By Sue Sinclair
How do I pitch a review or critical essay? As concerns about the lack of reviews by women and about women’s work have been mulled over in literary communities, the need to address this practical question has emerged. Of the various responses offered, two are common. One is from editors, who observe that women tend not to pitch criticism nearly as often as men do. The other is from women, saying they’re not always sure how to go about pitching.
Together these responses show that while there are questions about how the culture of criticism might become more hospitable to women, there also seems to be an issue of mechanics when women are inclined to participate in criticism. In the interest of connecting interested editors with potential critics, I’ve solicited the opinions of several editors of newspapers, magazines and literary journals on the subject of pitching. Huge thanks to these busy people for their willingness to participate. (If other editors are interested in participating, please don’t hesitate to get in touch through the CWILA website).
Before we get into nuts and bolts, however, a thought. I’m CWILA’s critic-in-residence this year, but when it comes to pitching, I’m not a natural; it’s been a challenge for me. But it strikes me that pitching is ultimately not rocket science: it’s always some variation on here’s who I am, here’s what I want to write, here’s why giving me space to write this is worthwhile. I wonder how many women who have expressed doubt about how to pitch are ultimately like me: needing reassurance that they’re entitled to pitch more than they need instruction in the mechanics.
That being said, I’m willing to take those who say they don’t know how to pitch at their word—that’s why the rest of this article exists. But I hope it will also be useful for those who are working toward feeling entitled: to be offered some how-to is implicitly to be acknowledged as entitled to pitch. And I know from my own experience how reassuring it can be to have a framework to hold onto as one moves into uncertain territory.
With all this in mind, I asked several reviews editors what they look for in a pitch. I invited each of them to either write a paragraph or answer a set of five questions I offered. First-time critics can be heartened by the degree of openness to first-timers who demonstrate skill/style/intelligence. “I need ideas, not experts,” says Sina Queyras of Lemon Hound, and Jared Bland of The Globe & Mail says, “…most of all I’m interested in getting a sense of how a prospective reviewer thinks and writes. We want big ideas, stylish prose, challenging arguments, unexpected points of view.” Brecken Hancock of Arc writes, “We’re excited to foster reviews from anyone who’s interested in participating in the critical conversation.”
With regard to length, the consensus is that a short pitch is best—time is precious for most editors. But potential critics should note differences among editors when it comes to the question of whether to pitch a review of a specific book/books and/or to pitch oneself as a reviewer/critic (Question 3). Many journals have on-line submission guidelines, and it’s always advisable to consult those. Perhaps even more important is an admonition from Maurice Mierau of The Winnipeg Review, “[P]lease read the magazine”! Several editors mentioned the obvious fact that familiarity with the content and style of criticism of a journal or newspaper is essential. With regard to reviews themselves, several also warn against writing plot summaries rather than critiques.
Below I’ve assembled the responses to each of the five questions I asked of reviews editors (listed alphabetically by journal/newspaper). After that I have included the block paragraphs from those who chose to respond in that format. Here’s hoping that some of these responses will be of use both to individuals and to the continued development of a rich critical culture
—Sue Sinclair, CWILA Critic-in-Residence, 2013
Question 1: Are there credentials you require/prefer in a potential critic?
Arc: “[W]e’re excited to foster reviews from anyone who’s interested in participating in the critical conversation.”—Brecken Hancock, Reviews Editor
Brick accepts only completed pieces, but “doesn’t tend to care about credentials or experience, so long as the piece is well written and interesting to read.”—Laurie Graham, Assistant Editor & Circulation Manager
Canadian Literature: “Because Canadian Literature is an academic journal that relies on peer review, we tend to look for reviewers with at least an MA. We make exceptions for published writers, though. If someone has published a collection of poetry or a work of fiction, we consider her to be a peer and welcome a review from her.”
—Laura Moss, Reviews Editor
Event: “I really do appreciate reviewers with some experience…though I have certainly given first-time writers a shot…Further, a potential reviewer should know how to write—you may be thinking that this goes without saying, but I’ve had pitches (and samples) that were badly written! A clear voice, even a personality, emerging in the review is also something I look for (without the review becoming about the reviewer, of course).—Susan Wasserman, Reviews Editor
The Fiddlehead: “If intelligence and sensitivity are credentials, I want them.”
