Catapult Extra A Conversation with Jess Zimmerman
“I’m on the lookout for a clear idea of your audience, and a generosity toward them.”
Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in My Catapult, Hazlitt, Guardian, The New Republic, The Hairpin, The Toast, Aeon, and others; she has authored and edited some of my favorite essays, and is also on my personal list of Editors Who Have Never Edited Work and Sometimes This Fact Keeps Me Awake At Night. Jess currently edits essays for The Establishment and Atlas Obscura, and was kind enough to chat with me about her editorial philosophy, what she looks for in a pitch, her own writing process, and more.
Where have you edited before, and where are you currently editing?
My first editing “job” was a one-day gig where my mom took me to work at the Washington Post health section when I was about 8. She let me read her pieces, which I’m sure I did with incredible seriousness/pomposity, and I also made the person who wrote the “health news for kids” column change her headline. My mom went back to being freelance shortly thereafter, but I can’t say for sure that was my fault.
I’m a contributing editor at The Establishment , please send me your very best ideas! I also do freelance editing for other publications; right now I’m doing some work at Atlas Obscura , where we mostly run reported articles about the strange and wondrous, but I’ve also been authorized to bring in some personal essays about Atlas-y topics if they’re great! So if your aunt discovered Francium or you spent a year in Sealand or you once nearly killed yourself swallowing swords, get at me. (Only not necessarily those specific ones. The first one is already a piece , and the last one happened to my boyfriend and I’ve been trying to get him to write about it for me for three years. If you spent a year in Sealand, though, please email.)
What are some of your favorite essays you’ve edited?
Most of the stuff I edit for The Establishment would properly fall under opinion, rather than essay, but here are a few I love that I think qualify: Men And Other Predators I Fear At Night , What Happens To The American Dream When America Wakes Up? , and A Child Of Refugees, On The Front Lines Of The U.S. Border War . I barely touched that last one, to be honest, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
My favorite Archipelago essays are too numerous to list, but I’ll mention Three Months Without Breathing , I Didn’t Know I Was A Boy , I Was Taught To Be Grateful For Catcalls , and Not Everyone Feels This Way .
I’m often asked what “a good pitch looks like.” This varies from editor to editor and publication to publication, but what do you look for when you’re considering pitches? And do you prefer pitches/proposals or drafts?
The drum I beat the loudest, which I bet is true across different editors and publications, is FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE PUT A DESCRIPTIVE SUBJECT LINE ON YOUR EMAIL. I think I once said on Twitter that “Even ‘Pitch: My Butt’ will get read before ‘Article idea.'”
When I taught rhetorical writing, one of the things we used to bang on endlessly about was exigence , which is basically the so-whattiness of a piece of writing: the reason it’s urgent for you to write this and for me to read it. Exigence in a published piece starts with the headline, and in a pitch it starts with the subject line. Tell me why I care. To be honest, exigence is what I look for in a pitch generally. There’s a flood of #content on the internet every day, so I want to be convinced that you’re bringing something I urgently need to see. Sometimes people pitch with “I’d like to write about x” but don’t really get as far as “and here’s why it’s important.”
Relatedly, in my own writing, I’m weirdly obsessed with generosity : it’s not enough to have something to say, you need to have an idea of what it will give to the reader. So that’s something I’m on the lookout for as well: a clear idea of your audience, and a generosity toward them.
At The Establishment we work with a lot of less established writers (the name is ironic!!), so if you haven’t published with us before and you can’t send clips it doesn’t hurt to send a full piece if you have one. But on the whole, I prefer pitches, because writing online doesn’t pay well and I don’t think people should do it on spec.
Once a draft is in, how do you approach editing? What’s your editorial philosophy, if you have one?
I always wind up using architectural metaphors—ask people who’ve written for me how often I say “scaffold”! What I’m looking for in a final product is, I think, what an architect is looking for: beauty, functionality, and a strong framework, all of which buttress (THERE’S ANOTHER ONE) each other without interfering. Some pieces need help shoring up the frame, some need cladding, some just need new cornices, sometimes people need oversight in knocking it all down and re-laying the foundation. What I’m not going to do is put gargoyles on your postmodern masterpiece.
What’s your favorite thing about working with writers on essays? And what’s one of your pet peeves as an editor?
I love so much about working with writers, but I would say my favorite thing is when I make a relatively open-ended comment (you know, “could you expand on this?”) and then they come back with something that’s more brilliant than I could ever dream. I’m pretty hands-on, and I’ll often add language if I think the piece needs a clearer thesis sentence or a new kicker or a better transition. I always tell people to feel free to change them, but they often stand because I have a pretty good ear for voice. But I love it when I just gesture toward the change and they run with it. I have one writer (it’s Carol Hood!) where I’ll add a sentence and then write a marginal note like “something along these lines but cooler and funnier” and she nails it every time.
Like any editor, I am not a fan of brittleness; you can absolutely push back on any edit I make, but do it with respect. I’m old, smart, and good at my job; I know what I’m doing, and I’d like to be treated that way. (Even if you don’t agree! If you want to be published in the publication I’m working for, just do your best.) You probably know what you’re doing too, so let’s talk about it like adults.
I guess that’s not really a pet peeve, is it? How’s this one: using “fast forward” to move in time. I hate this! I hate it unreasonably! I will always change it.
What’s your process when you’re writing one of your own brilliant essays (like this one or this one, just to choose two of my favorites)? Where do your ideas generally come from; how do you get started?
Usually I come up with sentences rather than ideas, and then the sentences sort of build a piece around themselves. Sometimes it’s the first sentence but often it’s not—for the Google maps essay for Catapult, it was the first sentence, but for “Hunger Makes Me,” the sentence “want less, and you will always have enough” long predated the rest of it.
I have yet to figure out a way to make this deliberate praxis, but I walk the dog every day, and my best sentences happen while walking the dog. If I’m lucky and smart, I stop and write them down (I have a tiny notebook, like an asshole, but it’s only on me a fraction of the time; often I email stuff to myself on my phone). Sometimes I’ll find them in my email drafts way later, which is what happened with “Hunger Makes Me.” That sentence was from May 2015.
Can you offer some advice to pitching writers?
Know why someone would want to read your piece, not just why you want to write it. And ask for more money.