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How to Get Published

On the mysteries of opinion journalism.

People occasionally ask me how to get into the writing business, which is a famously lucrative industry that expands to new horizons of prestige and profit yearly, almost daily. Their theory, I guess, is that I have been on both sides of transom and am in a pretty decent position to give a holistic account of the business. I think that confidence is a bit misplaced, but here I’ll lay bare whatever secrets or mysteries of the scribbling trade that I have learned through the slipping years. I owe it to the literate public.

Understanding the psychology of the editor is the first step on the ladder of journalistic success. He is a sort of melancholy soul; he lies awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering why more people don’t send him articles. He especially craves the writing of lawyers, graduate students, early-career academics, and retirees. His life is a collection of empty afternoons, moping and waiting for someone to send something to the slush pile. You can understand why most editors are drunks.

From this springs the first and greatest insight for the aspiring freelancer: you and your piece are far more important than anything else happening in the editor’s professional, personal, or spiritual life at a given time. If he is giving your essay less than immediate and full attention, he is disrespecting you and his profession, and it is your right to put him in his place. You are saving him from acedia, anomie, and, worse, resorting to the wire services to fill his columns. He owes you and the existential life-ring of your article nothing less than total attention.

This brings us to the topic of email etiquette. The editor should reply to your query within twenty-four hours, although, really, more than twelve hours is pushing it. If he does not reply within a day, you should send more emails, both as a reply to your original email and in fresh threads. You might also look up the editor’s coworkers and send each of them a few emails, too; you can never be too careful. If you do not hear from him within a week, you are well within your rights to find his personal phone number and start leaving messages. If all else fails, this will get the wretched fellow’s attention.

If you are corresponding with an editor for the first time, make sure your subject line projects confidence while preserving an element of mystery—assume the sale, but don’t give the goods away. I recommend something in the genre of “Article for Publication.” Emails with subject lines like that are the very first things an editor opens when casting his bloodshot eye over the inbox in the morn’s rosy light. If, however, you have corresponded with the editor before, the best thing to do is to find the oldest email chain you can and send your submission as a reply to that. Reminding the editor of your prior dealings invariably inspires warm sympathy and even nostalgia in his boozy journalistic bosom.

When it comes to the actual article, there are two schools of thought about the sort of writing that editors like to see. The first school holds that, if some of something is good, more is better. You look at the publication’s articles and write your own version of one it has already published. They liked it the first time, right? The second school holds that novelty is the thing. If you’re submitting to The New Republic, do something about how organs should be trafficked on the free market; to The Wall Street Journal, something about the need for a new wealth tax; to The American Conservative, something about how the Iraq War wasn’t that bad an idea, really. Both these theories have their merits, and, as an editor, I have to say that they can be equally effective. Follow your heart.

Editors love originality of expression above all else. You shouldn’t let second thoughts interfere with freshness of idiom or argument; facts, formatting, and the English language are all things the editor is paid to worry about, after all. I advise not even reading your piece before you send it in. Like a ruffled pocket square, a certain amount of eccentric spelling or punctuation gives your submission a sense of sprezzatura, projecting a confidence that will attract editorial admiration, even fascination. He’ll sort it all out in post.

When your piece is accepted, as it probably will be, this makes you a de facto contributing editor of the publication. You may now request review copies, press passes, and critics’ previews using its name. It is also the unwritten rule that the publication must print any subsequent submissions. (If the editor seems oddly hesitant or not to remember your association, remember to reply to your oldest email thread to jog his memory.)