How to pitch to this editor (plus, what I would give my right arm to read more of)

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2015: Writing is not enough

**UPDATE AUGUST 2015**: Attention style and food writers: we’re growing

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Editors are often asked: how do I sell my writing? How can I cold pitch? What makes you tick? Here’s what I know it terms of pitching, editing and ideas as of November 2014. (This is absolutely subjective, so YMMV. In fact, this is about how to pitch *to me*).

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You might be a journalism student, you might be someone with an extraordinary story, you might be someone who witnessed a news-worthy event, you might be a freelancer: it doesn’t matter – if your idea is not exciting (and believe you me, editors are jaded creatures who have read everything, twice), we won’t bite.

(Unless you are Jon Ronson. Jon Ronson can write anything he damn wants).

What you need to know about me:

I’m incoming features editor for The Guardian (US edition; I start next month). Before that, I was opinion editor for Guardian Australia (in Sydney). Before that, I worked for five years in The Guardian’s UK office. Before that, I was at opendemocracy.net. I’m French (no one’s perfect). If my life is directly threatened by a fellow desperate editor, I sometimes write.

I will usually know within the first paragraph of your email whether your idea grabs me. So make it good. I do not care for already written pieces (since I want to talk about it, and your angle, first). I do not want to open attachments (unless it’s a picture of a Tasmanian devil, or unless you’re filing photographs to go with your piece). I do not want to open a Word document. I want to read your other work to get a sense of your writing skills, but you have to be selective.

I want to know what you already know about the story you have in mind, what you don’t know yet, and who you want to talk to to find out. I want to know, most of all, why you’re interested in the topic at hand. I want your first email to be concise (four paragraphs or so), and I want it to give me an idea of who you are.

Bonus points if you:

  • Come across as likeable, quick witted, or someone who’s really into the issue at hand
  • Make me laugh
  • Intrigue me

For feature writing, my 2014–2015 motto is as follow: I do not want to be convinced, I want to learn. I have read and edited so many op-eds in the last few years that by now, I had writers try to convince me of everything under the sun (the right to have a polygamous marriage; why [insert president’s name] is evil; why gluten-free vegans should all burn in hell; why Immanuel Kant was wrong ; why Indonesian diplomacy matters — you get the idea). I’m at a stage where I want to be curious, amused, impressed, moved, in awe. I want to marvel at humanity in all its hideous, brilliant glory.

I am interested in pieces about:

  • Human stories (portraits of individuals shedding light on bigger trends)
  • Science stories written in an accessible way (psychology, biology, astronomy, quantum physics [good luck with that] and how those subjects decode what it is like to live on this little tiny planet of ours)
  • Left field local or national stories which tell you something about the bigger picture of our region/country/world/human nature
  • Portraits of people with a mission (good, bad, evil, silly)
  • Personal essays
  • Sexuality (the personal, the quirky, the philosophical aspect of it)
  • Feminism. A word here: I have had it *up to here* with writers talking about the theory of feminism(s). Been there, done that — plenty of other editors will be happy to have you. What I want to read about these days: how does solidarity look in action? How does feminism help a single mother in rural Nevada? What does life look like for pro-choice activists who drive women to abortion clinics? What about activist groups in Detroit? What about feminism(s) in Hispanic communities? What about women who have their partners in jail and the repercussions of having to go through that? What about men who stay at home? What about organisers within the sex work movement? I want cases, I want real life.
  • Writing about the concept of “home” and belonging (or not); travel and what it does to the mind, boundary-pushing
  • Technology, modern use of social media, internet communities, broader cultural trends
  • Religion and beliefs
  • Quirky stuff. I like to learn about stuff I never heard about before. For example, a writer recently told me about the world of Christian blogs and probiotics (yep, together). Who wouldn’t want to read about this, I ask you?

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Diversity in writing matters to me. Take what Sarah Smarsh recently told Long Reads on the topic:

Most journalists, I’d wager, don’t have direct experience with poverty but are somewhat aware of their own privilege, and that translates to treating reporting of poverty preciously and yet at a distance — this pity tone, which is just an indirect outlet for their own fears and biases. Do you think you’re telling the untold story because you drove your own car into the ghetto to get some quotes and a few shots of shivering children for a 10-inch write-up on the cost of natural gas and a family who had their heat turned off? If you’d stuck around you might have seen that family build an electric-blanket fort in the middle of the living room, huddle over a game of Monopoly and crack up all night long about how screwed they are. You’re not qualified to pity anyone, and you’re not necessarily envied in the ways that matter most.

Yes (and this applies beyond just class, of course). For this reason, and although they are exceptions, I will often prefer to commission a writer who is somewhat familiar with the community or topic at hand. If you are a young inexperienced journalism student born and bred in New York who has never travelled to India, it is unlikely I would want to commission your writing on femicide in Gujarat (unless you convince me otherwise — it happens). Likewise if you have no ties with Ferguson whatsoever and never wrote about social justice issues, then … you get the picture.

Last point: I do like writers who have fun. By that I mean, people who obviously take pleasure in researching and learning.

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I tend to decide how long a piece should be after talking to the writer. You may think your article needs 4,000 words when it needs 2,000 (and vice versa!).

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It is fine to email editors if you haven’t heard back within a week. I do try to reply to most emails. Note the word “try”. Sometimes it won’t happen.

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Want to read pieces I love? this.cm/jess (this will give you an idea as to what I think is top writing — or ideas I like).

I’m on Twitter: @guardianjessica

jessica dot reed at theguardian dot com

PS. Any typos in the above? You can fire me.

Thanks to disowned on Flickr for the picture, creative commons.

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