Editor Kayla Webley Adler is a freelancer’s dream. She’s willing to gamble on unknown writers if they bring her a great idea. She’s written a detailed guide to pitching that she’ll share with anyone who asks. And she responds to every pitch she gets — usually within 48 hours.

“I’m told that’s rare,” she says. “I find it pretty quick and painless to respond, and I would rather let people know than letting emails sit in my inbox and getting four follow-ups.”

The Pitch

In an occasional series, Storyboard studies an elusive art: the story pitch. We talk to writers and editors about their tips, tricks and pet peeves, and annotate some real pitches.

That’s not to say it’s easy to land a story with Marie Claire, the women’s glossy that mixes lifestyle advice with tough topics and international stories. Adler, who edits feature-well stories and shorter articles for the magazine’s News Feed section, has herself written about everything from sex trafficking in North Dakota to a Cleveland fertility clinic that destroyed thousands of eggs and embryos, and has edited stories on the wives of ISIS fighters and girls fleeing Boko Haram.

Kayla Webley Adler

Kayla Webley Adler

Below, Adler shares her approach with Storyboard. That is followed by the annotation of a pitch from freelancer Sarah Stankorb that led to “The Daughters’ Great Escape,” a feature about women freeing themselves from Christian patriarchy. As you’ll see, the pitch evolved through a series of email exchanges as Adler helped shape and sharpen the focus.

Fingers crossed that she can keep up her response rate once these tips get out! Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Storyboard: What differentiates Marie Claire from other women’s magazines, like Cosmopolitan, Elle and Glamour?

Adler: Marie Claire was been around for more than 100 years worldwide. When it was founded in the U.S. 24 years ago, its mission was to be a fashion and beauty title that also does serious, hard-hitting and often international features. We joke internally that our readers like their spinach with their swimsuit coverage. Every year, there’s an article about how women’s magazines are now doing politics. We’re thinking, “OK, but we’ve always done this.”

 

What kinds of stories are you looking for in the News Feed section?

This section is a challenge, because we always want stories to feel compelling and urgent, but we have a long lead time. As a result, it’s helpful to hear from writers before the news has happened. For example, maybe a women’s organization has gotten a law passed in a certain country, but it hasn’t been enacted yet and isn’t news here.

Every month we open with a Q&A of 750-1,000 words, usually with newsmakers or women who’ve found themselves at the center of a news storm. Our conversations have included the ex-wife of the Orlando gay nightclub shooter to conservative radio host Tomi Lahren when she was fired for her pro-choice stance to (Illinois Sen.) Tammy Duckworth when she returned to office full-time with her infant in arms. We’re looking for “gets” and trying to lock people into somewhat exclusive interviews, which is a challenge since we’re asking them not to talk for four months in a 24/7 news cycle. So when you pitch, don’t just say you’re interested in interviewing someone; explain how you would approach her and why you might stand a better chance at access.

…when you pitch, don’t just say you’re interested in interviewing someone; explain how you would approach her and why you might stand a better chance at access.

The rest of the section is small items (200-300 words) from all over the world, with a mix of geographic diversity and subject matter. The Genius column, which is 150 words, has the tagline, “One woman, one brilliant idea.” It breaks down her inspiration, compelling statistics, her idea and measurable results.

 

What makes a good Marie Claire feature? Walk me through some of the archetypes and some examples of each.

There’s no topic I think wouldn’t work, as long as it pertains to and includes women in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. It doesn’t have to be newsy. A lot of stories have this model: Here’s a problem that affects women, and here are the women doing something about it. You have the big serious thing you should care about, but also an element of hope. Keep in mind that our lead time is four months. Our features are 2000-2,500 words, but they often run longer.