—Sabine Campbell, Reviews Editor
Lemon Hound: “There are no specific credentials I am looking for in a critic other than energy, which is palpable in an email, an eye for reading, obvious in a review, and a willingness to have opinions or an ability to pose questions. // I do not need experts, I need good readers. // You don’t need experience, you need to be self-motivated and willing to learn.”—Sina Queyras, Founding Editor & Publisher
The Malahat Review: “[W]e would prefer someone with past reviewing experience, but it’s not required. In the past year we’ve assigned books to a handful of “new” reviewers, with varying results… It’s desirable that reviewers are well-read within their preferred genre, or have published work in that area themselves. Sometimes we are able to match books with reviewers who have held careers or have degrees within the book’s subject area; for example, we have just assigned Stephen Reid’s prison memoir to a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University.—Rhonda Batchelor, Reviews Editor
The National Post: “No credentials, besides being a perceptive reader and a capable writer. I’ve assigned quite a few reviews to writers who’ve never written for a major books section before.”—Mark Medley, Books Editor
The Winnipeg Review: “I can never find enough competent book reviewers, and especially wish I could publish more women, who dominate the marketplace as consumers but not, alas, as critics… It’s always easier to work with people who have experience writing book reviews and experience/education in literature and Canadian lit specifically. However, I’ll work with people who are beginners, especially if they’re eager to get a credit and patient about doing several drafts.”—Maurice Mierau, Editor
Question 2: Should critics include a sample of work when pitching? A CV?
Arc: “[P]lease include a brief bio and an overview of related experience—you don’t have to include anything overly formal, but it helps if we know how experienced you are and what your background might be… Don’t be intimidated, though, if you don’t have any “related experience,” as we’re keen to publish new reviewers without a track record. Be honest and discuss your enthusiasm for a chance to participate in Canada’s critical culture and we’ll be excited to give you a shot.”—BH
Canadian Literature: “Yes. Absolutely include a sample of work (one is enough) and a brief CV—one page is okay. (Can be a highlights kind of CV, really the person looking at it is only looking at level of education and publications.) Critics should also include a brief description of the types of books they would prefer to review (by genre or topic).”—LM
Event: “Yes, a sample or two (or three) of previous reviews are essential, though I have certainly given first-time writers a shot.”—SW // “…[I]nclude any pertinent information about yourself that may be useful to us (i.e., publications, experience, any work one does in the literary/arts community). Links to previous reviews would also be helpful… If you are a novice reviewer, it might be a nice touch to send a sample review written on spec. We probably wouldn’t run a review written on spec, but at least we’d be able to get a sense of your writing.”—Elizabeth Bachinsky, Editor-in-Chief
The Fiddlehead: “Sample of work—definitely.”—SC
Lemon Hound: “I do not need CVs, I need ideas. // What are ideas? Here are a few I would like to see:
- I would like to do a series of poetry reviews. I am interested in thinking about the role of lyric poetry in contemporary eco-criticism and would like to choose texts that are working in this intersection.
- I would like to do a monthly column for LH. I am interested in contemporary fiction and would like to look at key scenes in half a dozen recovered, discovered, or newly reissued texts (for example, Rukeyser’s novel, Adler’s Speed Boat).
- Hi, Sina, I am actually interested in tracing the language of reviewing. I would like to look at six Canadian poets, Karen Solie, Don McKay, Margaret Christakos, Erin Mouré, Ken Babstock and AF Moritz. I am interested in the tensions in the discussions of personality and poetics, how in the one instance references to a poet’s life can seem essential to the review, and in another a personal attack. I see a series of eight columns, one that introduces, six that look at each different author, and a final column that wraps things up.”—SQ
The Malahat Review: “A sample of work is probably more helpful than a CV, but if the former is not available for whatever reasons, a resume or list of publications would be good.”—RH
The National Post: “No, critics don’t have to send samples of their work or a CV. A list of places they’ve published is sufficient. I can look them up if need be.”—MM
The Winnipeg Review: “[L]inks to on-line writing are good. If you have reviewed for a paper mag or newspaper, certainly say so. I don’t need a CV but like to know what experience potential writers have.”—MM
Question 3: Do you prefer that critics pitch a review of a particular book/books or ask for an assignment?
