Feature Writing, freelance life

From brainstorm to byline: the story of a story

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Last Friday, I secured what is undoubtedly my biggest byline to date: The Washington Post. I had an essay published in their Soloish column about being catapulted unexpectedly into the role of Agony Aunt for couples all over the world.

You can read the essay here.

Along with the New York Times, WaPo is probably the ultimate publication for most op-ed and essay writers. It is a well-respected, prestigious newspaper with a huge readership and fantastic editors.

The acceptance email from the Soloish editor Lisa Bonos – which I read on my phone as I was making my son’s school lunch – prompted me to do an actual happy dance around the kitchen.

Was there whooping?

There may have been whooping.

But in the interests of transparency I thought I would share with you some of the details of what it took to finally get my WaPo byline.

A little over 18 months ago, I was sitting with a notebook brainstorming ideas for features and essays. One of those ideas was to write a follow up piece to the Guardian article about my marriage, focusing less on the marriage itself and more on the dozens of people who now write to me looking for advice about their own relationships. I took some time to look through the emails and messages I’d received, hammered out 1500 words, and then left the document sitting in my drafts folder until I could pay it a bit more attention.

A year ago, one of the online writers groups I’m in organised an essay exchange, in which members could swap early or working drafts of writing for feedback. I hauled my essay out of the drafts folder and it went to three different people, all of whom offered some really good advice. I made a few changes, polished off the rough edges, and then decided it was time to try and get the piece published.

For about 6 months, I kept sending the essay out to editors, and kept receiving rejections. (One of them was, of course, NYT’s Modern Love. My FOURTH rejection from Modern Love. One day, Daniel Jones! One day you’ll say yes to me!). In total, I think I received 8 rejections and 2 non-responses.

I believed really strongly in the concept of the essay, but it obviously wasn’t working. So I approached an editor who I have worked with previously: Michelle Riddell from Mothers Always Write. Michelle is funny, incisive and honest. Her own writing often makes me laugh and often makes me cry. I asked if she would be willing to do a little ghost-editing and send me some feedback on the piece.

She did, and it was excellent. Michelle helped me cut a lot of unnecessary detail and really focus on what the piece was about – not my marriage, or my relationship with my son – but all the other people who take the time to write to me. After a couple of back and forth emails I felt like the piece was looking better and I was ready to try again.

I sent it out to four more places, and got four more rejections.

Urgh.

By this stage – after 18 months of writing and pitching – I was getting pretty tired of the piece. I was running out of ideas for paying outlets, and starting to consider whether I should go for a non-paying outlet, or just give up on the thing and put it up on my own blog.

But then I read a great article in the Soloish column – this piece by Jill Summerville about being a maid of honour in a wheelchair – and realised that my new essay fitted the criteria for the column. Soloish is an intentionally vague name. It’s about all aspects of single life, or unmarried life, and although I’m married myself, all the people writing to me for advice are not.

It was worth a shot.

My first email pitch went unanswered.  Damn it.

My system for cold pitching new editors is to send one email, then make a note in my diary to follow up ten days later. The follow up is always very friendly and light.

‘Just checking in on this pitch. I know you’re probably very busy and don’t have time to reply to everyone, so if I don’t hear from you by the end of the week I’ll take that to mean it’s not a good fit and will feel free to pitch elsewhere.’

I call that my nudge email.

It was the nudge email that landed me the byline.

Less than 24 hours after I sent it, Lisa Bonos wrote back, thanked me for my perseverance, and said she’d like to run the piece.

Now you know why I whooped.

Other than the absolute delight and pride that comes from a byline at a publication I admire as much as The Washington Post, here are my main takeaways from this experience:

1. Persevere. If you believe in an idea then stick with it until you get it right. It might need tweaking, or cutting, or polishing, but if you truly believe a story is worth telling then the chances are someone else will too. Just because it’s not a good fit for a certain publication doesn’t mean it isn’t a good piece, so keep pitching until you find the perfect home.

2. Ask for help from your community. The advice and guidance of other writers and editors is SO valuable, and no matter how many years you’ve been writing for you can benefit from a different perspective.

3. Follow up. Don’t be that writer who emails 2 hours after an initial pitch to ask why it hasn’t been published yet. But don’t be afraid to nudge either. Editors are incredibly busy people – some of them receive literally hundreds of pitches each week – and a polite but pressure-free follow up email is never a bad thing.

4. Don’t be afraid to pitch a big publication. The worst that can happen is they say no. Imagine how good you’ll feel if they say yes.

5. Think outside the box about where you could publish. I’d never considered Soloish before because I’m not single, and the essay was, in essence, about my marriage. It was only by slightly refocusing the piece and cutting out some unnecessary details that it became a possible option for publication there. Most stories can probably be rewritten in a similar way.

6. Never read the comments. What happens below the line stays below the line. Don’t go there.

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