On Asking Favors From Writers & Editors

2015 was one wild beast of a year for my career and I could not be more grateful to have spent it writing  essays and articles that I'm proud of, a book that I care about, and meeting a lot of talented and kind people who work in the same industry. It was also the year in which I went from being a writer sending a lot of pitches and asks for small favors to a writer who gets asked for a lot of advice and help from strangers, acquaintances, and friends. So pitches and favors are different animals and should be approached differently. A pitch goes to a professional editor whose job it is to read it. You want to be courteous to them and not waste their time or yours but in some sense, they're expecting it. Asking for favors is different because it typically requires that people go out of their way to help you, to labor on your behalf, and to not be compensated for it. That means you should be even more gracious when you ask for them and even more grateful when you're given them. So without further ado, here are some favors I asked and why I think they worked:

Favor 1: Advice on Writing About My Past

Recipient: Charlotte Shane, freelance writer and notorious hot mean bitch, no prior engagement or introduction

What I Wanted: I had not yet "come out" as a sex worker and I wondered if it would hurt or hinder my career and had Charlotte recommended to me by journalist Melissa Gira Grant who knows Charlotte.

Email to Charlotte

Results: Charlotte and I emailed quite a bit about the ups and downs about writing about sex work online, resulting in me eventually choosing to out some of my past in the sex industry which has been really rewarding because I was able to write about labor more broadly in a way that was important to me. We also became very good friends who walk into parties looking like The Two Meanest Girls at Sweet Valley High.

Why It Worked: I had a pre-existing referral from a friend, we had something fairly unique in common, it was complimentary but not gushing, and we had a shared experienced in media that she was willing to help me navigate.

What I Didn't Do: I didn't ask direct, invasive questions about her decisions and left it open-ended to give her space to share what she wanted to. I didn't do a bunch of the weird shit that people do when they write to sex workers either like pretend I had any idea what her life was like or ask about how to get even better at it.

Favor 2: General information on writing for TV

Recipient: Cord Jefferson, TV writer and former Gawker staff writer and freelancer, no prior engagement

What I Wanted: To get a basic idea of how transitioning to TV writing from digital media would go, what I should know, what I should write, who I should be trying to get to know.

Email to Cord

 

Results: Cord responded that he'd be happy to answer my questions and so we met for drinks and he told me about his experience in TV writing and listened to me talk about my show concept and gave constructive feedback. I used that feedback and am now in the process of talking to producers and other TV executives about buying the show.

Why It Worked: The most important thing I did  was I asked if I could ask questions before I asked them so he absolutely had an out that didn't require him to feel impolite. I can't stress this enough. I found Cord because there was an essay of his called "On Kindness" making the rounds and in looking for more of his writing, I came across the fact that he had gone to LA to write for TV after his digital media career. I made clear that I wasn't clueless about his present career by mentioning it to show I had done my research.

What I Didn't Do: Ask 20 questions from the get-go that would just be disrespectful of anyone's time, I didn't ask for his agent's contact info or any other favors I hadn't earned. I pitched it as an informational meeting and I kept it an informational meeting.

 

Favor 3: Inside knowledge of hiring at The Racket, a then promising website under the First Look Media umbrella

Recipient: Michael Pielocik, writer and comedian had been hired there, we had no previous contact but a mutual friend told him I would be writing to him about the roles

What I Wanted: An interview at The Racket (to know my chances of getting one)

Michael First Look Email

Results: Michael told me what kind of clips to put together for an application and an email address I could send them. The website never launched but Michael and I remained in touch and it was good practice for asking for things when I don't feel entirely comfortable doing so.

Why It Worked: Based on his humorous web presence, I didn't take a formal route in asking for this information and because he knew I was coming through a friend, I was able to state my intentions more clearly. That I clearly read up on him showed that I respected his position enough to be worth engaging with.

What I Didn't Do: Ask him to read my resume directly, ask for a direct email for where to apply without first establishing a rapport with him and demonstrating that I might be a good fit, or email him without first looking at his website, background, and interests.

Favor 4: Pre-blurb for my book proposal

Recipient: Leslie Jamison, author and columnist, we were friends in graduate school at Yale in 2011 and 2012 but our relationship had gone mostly to email after leaving grad school

What I Wanted: When writing a book proposal, it is often suggested that you get other writers who are familiar with your work to write a pre-blurb that gives you credibility and demonstrates that established authors vouch for you and have the potential to blurb your book or review it when it actually comes out.

