Reading the Creek

Karen Hoelscher and Carmen Werder offer tips on how to pitch a piece of writing to publishers.

December 8, 2010

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, fishing is a great way to spend a day.

It’s good for the soul, it gets you connected with the natural world, and you don’t need any fancy equipment. As the MDC notes, you can catch fish with a stick, some string, and a safety pin if you know a few key things: where to find them, what they’re hungry for, and how to reel them in once you’ve got ‘em hooked.

Fishers know how to “read the creek” to determine whether fish are actively prowling the feeding lanes of a small stream or are relaxing and staying cool in deeper water. Once they’ve got some ideas about where the fish are, they’re ready to cast a line into the water and have some fun.

Reading the Creek as Writers

Like accomplished anglers, wise writers know how to create conditions for writing success. The writer’s soul gets a charge out of creating words on a page and using intelligent strategies to attract the interest of potential publishers: knowing where to submit a particular piece of writing, what might interest an editor or review panel, and how to land the deal.

The only difference: you don’t catch and release (or eat) your prey; you develop a working relationship with them.

In previous columns, we’ve encouraged you to create a writing plan with departmental colleagues and chairs to guide your scholarly agenda through your pre-tenure years and beyond. To do so requires aligning your writing interests and production with the scholarship expectations of your university. For example, if your research and writing goals involve intercultural communication, clarify for your colleagues and chair how this research topic is valuable to your department, college, and university.

We suggested seeking guidance about this alignment from your tenured colleagues and department chair (a.k.a. your fishing guides), and offered ideas about carving out writing time, avoiding procrastination, and considering audiences for your work.

This month we invite you to explore ideas for “rigging up” as writers to increase the odds of getting your work selected and published in a venue you’ll be proud of.

We’ll help you start thinking like wily anglers who can work upstream to get the best vantage point by reading the creek, choosing the perfect lures, and deciding where to cast your lines.

Pitching a Piece of Writing

Pitching a piece of writing requires thinking strategically about possibilities for seeing your work published, given your personal and professional goals as a scholar. We’ve created a series of tips for approaching editors and publishers that include preparing your materials, making the pitch, and following it up.

Tips for Pitching a Piece of Writing

1. Preparing your materials.

Seek ideas from colleagues about matching your written materials with a particular journal/publisher. Sometimes colleagues can help us can discern patterns of thought to guide us in approaching a particular editor/publisher.

Pay close attention to the title, the opening, and the closing. These places are crucial in any piece of writing as they receive readers’ prime attention; make sure they are clear, accurate, and distinctive.

Follow the submission guidelines slavishly. Editors devote considerable energy to developing criteria that best match their needs, so follow the specific guidelines they provide.

2. Making the pitch.

Think about your piece of writing. What is its allure? Is there some emerging, timely question the piece is trying to address that attracts an editor? What feature of your piece would catch an editor's attention?

Distill the article’s focus. This focusing is essential, because this emphasis is how the most successful pitches begin. Hook your audience by stating the main thrust of your article in one or two irresistible sentences.

If it’s not immediately apparent why your story belongs in the publication to which you’re pitching, clarify that connection now. Seattle freelance writer Haidn Ellis Foster suggests addressing “The Three Ys": why here (what makes your piece interesting or useful to this publication’s readers?), why now (why is your piece timely?), and why you (what makes you uniquely qualified to write this piece?). It’s also persuasive to include links to other pieces you’ve written to demonstrate why you are the best person (or one of the very best) to write this piece

Float your idea with an editor. Even when it’s still just a twinkle in your eye. Consider doing this in person if you have a chance meeting with an editor. This angling will help you decide whether to submit to a particular publication, and it may also give you a writing angle. Or some key words to include in your query letter to attract the attention of the editor.

Pitch it before you’re totally done. This angling inspires completion and advances momentum, and sometimes results in learning enough from an editor to focus your idea more carefully toward an upcoming theme or issue.

Compose and edit your query letter or prospectus carefully. Editors will anticipate the quality of your manuscript based on the quality of your query or cover letter. Treat the query like any other important piece of writing that merits revision and reshaping as needed.

3. Following up your pitch.

If a reasonable amount of time has elapsed without a response, send a follow-up query. We can’t assume that our submissions always arrive at their destinations, so it’s fair to contact your target editor or publisher to confirm receipt.

If your initial pitch results in a request for revision, toast your good fortune! Then, get it right back out the door.

When resubmitting a piece, create a simple, friendly cover letter to acknowledge each of the reviewers’ comments in writing and describe, specifically, where in the revised piece you have addressed each comment. Then, pitch it back to the editor or publisher.

In using any of these strategies, always consider your own style and preferences, as well as the protocols and preferences of the people who make decisions about what gets accepted for publication. Choose the ones that feel right.

Here’s to finding that perfect stream and landing the literary equivalent of a prize-winning fish.

In our next column, we will suggest editing and proofreading strategies to increase the odds that your pitch is wildly successful.


Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington University, where she guides teacher education majors into and out of the K-8 certification program in the year-long internship program at Woodring College of Education, and writes about intercultural communication and faculty development. Carmen Werder is director of the Teaching-Learning Academy and of Writing Instruction Support at Western Washington University, where she is also on the faculty of the Department of Communication and part of WWU Libraries.


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