Arts Journalism 101: From Pitch to Publication
A survey of the mechanics of the editorial process, from the submissions process to the editorial back-and-forth of readying your piece for publication to protocols for invoicing and collecting payment.
The Mechanics, from Pitch to Publication and Beyond
Do you homework, know your publications, and get a feel for the audience you’re addressing before you ever pitch an editor. Once you’ve landed an assignment, below are some pointers for understanding how invoicing and contracts work; some perspective on how the editing process works, and a few tips for getting your paperwork in order to more expeditiously get yourself paid.
Deconstructing the Pitch
Tailor your pitch to the kind of publication you’re writing for. That means accounting for longer lead times when hitting up a print periodical for an assignment, or understanding that timeliness may be more important when approaching an online outlet for work. Try to develop a good sense for the kind of writing the publication you’re pitching typically does — are they focused on evergreen pieces or do they favor more time-sensitive, event-focused features? Are they looking for long-form, meandering ruminations on a topic or does editorial preference tend toward short, blurby sorts of rich description with an emphasis on who/what/when/where? The better you know your prospective audience and can anticipate your editor’s needs, the much better your chances of having them jump at your idea.
Most publications have a “submissions policy” section on their website that will let you know exactly how they’d like to receive pitches and to whom such things should be directed. Use of those resources is crucial to successfully getting your idea before the right person. Make it easy for them to work with you — the incentive for success is all yours at the beginning, so making an effort to follow their instructions to the letter is all the more important. If there’s not a clearly stated submissions protocol on the website, it’s a good idea to write a short query to the editorial staff to see how they prefer to get your pitches and to whom such submissions should be sent.
The Etiquette of Submissions
When dealing with a new writer, some publications may ask you to write a piece “on spec”. That simply means that you may submit a finished piece for review, which the editor will read and consider, but is under no obligation to publish. The advantage is that this may be a good way to get a foot in the door since the publication isn’t really risking anything. If they decide not to use your work, the editors are out only the time it took them to read it and make their decision. The disadvantage to writing on spec is obvious: as a writer, you spend time researching and writing something for which you may not be compensated.
A Word About Simultaneous Submissions
Generally speaking, my advice is to avoid submitting the same piece to more than one publication simultaneously. Editors tend to frown on the practice because they don’t want to spend time working with a piece — reading it, maybe doing a bit of editing on it — only to find out it’s been snapped up already when they’re ready to proceed with publication. They’re left feeling like their time — a particularly scarce resource for most folks on a publication’s masthead — has been utterly wasted. On the other hand, writers like simultaneous submissions because they figure it improves their chances of seeing the given piece rewarded with publication. The downside of simultaneous submissions is primarily interpersonal: if an editor is aced out of a piece they’d hoped to publish, especially if they’ve spent editorial time readying it for publication or slotting it into their editorial calendar, the chances they’ll be eager to work with you again are slim. At the very least, if you decide to submit your pieces to a number of publications at the same time, it’s good form to make it clear you’re doing so to each of the editors you approach for publication.
How much time before you follow up?
Editorial types are notoriously harried individuals, with time thinly spread over too many projects. The brutal truth is, your pitch is simply not going to be at the top of their to-do list. Many times, you’ll not hear back for months — especially if your submission is going to a large publication’s “slush pile” to be vetted by an army of interns before it makes its way to an editor. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a small, more frequently publishing outlet (like the Twin Cities Daily Planet or Mn Artists), you’ll often hear positive news sooner rather than later. If we can use a piece, we generally decide to take it quickly. If we can’t, we may not be as timely with our delivery of the bad news. Rejection letters are no fun to write, and I suspect a lot of editors put off the unpleasantness of doing so for as long as they can (indefinitely sometimes). So, a good rule of thumb is, if it’s been a month since you’ve submitted a pitch to a print publication and you’ve not heard anything back yet, it’s worth a friendly email follow-up. If, after two weeks of waiting on word from an online publication, you’ve not yet gotten a response, it’s perfectly acceptable to check in with a breezy email. What you don’t want to do is pester after just a few days. It’s counterproductive to needlessly irritate or harangue the person you’re hoping to persuade to hire you. The wheels grind slowly, especially when a writer is making an unsolicited submission or pitching a publication cold. And if your friendly follow-up after a reasonable amount of waiting time still receives nothing but silence? Take it as a sign and move your efforts elsewhere. They’re probably not biting. Many publications simply acknowledge, up front, that you’ll only be contacted if your pitch is accepted, bypassing the polite refusal altogether.
So, you’ve got an assignment. Now what?
You’ll probably get a writer’s contract that your editor will need you to sign and return promptly. As with all contracts, you’re free to negotiate specific points and terms with the publication. If you don’t like the rights arrangements they’ve laid out, for example, you can ask them to modify them. It’s a two-way street, so you need not feel like anything is set in stone. That said, you should be careful to make only reasonable requests. For example, asking for a significantly higher rate of pay from a smallish media outlet because they want to publish your work online or share reprint rights with a handful of other small publications may simply be impossible. On the other hand, if the outlet you’re taking an assignment from is asking for the rights to reprint your work, in perpetuity, in book form for a large publisher, or if they’re hoping to make money from the future reprint of your work, it’s reasonable to ask for some sort of profit-sharing clause to be added to your contract.