Email to Leslie

Results: Leslie wrote an exceptionally thoughtful and specific pre-blurb about my work that I put in my proposal and that I have every confidence was one of the reasons that it sold well to a major publisher.

Why It Worked: The primary reason it worked was that Leslie is a generous spirit and we already knew each other, I don't deny that this did some of the heavy-lifting. But I was also earnest and noted my respect for her time at a time when her career was absolutely on fire and I appreciated her work without being over-the-top in my praise of it. I was also every bit as awkward as I was as a graduate student in real life because while I didn't want feign more familiarity than we actually had, it would have been weird if I showed up really formally in her inbox.

What I Didn't Do: I didn't pretend that there hadn't been a seismic shift in her life in the time between knowing her in graduate school and her becoming a best-selling author but also tried not to dwell on it. I also didn't overload her with information in the body of the email but put the book proposal material below the signature for her to peruse if she wanted to.

These are just four of several favors I've asked over the past few years. I have very similar ones that resulted in no responses but that at least made the effort to respect people's time and show that I wasn't just firing nonsense into the ether. The thing is, most people want to be helpful. Sometimes they are too busy to do favors or they can't actually give you what you need but when you contact people with respectful, appropriate asks and opportunities for them to decline, you'd be surprised by how much you can get out of them.

Also, as Charlotte noted when I asked if I could write about our first email exchange in this post, people might very well be seeking a favor from you at some other point:

Charlotte you sucker

 

 

Helping More By Saying "Yes" Less in 2016

Please come along with me as I take a trip down Media Memory Lane. This is the story of how I felt locked out of media circles so that when I finally sneaked in, I left the door open behind me and let in more people than I could be accountable for. This created a problem for myself and this is a plan for getting myself out of it. I take full responsibility for letting myself get in over my head and am now taking full responsibility for getting out of it with the new direction of this blog.  Now at some point you might think: tumblr_nxwus0CMjp1si194ao1_500

But bear with me, I beg you. This may seem like self-congratulatory martyr shit but really it is just an embarrassing display of how thinking I could single-handedly change entrenched media practices was not that smart.

So at the beginning of 2014, I had bylines at two websites: xoJane and Religion Dispatches. I was eager to write for more publications and trawled the internet in search of editors' email addresses, I devoured their sites to see what kind of material they liked, I dove deep into their Twitter timelines. I spent time figuring out what they paid, who liked women, who responded fast, who never responded. Several hours a week were spent on this research.

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I sent meticulous email pitches that were overwhelmingly ignored. I was doing sex work and copywriting to support myself and hated the former and found the latter a bit tedious compared to what I really found thrilling. It was devastating at times but when the few editors  read my pitches and took a chance on me, it felt glorious . The work snowballed into writing for great online publications like The Baffler, The New Inquiry, The Hairpin, and The Toast. I started feeling like a writer.

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These pieces impressed BuzzFeed enough to earn me a staff writing role there where my essays and some humor content gained me credibility both inside and outside BuzzFeed. When I left BuzzFeed, editors began reaching out to my directly and my cold pitches were accepted more regularly at new publications. Within a few months, I had sold a book and was a columnist at Pacific Standard and writing for outlets like The Washington Post, The New Republic, Matter, and The Guardian.  I was finally making a living full time as a writer.

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About midway through this year, I began getting emails from aspiring writers asking about pitching, which I told them about happily. I suggested edits, I suggested editors, I made introductions, and I championed people without a ton of bylines. I am glad to have done it. After giving details instructions to a dozen or so writers, I wrote this post on the pitches that worked for me in an effort to help people craft pitches that would work well so I wouldn't have to repeat myself. But still, I received more direct inquiries that said nothing about my work and only asked for editors' email and introductions to them. I don't believe in media gatekeeping so I gave email addresses out willingly, even when they were available on Twitter and the publication's website if the person had done their research.

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When their pitches were rejected, some of these writers asked if I could appeal to the editor in question, a request that essentially asks me to second-guess my editor's judgment in a way that I wouldn't even do for my own work. Some asked for full line-edits of their drafts before turning in pieces to editors. With about 8-11 writers feeling OK about asking for really labor-intensive assistance, it became a lot of unpaid labor that wasn't helping them or myself. I fully realize that I brought it on myself but I am taking it off myself now.