Here are some of the archetypes:

  • International features. Sometimes they’re grim, like war accounts or a story about women imprisoned in El Salvador for getting abortions. We also look for fun, positive things or social trends in other countries. An example is “The Tanzanian Wives Club,” about a tribe that allowed platonic female friends to get married in order to have the same property rights as men.
  • Investigative stories cover big, meaty topics, like breast cancer charity scams, the rape kit backlog (which won an ASME), or gender bias in medicine.
  • Social trend stories tap into what you, the writer, are talking about with your girlfriends. We’ve done stories on Silicon Valley micro-dosing and “Are Girlfriends the New Husbands?”
  • Fun stories for a bit of balance, like the sex toy revolution or  the “Kardashians of the Middle East,” which took the angle of how social media celebrities in the region were inadvertently pushing social change.
  • We’re not doing as many confessional stories as we used to, but we’re open to the right one.

 

When you get a pitch, how do you factor in existing coverage of the topic?

We pay very close attention to our direct competition: women’s magazines and digital-only women’s sites.  Sometimes we can do the same topic with different characters, but there would have to be a distinct angle as well. If the big national publications do a really big story on a topic, it’s hard to follow that, but there is some wiggle room. For example, if The New York Times does a big story about all sides of an issue, we can focus on how it specifically impacts women.

 

How extensive do you want an initial pitch to be?

I’m always happy if a writer comes to me with, “Would you be interested in this?” before chasing it. It obviously helps if you have an in, and it would be weird for someone to pitch me just one line. But for writers I know or have worked with in the past, I tell them not to waste their time building out a whole pitch because then I can direct them. For new writers, I also don’t need a richly reported, crazy-long pitch. I’m going to have questions regardless. It’s fine to gauge interest, but you might want to include more than one idea.

For new writers, I also don’t need a richly reported, crazy-long pitch. I’m going to have questions regardless.

The length of the pitch is pretty directly correlated to how long takes me to read and respond. So many people attach the full article instead of a pitch. Please don’t do that!

 

You respond to every pitch quickly, you’re editing the news section plus most features in the magazine, and you write a few features every year yourself. What can other editors learn from your time management skills?

I work from 10 to 6, but when I’m at work, I’m very productive. I don’t work weekends or evenings. The fact that I only work on the print side is helpful – breaking news online can disrupt your life more. I’m a big planner and very organized. There are always so many things I hypothetically could be working on, but I pick the things that need my attention most right then. I’m a compulsive archiver: Right now, my work and personal inboxes have a total of six messages. If I’m not doing anything else, I’ll respond to a pitch right away. But I tend to reply first thing in the morning, or at the end of the day, sometimes on the train. I have everything in folders so I can immediately take action and get it out of there.

 

What does Marie Claire pay in print?

The standard rate is $2 a word. There are some exceptions where we pay a flat rate.

 

How do you feel about simultaneous submissions?

I get it, but I think it’s a bit suspect if it’s not a time-sensitive story, especially since I get back to people within 24-48 hours. It wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me, but the writer should definitely disclose that.

 

A SERIES OF EMAILS between Marie Claire editor Kayla Webley Adler and freelancer Sarah Stankorb reveals what Adler needed from Stankorb’s pitch, and how she helped guide the story.

Storyboard’s questions are in red; Adler’s responses are in blue. To read the pitches without the annotations, click the “Hide all annotations” button which is at the bottom of  the right hand menu on this page, or in the top menu of your mobile screen.

 

Layout for "The Daughter's Great Escape" by Sarah Stankorb for Marie Claire

Layout for "The Daughter's Great Escape" by Sarah Stankorb for Marie Claire

 

 

Email 1: Sarah Stankorb (writer) to Kayla Webley Adler (editor)

November 23, 2015

Had you worked with this writer before? She’d written a small item for News Feed, but hadn’t done a feature before.

