SUBMITTING YOUR WRITING TO PUBLICATIONS AND GETTING PUBLISHED
"You should write a reportage," my writing mentor said. "When you go to Russia, talk to people. Ask them what they think about Trump. Everyone wants to know." So I did. And it resulted in my story getting published on Vox under the title of "My conversations with Russians about Donald Trump."
Many of you have asked me to write about the submission process: "How did you do it? How did you pitch this? How did you make it happen?"
First of all, I didn't make it happen on my own. It was an effort of a whole community. My writing mentor who prompted me to do it (without him the idea would've never crossed my mind), writer Allena Tapia who doesn't know me but whose article Sample Magazine Query or Pitch Petter I used as a blueprint for my pitch, my editor Sarah Grace Liu who has edited the essay draft before I submitted it, Vox editor Eleanor Barkhorn who has edited several drafts of the article and who has guided me to writing the final piece with her suggestions and comments, and you, my readers. One of you (I tried to find you in all my messages, but couldn't; there were too many; please comment so we can all thank you!) have sent me a link to 30 Publications that Pay Writers for Personal Essays, where at the very bottom I saw that Vox accepts personal essays to feature in Vox First Person. I'd heard of Vox before and I've read their articles and fell in love with their mission, but if not for this resource, I would've never submitted my essay there. So you see, it wasn't just me. It was a whole lot of people who made this a reality.
Now, to your questions. I'll answer them in the shape of the lessons I learned while doing it (ask more in comments, and I'll answer as many as I can).
LESSON 1: ASK PEOPLE FOR PERMISSION
When I arrived in Moscow, most of the time I didn't even have to ask the questions I prepared as almost every conversation turned to American politics (and then to Russian politics) one way or another. I took notes on my phone to remember specific details people mentioned, or certain phrases, or key words that would help me remember what they said when I was back. The one thing I did wrong was, I failed to ask people's permission if I could use their names in the essay. I did tell them I was going to write about this (which resulted in silence in some cases), but I had to contact everyone I'd mentioned to ask for permission later. So, Lesson 1: when doing this kind of journalistic work, truth is imperative. Only when your interview subjects explicitly ask you not to use their names or there is danger to their well-being can you use pseudonyms (experienced journalists, correct me if I'm wrong). You can also simply describe them without mentioning their name. For example, "a retired woman in her 60s."
LESSON 2: JOT DOWN YOUR ANALYSIS
This is something I should've done right away, and again, because I'm new to reporting, I didn't think about it. I had reactions (often unspoken) to everything that was being said, and I'd done my own analysis in my head on why one or another thing was being said, but I didn't take notes. So later, when working with Eleanor, I had to pull it out of my brain, and it was painful. In fact, I have spent 12 hours (an entire day, with hardly a break) on adding 500 or so words to the piece—my emotions and analysis—because I had to sit and think and remember and crosscheck and tie it into the narrative. In the future I'll be smarter.
LESSON 3: INVOLVE YOUR COMMUNITY
Throughout the whole process of writing the essay, editing it, submitting it, and waiting for a response, I talked online about it all, and your support was what kept me going. Without it I probably would've chickened out. When I finished writing the first draft, I looked at it and thought, "Nah. Nobody would be interested in reading this. Why even bother?" This is the hateful fraud police that lives in our writers' minds, in a deep dark place full of deep dark thoughts. "I'm no good, my writing is no good, I'll go shoot myself" is the typical downward spiral. If not for my community, I don't think I'd have the guts to do it.
LESSON 4: HAVE NO EXPECTATIONS
I speak about this all the time, because this is the hardest truth to grasp. Don't assume that just because you wrote something amazing, it will be accepted somewhere. And don't assume that just because it wasn't accepted anywhere, it wasn't amazing! So much of this involves chance and luck. For example, there are rules (or perceived rules, as some knowledgeable people will tell you) about getting someone's attention, like: "It's better to submit on a Tuesday morning" or some shit like that. I used to tout these, and now I know it's all moot. Yeah, it might get your chances up, but really you won't know. Too many factors are involved. I did all my submissions on a Sunday night. Supposedly, the worst time possible. Why? Because it was the only time I had. I just wanted to be done with it and forget about it, because I thought I wouldn't get any response anyway. So imagine my shock on Monday morning when I did get a response. Wow!
LESSON 5: JUST FUCKING DO IT
Before fear grips you, do it and be done with it and forget about it. Move on to other things, like writing your books or whatever it is you're writing. Pretend like it never happened. It's like throwing stones into a lake. You throw one stone, it makes ripples. You throw more stones, they make more ripples. The bigger the stones, the bigger the ripples. Eventually the ripples (that is, if you keep throwing stones) will get big enough to get someone's attention. Then that person will reach out to you. And then stuff will start happening. My big ripple was getting my writing mentor. We met on Twitter, because I threw a stone at him (in the shape of a sarcastic tweet), and he responded. It turned out, we lived not too far from one another. So we met, and the rest is history.