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The point of this is not that these writers are ungrateful or clueless. They just haven't learned how to navigate the media world yet via trial and error and some Googling. In simply giving out emails and direct instructions to anyone who asked, I was stopping them from doing really amazing work. The work of cold pitching editors turns you into a better reporter and the work of digging up their emails makes you a better investigator and introducing yourself to someone new proves your courage and tenacity. All of these things make better writers and I believe the world could use some of those. I have ultra-confidence that strong writers can figure this shit out and become fucking exquisite without me making it rain with my Rolodex.

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I want the media to be filled with brilliant women's voices but I don't want to help them get their by using the same nepotistic tools that have entrenched so many in media to their roles. So this year, I am saying "No" to a lot more and instead using this blog to teach a wider audience what has and hasn't worked for me in various areas of writing. People can use these suggestions as they see fit and I hope this blog helps a lot of people find their pitches in the right hands so that one day, it's me asking them for a favor. I am going to scale back the number of writers that I mentor but continue to do so because they give me such joy and the world is better for having their work in it. But I'm also going to give them way more space to figure out where they want to write and what they want to write because frankly, my suggestions have probably been holding them back.

Stay tuned for my post on how to ask for favors from fellow writers and happy almost new year, don't get TOO wild.

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The Ones Who Sustain Me

I despair often at the privileged lives of men and all that they get away with in the world while women question our every move, feeling, or even our instinct. A common question women are told to ask themselves when they face a particular conundrum about whether to ask for a raise or publish something is, "What would a mediocre white man do?" The answer of course is that he would do the thing that would make a woman fear she is being nervous or callous or thoughtless. I ask myself this often when I move ahead with more audacious things. But as much as I have longed to move as freely in the world as men, I have never wanted to be one. Because if I was, I would not have the unique and life-giving honor of having the women who surround me when I feel alone and who find me when I am lost. Surely there are deep and profound friendships between men and women that I admire but I have found in my own life a particular strength in women in numbers. The willingness of my women to time and again come to my rescue, knowing the peculiar dissatisfaction of being born into a world not designed for us, a world that is  dismissive when it is not downright hostile to our interior lives.

I was very sad this week, hit by an unexpected and disorienting sadness I did not have the language or fortitude to face alone. My friend Charlotte was at the ready in my text messages to affirm that I was not crazy to be disenchanted by a world that looks one way then suddenly acts in another way. On a night of crying, my friends Natasha and Arianna showed up with wine and their own gentle spirits to drown out the nagging noise of despair in my head. Phoebe wrote nothing short of a manifesto on how I deserve  happiness and made plans for big wild futures together. Alana reiterated that I am beautiful, which sounds trite but since she knows my greatest fear is physical mediocrity, it meant the world to me. The Rachel from whom I haven't heard in some time saw that I was having a rough week and reached out from the ether, knowing there is never a wrong time to reemerge if your message is comfort and kindness.

Then there was the internet. Another brilliant Rachel wrote a 10K word story on selfies that has the unique quality of making me envious of for her talent but too hungry for it for me to ever hope that she stops. The following line proved the very point of its many male detractors, "Maybe they are lonesome and hungry for connection, projecting their own lack of community onto this woman’s solo show, believing her to be isolated rather than expansive." I know it was in reference to selfies but what are my own tearful confessions late in the night to friends but my self, transmitting out into the world to be known?

Then today I published a story about how I lost my faith in God but still have a craving for grace and though men and women alike shared it, their responses differed greatly. I mentioned the fact that I went to Divinity School in the piece and strangers, both men and women, with whom I had little connection reached out to comment kindly on it but only women said things like, "I wish we had been better friends back then." Simple messagess like that carry the memory of grace that I crave so much.  They sustain me.

In the essay, I wrote, "I take heart in the words of the poet and professor Johann Peter Lange, who wrote in 1868 that there is 'no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it' and 'no height so lofty that grace cannot lift the sinner to it.' I cannot predict how time will treat either my face or my faith, but I can allow myself to hope that I will know again that splendid fear that God is present, to be descended to once again." And though I crave the unpredictability of God, I am more truly sustained in these times by the knowable love of my friends. I know how deep they'll reach to get me and just how high they'll lift me, gently to a height where I can see just how far I can go but not so high that I'm scared to fall.

