sense, it’s better to get a pitch because we can mould it to become the story the publication needs, and not just the story that you’ve written (if that makes sense?).

HC: Definitely! And because editorial practices vary so much place to place these days, I think people don’t realize that they’re stuck with me for… six months.

AB: Are there writers in particular who you work with often, and really like to work with? How do you develop those relationships?

HC: I think it has a lot to do with fit. Every editor has their own style, and when I find writers who really respond to the way I talk about and think about the work, that’s exciting. It’s not just about a great piece and a great writer and a place to publish it, but finding the editor who understands what you want to do, and trusting them to help you do it. There are wonderful pieces written by talented people that I may not be a good fit for as an editor. But when it does fit, the relationship develops organically—you feel that the work you’re doing together is good, and you want to do more of it. It’s fun.

EL: I totally agree, Haley. I really enjoy working with first-time writers. I think a lot of them are so, so excited about getting their work published in a magazine for the first time that they’re really dedicated and overjoyed and that spills over into my work on the piece. And to me it’s a really special experience, especially because I published one of my first features in This way back in the day. And a lot of our stories in the last few issues have been written by first-time writers, but I don’t think you’d ever know it .

AB: When you’re considering a pitch, do you consider the background of the writer who is pitching? Is byline diversity something you keep in mind while talking about, and evaluating, pitches?

EL: Yes, big time. We’ve recently been putting together a diversity action plan and we’re trying to recruit more writers of colour, folks who are LGBTQ+, Indigenous writers, etc. I think especially after the Hal Niedzviecki incident (the “Appropriation Prize” debacle), my team and I were like, “We need to make sure This is a place where people of diverse backgrounds can feel comfortable pitching and are represented fairly.”

I think this especially comes into play when we’re writing about diverse communities. So, for instance, we have a tendency to cover a lot of this stuff in our front-of-book, but we found that in the past we had a lot of white writers writing about racialized communities, straight people writing about queer communities, etc. Instead, we’re making a concerted effort to get writers of colour writing about their communities, and so on. And in addition to that, we’re ensuring that writers from diverse and minority communities are being represented when they aren’t just writing about their own communities, too.

HC: Editors who suggest that it’s difficult to find amazing work from diverse contributors are full of shit. Or, at least, they haven’t truly made it a priority. You hear editors say, “We want to publish writers of different backgrounds, but we just can’t find them.” Yes, you can. It’s something we are committed to, and it’s also something that isn’t a challenge to be committed to—these writers are out there, doing incredible work, and the internet has made all of that work even more accessible. And as an editor, if you look at your submissions folder and you see a pattern in terms of who is and who isn’t reaching out to you, learn from that. Ask yourself why. But something I think about a lot these days is that, while I think bylines in some outlets are getting closer to true representation, mastheads still aren’t, and that’s a real problem and something that we are guilty of right now, and that we’re working to fix.

AB: I think we could probably have another full conversation about pathways to editorial jobs, which renders everything a little more transparent but of course doesn’t address bias in hiring processes or power structures. I am wary of the fact that the higher-paying national magazines often still don’t have great byline diversity, and that there continues to be a focus on running click-drawing online opinion pieces by non-white, non-male writers (I’m thinking in particular of the formula “X offensive thing affected your community last week, please respond”) instead of nurturing diverse representation for full-fledged features and pieces that aren’t necessarily related to the writer’s identity. In addition, I think it’s no coincidence that Alison Uncles, the Editor-In-Chief of Maclean’s, participated in the Appropriation Prize kerfuffle, and then the magazine went on to publish a defensive, one-sided memoir by Joseph Boyden. Diversity is an issue of fairness for writers and editors, but it’s also an issue when it comes to quality of journalism more broadly.

To shift gears a bit, as we reach the end of this roundtable, how did you learn to be a good editor? What allowed you to develop the necessary skills to tackle long features?

EL: I think the best way to learn how to edit features is to write them and get edited and understand the process from a writer’s perspective. I can say that I’ve been in the shoes of my writers because I’d written multiple times for This before I became editor, and I really get what it’s like to be on the other side. There needs to be an understanding of the stress and hardships and obstacles writers have to overcome to get their draft to you. Empathy and all, you know?

I think it also helps to just read a lot, and to deconstruct your favourite stories. I read the New York Times Sunday edition every week, which comes with the New York Times Magazine, and I often read the magazine cover to cover and try to understand how a writer may have come across the story, and how the editor may have influenced the way it turned out. And I do the same with stories I didn’t particularly like, either. For instance, Richard Warnica did this really great breakdown of that CBC feature about Ken Pagan, the Blue Jays beer thrower guy, about what was wrong with the editing and how it could’ve been better. Examining good journalism and bad journalism, I think, is a huge part of my job and helps me understand how to do better.

And lastly… practice? I think I get better at this by constantly editing, constantly learning how to spot things that could be improved, how to communicate better with my writers, etc.

HC: I agree. I learned the basic anatomy of a feature at journalism school (if writers are reading this and want it, email me), and then I read a ton and learned how and when you can veer from that, or not. And when I was working as an associate editor at Maisonneuve, I asked then-EIC Drew Nelles a lot of questions about how he approached pieces, and he sent me edits he’d done, which was interesting and instructive. And he also suggested reading the New Yorker cover to cover every week, which I started doing, and I learned a lot from that. I think it’s just about immersing yourself in that specific language and logic of feature writing and getting a feel for it.

AB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HC: This has been said before by many editors but remains true: if an outlet turns down your pitch, don’t hesitate to pitch them again. I’ve said no to a lot of wonderful pitches because they weren’t a fit for where I was working at the time, and it had nothing to do with their quality. So don’t feel like one “no” means the outlet is off limits forever. Also! Write a pitch email, wait twenty-four hours, read it again, then send it.

EL: To add on to what Haley said: this industry is full of rejection, unfortunately, but it doesn’t say anything about how great of a writer you are. Keep practicing, read a lot and talk to editors!

Haley Cullingham is a senior editor at Hazlitt and Penguin Random House Canada, and a former editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve. Her writing has appeared in the Awl, the Globe and Mail, the Tyee and elsewhere.

Erica Lenti is a writer and editor in Toronto. She is currently the editor of This Magazine.

Andrea Bennett is the Editor-in-Chief of Maisonneuve.