From Pitch to Publication

How freelance writer Rita Flórez sold her personal essay to her dream pub
I first met Rita through an online freelance writing class taught by Kristin Kemp through Woodhull Institute back in 2007. After the class was over, Rita and I kept in touch and emailed each other our pitches and discussed the freelance industry at length over email, gchat, and phone calls. What started as a casual read-my-pitch relationship developed into a great friendship — even though we’ve never met (really).
Rita recently sold a pitch to her dream publication Bitch, a feminist magazine. I interviewed Rita on how she made the journey from pitch to publication. Follow Rita on Twitter @rdotflorez. “Status Foe” by Rita Florez (PDF version)

Here’s her PITCH that sold.
Pitch: Searching for greener pastures
Issue: Make Believe

Sometimes I think I’m in a perpetual state of “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and I blame Facebook and MySpace for that. I log on to my Facebook account, click on a profile and start looking at pictures, feeling jealousy and mourning the life, which I tell myself in that moment, I never had the chance to really live. Other people’s lives, a series of photographs and quirky status updates, end up being a major source of insecurity for me. My self-esteem plummets in 10-minute intervals while I’m logged in. I’d like to propose a story exploring if and how online social networking sites help reinforce perceived ideas of where women should be at any given point in their lives. For example, if the woman is 22 and fresh out of college, does she tend to think she should have a high-powered job in her chosen field ? How do Facebook and MySpace reinforce that idea? The same goes for a single woman in her mid-30s: does she feel more pressure to get married and have children, and what role does the social networking site to which she belongs play in this.

Q & A with Rita Flórez

Q: Where did the idea for the pitch first originate?
A: The idea for this pitch actually came about in 2005 when it was an idea for an academic paper I was writing for a class I took on online community. At that time, I had four friends on Facebook and about 70 on my now defunct MySpace account. I think I was also using Friendster at the time, but definitely not as much as MySpace. Back then, the photographic nature of MySpace really bothered me. I would seek out people I once knew in high school and look at photos for hours. There was definitely an element of “the grass is greener on the other side” syndrome for me. The paper was a total disaster, but I kept coming back to this very unhappy place where social networking was not fun for me — especially when Facebook came into its own in the last couple of years. First, I was self conscious that my status updates weren’t clever or pithy. Then, I was worried about my photos and how I don’t look as good as I want to. The majority of my time social networking has been a study in how self-conscious I still feel about too many things in my life. That was the idea behind the pitch.

Q: Why is Bitch a personal favorite magazine for you and how do you think your pitch was perfect for their publication?
A: I accidentally came across Bitch in Summer 2004 at some bookstore. Honestly, I was shocked by the name of the magazine and that a major national bookstore chain would carry it. I bought the magazine and devoured it. Even though I didn’t agree with the opinions expressed by most of the writers, I loved that such a fierce, independent outlet existed and one that does as much media criticism as it does. Now let me answer your question on how I thought the pitch was perfect for Bitch. Every quarter, Bitch puts out a themed issue. Originally, I had pitched this piece for the Make Believe issue scheduled to come out this fall. I had seen this piece as being more of an essay dealing with youthful fantasy. But as I reread the pitch in preparation for this question (see pitch above), I see how the editor would think that it was a better fit for Bitch’s Old Issue instead. In a nutshell, I wanted to write about the pressures women feel by seeing the very conventional choices other women make play out on Facebook.

Q: What was the pitch process like with Bitch? Did you have many follow-ups with the editor before you sold it?
A: The pitch process with Bitch was so straightforward. The magazine has an online contact form on its website specifically for submissions. I knew they would respond with a yes or no, because that’s exactly what’s happened in the past. (That’s one thing I really appreciate about the editors at this magazine: they do the writer the courtesy of replying to queries within reasonable amounts of time). I actually never followed up. I pitched the piece in early October and landed the assignment by November.

Q: How did you find interview subjects?
A: That part was extremely tricky for me. I’ve had tons of casual conversations with other women my age, older and younger about how social networking makes them feel. But not too many women were keen on talking on the record about their issues with jealousy, depression and aggression when it came to how they used social networking sites and how they were made to feel by these sites. I basically begged my friends to agree to let me interview them. I also went on Facebook and updated my status to let people know I was looking for sources. That’s actually how I found my expert for the story, Saleem Alhabash.

Q: Describe the writing process. I know you wrote several drafts. What feedback did your editor have for you and how did you incorporate it into your final draft?
A: The writing process was unlike anything else I’ve ever written. With the first draft, I made the mistake of going against my gut instinct and writing an analytical piece. Instead, I turned in a reported piece. I made the rookie mistake of turning in a story that I had not initially pitched. As I said earlier, I got the assignment some time early November 2009. My deadline was early December. When my editor, saw and read the draft, she wrote me back and called me out on not delivering the goods I promised to deliver. Luckily, she gave me a second chance for a rewrite — two more weeks. She also took the time to mark up the first draft and provide me with notes on how to really develop the essay. To say I paid attention to everything she wrote to me is an understatement. She wanted me to analyze what my sources had told me and draw my own conclusions. So that’s exactly what I did with the help of my “in-house” editor, my boyfriend. The first thing I had to do though, was ditch my objective, third person voice. And that was hard. I drew blanks for a few days and finally settled on revisiting the pitch and jotting down notes on my own feelings about social networking using what I knew from what my expert had told me, as well as my two other interviews. After three drafts, I had something I was ready to get to the editor. She was so encouraging, saying that this new piece flowed really well and had all the elements of a good personal essay. But there was still one thing missing: a feminist thread to bring everything together and really make it a Bitch piece. For this draft, I had a weekend. I spent quite a bit of time reading Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” because I had remembered something about women’s magazines reinforcing behaviors that were damaging to all of us. Those ideas helped me add another layer to my argument, and that last bit of work really helped make the piece that much stronger. After I turned that draft in, the editor thanked me for being so open to the revisions. I’m not going to lie; having to dig so deep was difficult, but I think I wrote the best piece I could have written because of the editor’s guidance.

Q: What was the hardest part of writing and editing your own personal essay?
A: Putting myself in the essay. I’m a trained newspaper reporter, and when you’re doing daily, hard news, you don’t put yourself in the story at all. I try to practice writing with a point of view as much as I can. “Status Foe” was a perfect opportunity for that.

Q: What advice would you give magazine writers who dream about getting their work in their favorite pub?
A: The big thing I learned writing for Bitch, which I’ve been reading for six years, is that you really need to read for more than content. Don’t get me wrong, you should know what kind of stories your favorite magazine publishes. But it’s just as important to read for word choice, tone and point of view.

Q: Tell us what it was like going to a bookstore and seeing your picture, name, and writing in print in one of your favorite magazines.
A: I didn’t look at the magazine inside the store. I saw the issue on the magazine rack, grabbed it, paid for it and walked out. Then I walked three blocks to my favorite ice cream shop, bought myself a cup of strawberry ice cream and looked through the magazine. Truthfully, I couldn’t believe they published me. It took a few days to sink in.

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