Arc: “If you’ve never written for Arc before, we prefer that you pitch us a review or ask to become one of our regular contributing reviewers, rather than sending us already-written material. We like to have a chance to discuss your pitch among the prose committee. If what you propose doesn’t meet our needs, we won’t simply turn you away. We might ask you to choose a book from our inventory, or we might redirect you in a way that fits more specifically with what we’re looking for. Once you are on our regular list of reviewers, you will receive our book list during our regular call for reviews and you can simply suggest to us which book you’d prefer. We’ll let you know if we can accommodate you based on a couple of factors, including whether or not anyone else has asked for the same book.”—BH
Brick: “[W]e only consider completed pieces—but we’ve been known to respond to the odd query if someone shares a strong idea and it sounds suitable for the magazine. My response, however, is always to send in the finished piece so we can take a look at it and decide from there.”—LG
Canadian Literature: “We don’t accept unsolicited reviews but we welcome/love it when someone approaches us with a note of interest. We will put her name in our reviewer database and then call on her when we have a good set of books to review. Periodic reminders of interest are welcome too.”—LM
Event: “We don’t look for people to pitch us reviews of particular titles as we prefer to honour those presses who send us review copies by reviewing their books, but we do appreciate it when people approach us with a desire to review.”—EB
The Fiddlehead prefers that prospective critics ask for an assignment.
The Malahat Review: “We prefer to assign books that we select from review copies received in our office. We are always happy to hear from potential reviewers and make every attempt to give them an assignment within the year.”—RB
The National Post: “I’m always open to pitches. But, it’s better if they pitch themselves rather than a book. I have a list of about 200 writers—people who write for me on a regular basis, or people who’ve expressed a desire to write for me, or people who I want writing for me—and I send them all a list of books I want reviewed two to three times a year—basically, at the start of every season. So, if you want to get on that list, just send me a note explaining who you are, what kind of books you like and (this is not necessary) a list of publications for whom you’ve written.”—MM
The Winnipeg Review: “I generally prefer that critics ask for an assignment.”—MM
Question 4: How short/long a pitch do you like to see?
Arc: “Please make your pitches short and clear. One thing I’ve noticed is that we’re quite overworked as a board (probably all boards are!), so it’s important to strike a balance between providing us with the necessary information and being succinct. We do not want to know your life story. Again, I want to point out that it’s pretty easy to get a chance to write for Arc, so don’t over-think it.”—BH
Canadian Literature: “Short. One paragraph is enough and include the CV, sample, and list of interests.”—LM
Event: “A short query would suffice.”—EB
The Fiddlehead: “Short letter.”—SC
The National Post: “If someone has written for me before, or I know their work, I might assign a book review simply on the basis of an email like “I’d like to review X by Y.” However, if it’s your first time writing for me, a detailed, well-written pitch is the best way to impress me. Why do you want to review this book? Are you familiar with the author’s work? Did you like it? What angle, even if you haven’t yet read the new book, do you plan on taking?”—MM
The Winnipeg Review: “Really short.”—MM
Question 5: Any faux pas you’d advise against?