When you take an assignment, you should find out how payment will be processed for your work, and what you need to submit (and to whom) to receive your compensation. Many publications will simply wait until they receive an invoice from you to cut a check, so you should be prepared to create a simple invoice for your work on your own. Other publications provide their own invoice forms for you to send in (Mn Artists, for example, provides writers with pre-formatted invoices to complete and return). It’s worth asking about the protocol for payment early: you’ll definitely want to be clear on how to receive your check!
Most publications (especially small-to-medium-sized ones) pay their contributors “upon publication.” If you’re writing for a quarterly or semi-annual publication, that may mean a lag time of months between the time you write a piece and the time you’re paid for it. There are a few, especially writer-friendly outlets who are able to pay writers “upon acceptance for publication” (which generally means after the editing/revision process has been completed); but such payment models are the exception, not the rule.
You will rarely be reimbursed as a freelancer doing “work for hire” for additional expenses (gas, mileage, lunch, etc). However, if you’re covering a performance or writing on a book or CD, it’s reasonable to ask your editor to arrange for you to receive complimentary “review copy” or free performance tickets.
Writing the Thing
Touch base frequently
Keep your editor posted as you write a piece. If you run into any logistical trouble, it’s especially important to keep the lines of communication open. Potential obstacles for successful completion of a piece run the gamut: the gallery whose show you want to review is never open when they’re supposed to be, your comp tickets still haven’t arrived the day before the show, your interview subject won’t get back to you, you’re going to miss a deadline, etc. Your editor is a valuable ally in overcoming such hurdles, and they can often wrangle recalcitrant factors into submission or help you adjust your deadline to accommodate unforeseen delays.
It’s in your interest to familiarize yourself with Microsoft Word, in all its glory, since it’s the application of choice for the editorial process. Especially, the “track changes” tool is useful-allowing an editor to make changes in your text, but to make them transparently. You can go back through and see precisely what edits were made, switching back and forth between the “final showing markup” and clean, more reader-friendly “final” version via a simple pull-down menu. As virtually all editing has migrated from red pencil to email, “track changes” has become invaluable. At Mn Artists, we’ve gone one step further: doing virtually all the editorial back-and-forth “in the cloud,” on Google Drive. Online tools, like Google Docs, are particularly useful for circumventing cross-platform editing problems (e.g.I have a Mac, you have a PC, and their word processing software won’t play nicely together; you want to make revisions on your mobile device, etc.).
The editor’s on your side
Writing for publication is a highly collaborative process, so you’ll learn early not to bristle when confronted with an editor’s requests for revision, clarification, or cosmetic changes. Think of it this way: a good editor provides a safety net for writers, a trusted pair of eyes by which to run your work before it’s released into the wild. You can test the strength of your argument against her critical ear; you can trust him to catch the awkwardness in the funny phrase you just fell in love with, before it hits thousands of readers who’ll not get your joke. A good editor can be a sympathetic, rigorous sounding board for a writer who just can’t get what they’re trying to say articulated clearly. For most editors, the aim is this: to make sure that you, as the writer, are expressing just what you mean to say, that what you’re communicating is as tightly argued, accurate, and as lucidly stated as possible, and that the finished piece is beautiful to read and relevant to readers by the time we hit “publish.” Your editor really does know best sometimes (not always certainly, but often). On the other hand, the process is such an intimate one that if you feel an editor has betrayed your trust, the injury feels personal; indeed, such a bad experience can make it awfully difficult (maybe impossible) to work for that editor, even that publication, again. And with the supply of writers far outstripping demand for them, even one loss of a potential publisher hurts. With numbers of pages and outlets for arts writing shrinking, but with no shortage of aspiring arts journalists — it’s in your best interest to be dependable and easy to work with in what has become a highly competitive field.
So, when you can, be easygoing about the small stuff and save your counterpoint requests for the bigger, more substantive things. It’s reasonable to ask to see major edits before publication, but be aware that time constraints may prevent your seeing every editing change, especially copyediting sorts of modifications. If you’re able to, roll with it. Often, if an editor rephrases something, or reworks a sentence, it’s with the aim of smoothing out something that reads awkwardly, or to clarify a point left murky in the first draft. Usually, as long as you’re willing to address the root of the problem the editor was trying to fix, you can go back and re-rephrase the troublesome section in a way more in keeping with the nuance of your voice. But you do need to address the crux of what drew the editor’s pen in the first place.
A Postscript – After Publication
Invoicing protocol and troubleshooting payment problems
Many outlets expect to receive an invoice from you after publication before they’ll begin processing your check. Once the invoice is received, you can expect a lag time of 30 days, on average, before you receive your payment. If you get your check sooner, it’s cause for celebration. Find out from your editor what the usual processing time for payment is; verify the protocol before your piece is published. Don’t delay getting your paperwork signed, filled out, and returned — if you get the housekeeping details to your editor/publisher while the piece is still fresh in everyone’s mind, chances are much better that your payment will rise close to the top of the to-do list.
If you’ve returned your paperwork and still haven’t received a check after 30 days, check with your editor to confirm that payment has been processed. (Everyone wants you to get paid for your work, so you need not feel awkward about such a request. Better to catch a missing signature or errant piece of paperwork sooner than later.)
Finally, keep your clips!
Gather and keep all the links to your published work onlne. If your piece is published in print-only form, scan and make PDFs of your formatted, published work right away. Most editors you’ll pitch will ask for digital submissions rather than clips sent to them in hard copy, so the more attractively you can present your work samples online or via email, the better.