Long before I began writing for Slate, I was a Slate superfan—and a regular commenter on Slate articles. I started reading Slate way back when Emily Yoffe wrote the Human Guinea Pig column, and a young David Plotz had only recently taken over as Slate’s editor. A politics and journalism nut, I browsed Slate daily, added my two cents in the comments section, and listened to three or four Slate podcasts every week.
As of January 2014, I desperately hoped for someone to let me write professionally, but I’d never published a piece of journalism or a nonfiction essay. Yet here I am, little more than a year later, contributing regularly to Slate’s Outward blog and confidently referring to myself as a journalist when someone at a party asks me what I do. I’m living the dream—assuming one dreams of being a minor, poorly remunerated, early-career journalist. So how did I get here? Perhaps you, too, are a Slate reader who dreams of becoming a Slate writer. In what follows, I’ll tell you how I went from commenter to writer. And then I invite you to ask me anything about your own writing aspirations in the comments area—I’ll give you what advice I can offer.
As is often the case with regular commenters, my admiration for Slate’s writers was equaled only by the jealousy I felt toward them. I burned with the certainty that I could do as good a job, or better, than all the Ivy League–educated snobs who’d lucked their way into writing professionally. Thus it was that I got into the habit of cold-emailing pitches to any editor at Slate whenever the chip on my shoulder was feeling particularly heavy. Each time an email went unanswered, I’d feel embarrassed, swear off this sort of juvenile behavior, then try again a few weeks later, after the sting of their complete indifference had eased.
I still have the first email I sent to Outward Editor June Thomas, on Jan. 8, 2014. The subject line “Outward’s a little to tame” contains a grammatical error that would be obvious to a precocious third-grader, and the pitch itself combines the bluster of the comments section with the lack of anything actually new or newsworthy. It is funny in places, though, and it gives a sense of who I was as a writer and what I believed I could bring to Outward. To my great surprise, June Thomas responded. Below, a selection from her first email:
June rejected my first pitch, and mocked me for my rudeness and grammar—but she encouraged me to try again. I did so eagerly, and my first article for Slate, "The Benefits of the Closet" was published on Jan. 31, 2014, one of the most exciting days of my life, roughly on par with my wedding.
It can be hard to remember, now that I’ve written more than 30 other pieces (mostly for Slate), how star-struck I was when June first answered me, and how grateful I was for the opportunity. I knew I was a decent writer, but without a degree in journalism or any contacts, it had begun to seem impossible that anyone would ever let me prove myself. An avid consumer of “how to break into journalism” articles, I had more than once followed their standard advice to start a blog, only to give up when I failed to find an audience. I was doing a regular webcomic when I began writing for Slate; and although people I knew seemed to like it, I struggled to find readers outside my own small social circle.
But even when I didn’t have readers, and even after so many editors rejected my pitches, I kept writing. And that hard work mattered. If you want to become a writer, first figure out how to write well. If no one seems interested in publishing your essays or your novels or your short stories, take that as a sign that you need to get better at writing essays, novels, or short stories.
That, plus a whole lot of luck, is how I made it from regular Slate commenter and superfan to Slate contributor. I’m constantly aware of the rarified company I find myself in, from fellow Outward writers like Miz Cracker, Mark Joseph Stern, and J. Bryan Lowder, to the likes of Jamelle Bouie, Laura Helmuth, Will Oremus, and Aisha Harris. The only time I stop pinching myself is when I’m researching or writing a new article!
If you’re a Slate Plus member who also dreams of making it to The Show, I’d love to answer your questions about writing, freelancing for Slate, and the pitching process in the comments section below.