Storytellers’ Guide to Storytellers, Part 1

by Seven Scribes Editorial Board

Part of our mission at Seven Scribes is to showcase content from young storytellers of color. We want to provide you with the best possible editorial guidance and assistance in your journey from idea to draft to readership. That mission extends beyond just those who do work with us to the greater community of budding creatives looking to figure out just what comes next. Over the next few weeks we’ll be releasing a few guides on just how to get your stories out, from the basics to the complex. This first guide is for social commentators, opinion journalists and essay writers.

So you wanna be the next Ta-Nehisi Coates, huh? Well, join the club. The path between knowing you have something to say and finding your writing voice is a long, but vital one. The Internet and social media have broken down many of the barriers between hardcore reporting, opinion writing, and the shades in between, so pitching a story to an outlet, whether it involves interviews, research, data analysis, or an insightful view largely boils down to the same basic mechanics. Here’s a few steps to get you started.

      1. Know your outlets. Can’t stress this enough. Your first priority should be protecting your byline, and while many of us get our starts blogging or on sites that aren’t exactly the New Yorker, you don’t do yourself any favors by writing at places that have ethics or stances in direct contradiction to your own. Sure, starting out may require a little, let’s say, flexibility in just who you write for and the voice you use, but remember that this is the internet, and the things you write follow you. Reading the outlets where you want to write regularly and thoroughly also helps you identify the stories they haven’t run, what they’re most likely to publish, their editorial style and demographics. These are all very important considerations in any pitch.
      2. Come up with a good question to answer. We’re not sure if this is easier than it sounds or harder, but it’s the most basic element at play here. Good ideas help you steer clear from bullshit, and good ideas, even with inexperienced writing, are easier to shape into good content than half-baked ideas from expert writers. Don’t feel pressure to write on a hot topic if you can’t find a new angle or question that everyone else hasn’t already covered. Find the things that matter to you. Your mind is beautiful. Figure out the unique ways it views things and find questions to answer based on that.
      3. Do your Googles. Not just for research, but for figuring out just how unique your idea really is. Common scenario for me (fivefifths): I do some browsing, scroll past a headline or skim an article with a great idea and then I forget it. Then in the shower next day I have a great idea, only to Google it and remember where it came from. That’s the way the human brain works, especially if you’re following rule one and being a voracious reader. We pick up things unconsciously and they shape our perspectives. Also, the internet is vast, so many writers may have the same idea as you already. Sometimes, unique angles may prove to be not-so-unique, and checking out the literature before you send a pitch is always a good way to stay ahead of the crowd and catch editors’ eyes.
      4. Find where and how to pitch it. Most sites have specified instructions or places on where and how to send pitches or submissions. Save yourself the headache and locate this first before you spend the time sending something the publication won’t run. Most times, you’ll find this in the “Contact Us” section or somewhere near. Also, now’s the time to lean on any connections you have. Most everyone in writing has gotten a story somewhere because of a friendship. Don’t be afraid to ask friends that do write for help or connections with editors. Just try not to take it personally if they have to decline.
      5. Pitch it. The most daunting task, but pitching is an art when you get the hang of it. For the basics, make sure you create a good subject line. Sites are split on whether to type “pitch” explicitly in the header or not, but at the very least the subject should give a sense of what you want to do. Think about trying to draw an editor into your story the way you would a reader, with a nice hook and that awesome question you thought about in step two. Also, some technical notes on just how you plan to answer the question and what you think it’ll take (interviews, interview targets, etc). You want to introduce your previous work as well near the end if you haven’t worked with the editor before and say a little about yourself. For more advice, check out NPR Code Switch’s guide to pitching. We think it’s the best guide in the industry for first-timers.
      6. Relax. Seriously. Give editors a little while to respond. Sifting through pitches and submissions is hard work, and many of them have deadlines to meet too. If you have any other ideas to pitch, get started there, but try not to pitch the same thing to multiple outlets unless you give editor some notice. You’re building relationships here, and nobody wants to approve a story and assign an editor to it only to find out that it’s already been taken somewhere else. If nobody gets back to you in a week or so, or if your story is very time-sensitive, feel free to nudge. Politely.
      7. Get started! So the editor accepted your pitch or submission. That’s awesome work, and you’re over one of the hardest hurdles. I’ll leave the steps on actually writing the work to the site’s editorial discretion and style–remember each site has their own–but remember to try to express yourself in your voice. Rebel a little. Add some humor if you can. Push back when you can on the things you really believe in in your piece and remember to be flexible about the others. And take edits as a sign of good faith. Your editor is working with you and it’ll get your work to the spot where it needs to be. Criticism can sting, but most of it helps when coming from a good place.
      8. Recover. So if you didn’t get your pitch accepted, don’t feel down. It can be discouraging, especially if you just knew you had the killer idea, but it happens to us all. The only way to get around rejection is to keep writing and keep getting better with your pitches. Feel free to ask your editor what didn’t work about the pitch or how you can get better. At worst, they can ignore you. At best, you can find yourself an ally and a mentor in how to navigate this hectic universe. Perhaps there are other landing spots for your piece with the voice that can accommodate it. Sometimes you’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but keep shooting your shots.
      9. Protect yourself. So you’re a couple drafts in and an editor wants you to say something or do something that you don’t particularly agree with. Maybe it’s a corny joke. Maybe it’s including an interview that you felt was done poorly. Maybe it’s something worse, like an opinion that goes against your argument or sensibilities, or something toning down language you feel was necessary. Especially for writers of color and folks on the margins, these are not trivial issues. You’ll have to navigate the fine line between compromise and selling out often, especially when it comes to outlets that don’t have many faces like yours. The choice is yours alone, but always feel free to walk away if you need to. Remember again that in this age everything you write sticks with you.
      10. Celebrate. You made it from steps 1-9 and your piece is going live! Celebrate. Send it to your mama and them and drive traffic up by sharing. Don’t feel ashamed of sharing your hard work, you did your best and tried something most other folks never finish. You’re published now. You deserve this shit. Now, get back to work and write another.

Part 2 for fiction writers coming soon! For pitches and submissions to Seven Scribes, please contact submissions@sevenscribes.com. We want to work with you and we specialize in providing constructive editing to first-timers. Check us out!

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