Is This Something I Want to Read?: Conversations with New York’s Editors

By: Luigi Leonardo

For freelance writers, pitches are beasts of burden. Writing an effective pitch is a hazing ritual, but it can be eased by sage advice from accomplished writers — or cookie-cutter templates from Google. A quick Google search for “freelance pitches” yields countless how-to articles written for nervous writers. Interest is staggeringly high, but from the outside, an editor’s process can seem mysterious. Information circulates between writers, often without the other voice in the equation: editors.

What happens when pitches finally land in an editor’s inbox? We interviewed two NYC-based editors to find out.

Amy Rose Spiegel, senior editor at Broadly, Vice Media’s platform for women, gender non-conformists, and LGBT individuals. Spiegel has also written extensively for publications including BuzzFeed, Rookie, and The Village Voice.

Rob Horning, senior editor at Real Life, a Snapchat-funded online publication that centers on technology. Horning is also a contributing editor at The New Inquiry.

Back Matter: How do you determine whether a pitch is good?
Amy Rose Spiegel: I receive a lot of pitches. First, it should have the word “pitch” right in the email’s title. In the body, it should indicate where the writer has written before. It should also say how they’re going to tell the story, how different it will be from similar stories that are already out there, and how many words it will have. In terms of quality, it’s a great pitch if someone can interest me, especially in how they will tell the story.

I accept relatively few pitches. Some cold pitches come without knowing what audience to write for. We get a lot of good pitches, but not all are good for the site.

BM: Any tips for those who want to pitch idea-based pieces?
Rob Horning: If you have ideas, you can’t really help it. Today, ideas are still very rare and very valuable. The conduits for expressing those ideas aren’t what they used to be. They take different forms now: social media presence, podcasts, videos, anything that commercializes them. It’s about protecting those ideas from commercialization, while still finding something that can pay you.

BM: Any tips for those sending pitches to VICE?
ARS: You should familiarize yourself with VICE’s specific section in terms of tone and usual topics. Ask yourself: “Is this a new way of telling the story? Is this interesting to the readership? Is this something I want to read? If not, what will make me excited?”

BM: What does a bad pitch look like?
ARS: A bad pitch is something that goes like, “here’s why a given topic is good or bad,” “here’s how so-and-so is an icon,” or “why such-and-such is relevant.” Sometimes, they ask more questions without giving any answers or a story. Often, it’s a pitch that tells me but doesn’t show me.

Here’s a hypothetical example: “Women in Brazil have higher rates of pregnancy. Here are several factors causing that.” There isn’t an actual story. It’s better to show different stories, rather than giving all these details.

BM: How many pitches do you actually assign versus the ones you reject?
RH: It’s probably half-and-half. Sometimes, what we’re looking for is a bit amorphous.

We’re always looking for more content, more pitches. Sometimes, we get pitches from someone who has freelance writing experience but not as much theoretical expertise. They aren’t used to writing for an audience who demands more in terms of rigor and understanding from an ideological standpoint.

Sometimes, we get people who are good at writing pitches without having a lot of ideas to write about. It’s a big nothing sandwich. Sometimes, other people are bad at pitching — like someone who just wants to write about their dreams — but end up writing amazing pieces. We’re still fine tuning our process to find writers that we want to get.

BM: Do you publish time-sensitive, news-related pieces?
RH: No, but we started off hoping that we could do that. We were hoping to have more staff, but it didn’t work out that way. We don’t follow a really strict schedule.

The goal was never to be in front of the news cycle. We’re hoping for someone who’s already read all the basic journalistic accounts [of news in the tech world]. We’re hoping for someone who can do some synthesis of what happened from a particular point of view. We’re looking for something more evergreen about a particular concept or theory.

My boss can get really nitpicky about other publications running the same take. We don’t need to produce redundant articles. We need a reason for pieces, other than just to drive traffic.

BM: How do you edit pieces after the first draft comes in?
ARS: I’m a stringent editor. I like a heavy edit. Before they even write, I give them a sense of how I see the story taking shape. Usually, I send it back even if I just want to know more about a certain fact. Also, I love phone edits. After every draft, I talk with the writer over the phone about their piece.

As for the actual editing, I never cut out a writer’s tone. I never make a person sound dry. Usually, the edits depend on the copy. Sometimes it doesn’t need heavy edits, but that happens very rarely.

BM: What is your editing process?
RH: We push writers to go beyond stock takes on technology. A lot of pieces elsewhere usually go like “this tech thing is usually good but it’s actually bad, here’s why in 2,000 words.” A piece like that would fly in most places, especially if it drives traffic. We do things differently.

Sometimes, we work with freelance writers who aren’t familiar with media theories. We usually get back to them multiple times to rework what they’ve got and to plug in more directions. The editing process ends up more protracted and more unpredictable.

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