Thanks for Believing in Me, People

So I am about to go off-brand and be a little bit sentimental and full of gratitude for a second instead of my usual bitter/faux narcissistic/incredulous self on this blog. Forgive me, it is late and cold and I'm listening to Paula Abdul who always gets me a little emotional. Also, this cat and baby have me feeling a certain way. Thanks, friends.

I was incredibly fortunate in that ever since I was a child, my teachers and parents have wanted me to be a writer. While other kids were pressed to more practical endeavors, the people in my life told me I was creative and thoughtful and had a strong command of the language that should be put to the page. I was an avid contributor to my own journals for years, both on and offline, but always felt that writing was something that you could fail at too spectacularly to ever consider it professionally.

And so I toiled away at non-profit jobs doing PR which I wasn't especially good at. I worked at non-profits because I felt I had to be contributing to society in a very tangible way for it to matter. I was in and out of a few parts of the adult entertainment industry and never savvy or nice enough to earn the big bucks. I went to graduate school thinking I could be an academic or a chaplain. I sucked at all of these things.

Then in March of 2013, I developed a strong desire for people to think I was funny on the internet andwanted to give it another shot. And in order to be funny on the internet, you have to start being funny on the internet. So I started a blog where I talked about wanting these cool leggings and attempted to justify naming my cat Keith. Two weeks later, I pitched a story to Emily McCombs and Olivia Hall at xoJane about how I'd never had an orgasm but didn't care and was soon a regular contributor to the site. It is a popular pastime among media people and erudite readers to talk shit about xoJane because they run a lot of amateur content and some questionable viewpoints but if they hadn't taken a chance on a random girl with a blog, I would never have had the confidence to write for a public audience.

The editor-in-chief of Religion DispatchesEvan Derkacz, happened to read my work on xoJane and asked if I could write regular religion content in the same distinct voice that I wrote about boys and body issues. I said I could try and the resulting blogs would serve as a lead-in to more gigs. The same editor started sending me job alerts that lead to me writing for The Baffler because they liked my job application but I wasn't quite a fit for the role. They've been kind and supportive editors and internet friends.

When Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The Beheld took a chance on a serious piece about body issues from a writer with a small and unserious portfolio, I sent the piece to author Roxane Gay because something she wrote inspired it. I had never met her but she read my story. When she responded kindly about it and then tweeted it and said kind words about the piece, it become widely read and landed on TV and was discussed around the web.

I nervously asked author Melissa Gira Grant to go out for dinner to ask about what it's like to write about sex work. She was encouraging about my prospects and gave me the courage to write my first reported piece on sex work and law enforcement for Truth Out. She would later recommend my work on the topic and suggest me to editors when she was unable to write for outlets. Her supportive words about this story on trafficking and emotional labor are a huge reason the piece did well.

Throughout the last year,  I crossed paths online with writers Katie Klabusich and Rachel Vorona Cote whose endless patience and encouragement and willingness to read shitty drafts and pitches has made it possible to get through really rough times. They're both really good at GChat and being human. I have a bunch of Twitter friends and strangers that have emailed really touching remarks on stories that make me want to keep doing what I'm doing that I credit with keeping me going.

I am leaving out ac6c1a6a4647e2837867d26a6d4d5ba5faea6ed09186c50681985864dc9566f6c small and benevolent army of writers and editors that have been nothing short of saintly with me as I've pushed deadlines or had strange ideas or put two spaces after a period because old habits die hard. Their gentleness is a more viscerally felt part of my experience writing than any of the ignored emails or harsh rejections I've received. There are assholes a-plenty in this competitive world where people have neither incentive nor inclination to be kind, but they choose to be not only helpful but encouraging and genuinely friendly.  It has instilled in me the habit of always responding to aspiring writers thoughtfully when they occasionally reach out to me, paying it forward and all that shit, and because this duck quoting Emerson is so on point.

Last month, I started as a staff writer at BuzzFeed where I'm doing what I love: trying to be funny on the internet.I'm surrounded by a similar kindness that I know many workplaces are painfully missing and by really smart and talented people that want to see me succeed. Last week, I published a story about death and mortality and the internet that is the most personal thing I've ever written and a literary agent reached out about me potentially writing a book. About what, I have both no fucking idea and a thousand fucking ideas but the point is, there might be yet another chapter (heh heh) in this word business.

I'm literally exactly where I want to be and it is because of you all. So thanks to all you nice babies and wise ducks that made it possible.