Arc: “In a good review, we look for readability, critical engagement that doesn’t become overly academic, and, ideally, an attention to argument that transcends mere description of the book’s contents.”—BH
Brick: “People writing to us should be aware of the type of writing Brick tends to publish and the type of review section it has.”—LG
Canadian Literature: “Proofread your CV and letter of interest. It is vital that you present in a professional manner. Also make sure you are well aware of conflicts of interest. If someone suggests writing a review on a friend (an acquaintance is okay) and we find out, we strike the reviewer from our list.”—LM
Event: “I always say keep it professional. Don’t send us head shots of your baby, or your dog, or yourself! Keep it simple, keep it professional, and you’ll have a better chance of working with us.”—EB // “I do appreciate prospective reviewers expressing an interest in Event itself—if they demonstrate that they have looked at our magazine and noted, for example, that we don’t run single-book reviews, well that’s a bonus… Also, if the sample(s) accompanying or following a pitch are overly negative and dismissive (trashing a book or writer, for example), I would likely not be interested in this writer as a potential reviewer. Criticism has an important place in a review, of course, but we try to be supportive of the books reviewed.”—SW
The Fiddlehead: “A good thoughtful review will speak for itself—if the pitcher brags, uses incorrect grammar, unclear sentences, it will turn me off…Though I’m happy always to edit if I think the review is thoughtful, gives credence to the work… [Also, r]ead the magazine, or at least a few reviews in a few issues before you approach a journal. And make sure you’ve addressed the right journal. I remember lots of letters from writers who forgot to change the addressee.”—SC
Lemon Hound: “Do not waste my time. I haven’t got much and I get grumpy when my time is wasted. // How can you not waste it? Do your thinking before you approach me, or any other magazine. // Come with several, specific ideas in hand; do not come with, “I really admire what you do on Lemon Hound and would like to write something.” This is not a pitch. This just means you want me, or whatever other editor you send this email to, to do your thinking for you.”—SQ
The Malahat Review: “Well, self-confidence is one thing, but overselling oneself with pages and pages of past achievements can do more harm than good (from my personal perspective). A polite, brief enquiry, accompanied by select and salient examples of your work, is all that’s needed.”—RH
The National Post: “Don’t call.”—MM
The Winnipeg Review: “Paying no attention to where you’re pitching. In other words, please read the magazine. When you send a review or other draft, pay attention to the format the mag uses. Don’t waste the time of on-line editors in particular by double-spacing after periods, using tabs, sending files in obsolete formats (e.g., WordPerfect), or otherwise over-massaging your text formatting.”—MM
The Globe & Mail: “In a pitch, I look for a few simple things. First, it needs to be related to books that are publishing far enough in advance that I’ve not yet assigned them. Generally, that means books that are at least two to three months out, if not longer. I look for a sense of why the reviewer is interested in that book or books—do they know the writer’s work well? Is it on a subject they have particular interest in? And then I like to know why the reviewer pitching is the right person to review a book. Interest isn’t usually sufficient, but it sometimes is. And most of all I’m interested in getting a sense of how a prospective reviewer thinks and writes. We want big ideas, stylish prose, challenging arguments, unexpected points of view. I’m not especially into plot summary, though a small amount is sometimes necessary. I love pitches that show that a person has an original take on a new book, a way of looking at something that places it in a broader argument or trend or literary context—pitches that show how a review can be more than just a review, in other words.”—Jared Bland, Books Editor
The Puritan: “We are looking for insightful and challenging reviews of recently released fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Reviews can be up to 3,000 words in length. We prefer to publish reviews of books released by small(er) Canadian publishers, but are open to other works, as well. Please supply your review with a title, and the necessary information about the book you are reviewing. Send only one review at a time. Abide by the following model—title, publisher, year, price, number of pages, and then your name, like so: “Ahead of His Time”: A Review of Thomas Morton’s The New English Canaan. / The Prince Society, 1883. / $19.95, 300 pages. / Review by Mortimer Sneed. If you would like to review on a regular basis for The Puritan, please send us a sample review, and we may enlist you in our ever-growing team of elect reviewers.”
Lastly, two notes on gender:
Arc: “ I just want to mention that, as a board, we’ve recently been discussing our “count” as CWILA prepares to release the new numbers. Interestingly, although our reviewers are almost 50/50 male/female, we have some work to do in boosting our reviews of books by women. It’s something we are discussing and it’s something we’re invested in keeping track of. That said, because we don’t tend to steer our reviewers any particular way, and the vast majority of reviewers choose the books that they’d like to review without any advice from us, I would encourage reviewers, in general, to consider their own, individual “count” and pitch and review with some self-reflexivity. I don’t mean to shift responsibility onto reviewers—Arc’s numbers are Arc’s responsibility. But I have noticed that recently the numbers have started to even out quite easily at Arc and it could be that reviewers’ attention has more broadly become engaged with the issue of gender representation in the critical culture.”—BH
The Winnipeg Review: “[TWR] publishes mostly reviews of Canadian fiction, more than 80 a year. The magazine gets a small amount of Canada Council money, nearly all of which goes to the contributors. I can never find enough competent book reviewers, and especially wish I could publish more women, who dominate the marketplace as consumers but not, alas, as critics. TWR also publishes a small amount of poetry, fiction, satire, and literary journalism, and nearly all the pitches I get are from men. I’d like that to change.”—MM
Good luck with your pitching! And most importantly, good luck with the writing itself.