I have been researching the Stay-at-Home Daughters movement and women who are leading the charge to break away. It’s a strain within evangelical Christianity that encourages girls to stay home, forego college education, devote themselves to their fathers (until they are ready for husbands). It involves homeschooling and “advanced homemaking” training, as well as total deference to one’s father (until marriage). I stumbled upon the SAHD while writing this article on the Quiverfull movement. Bitch covered the growth of Stay-at-Home Daughters about five years ago, but in the interim there have been women like Samantha Field who have broken ranks with the movement and now advocate for other young women; there are others who consider themselves survivors of spiritual abuse and have helped build online support networks. The Bitch story was more of a here’s what is happening article, but in the time since, these daughters have started growing up and their rejection of the Christian Patriarchy Movement is powerful. The movement is obviously culturally retrograde, and interesting, but what compels me are women who are raised to believe and act in submission to the men in their lives, who reach a point where that no longer makes sense to them. It would be about that process of finding self-worth in the face of a faith and family that has trained these women to believe their role is “helpmeet,” in service to men.

What appealed to you about this idea? I was intrigued by the whole theology, to begin with. A lot of times when we think of religious extremists, they’re so “otherized.” The fact that this was fairly mainstream Christians in the U.S. was intriguing. The phrase “advanced homemaking” caught my eye – what the hell is that? The fact that women were helping others get out was a very Marie Claire angle on the story. There was a problem, and women were doing something about it. This initial query is just one paragraph long, and she hasn’t secured access. Why does that work? It’s short, but it covers a lot of ground, which is pretty ideal. This meaty paragraph covers what the thing is, what types of people we might be able to feature, what else has been written about it, and how the story will build on what else is out there.

 

Email 2: REPLY: Editor to writer

November 23, 2015

This is super fascinating (and disturbing!). Just to clarify: this is something you’d like to pitch as a MC feature? I could see my EIC going for it… Some questions, though: How often do you respond to a pitch with questions? Probably 99 percent of the time. Most of the time, the first question is, “What’s the peg for this?” That’s not always the case for features, but is crucial for News Feed. We’re always thinking ahead to when we can run the story, so some sense of timing is important. I’m also often asking for more information on characters and their willingness to talk, as well as where else it’s been written about.

Is the movement gaining steam? If so, how could we demonstrate that?

Is there any way to quantify the number of SAHDs? (the Bitch article says low thousands, which seems *so* low it may not even make sense to write about them, but that was 5 years ago…) Does something have to be a widespread trend for you to cover it? I don’t think there’s a rule on that. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a few families. I know three makes a trend, but we’re a national magazine, so there should be a somewhat large scope.

Seems similar to other fundamentalist/extremist/uber-conservative religions, so why would we do a feature on this one specifically? And, importantly, why now? (And I say that as someone who is very interested in this—I’m just curious to see what you’ll say about this since I may get this question from the higher ups. I suspect I could make the case by saying, look, we expect stuff like this from extremists in the middle east or whatever, but this is Christianity and right in our own country, but again, curious what you have to say about this…)

Would Samantha Field talk to you?

Could you find 3 or so other women like her who have led semi-recently, who haven’t told their stories, and are still in their 20s, 30s? Do all characters have to be in their 20s and 30s? For stories that are character-centric and include a personal anecdotal lede, yes. When stories are more about a topic or issue, we have experts of all ages and genders quoted. (Bonus points for them being willing to use their real names and be photographed) When are you willing to offer anonymity? It’s never ideal or our first choice. If the main source you had won’t use her name, who else can you find? There’s usually not just one source for a story. But there are obviously reasons that women ask for privacy, and it’s a big deal to have something live on Google for the rest of their lives. Sometimes we obscure names not because the women ask for it, but because our legal department does. We use real first names as a second choice and go to pseudonyms only if we have to.

Is there a group like No Longer Quivering for women who have fled SAHD? Why did you ask this? Because sometimes a group can be a good narrative vehicle for the story.

 

Email 3: RESPONSE: Writer to editor

December 8, 2015

Sorry for the delay. I’ve been researching this a bit more, but was also on multiple deadlines, hence the delay in putting it all together.

First, Samantha Field is on-board for an interview/photo. She’s very open and smart, and I think would make a for a great source. I have had trouble tracking down others who will talk on record about having been raised as a SAHD. I’ll keep at it. I think I might be able to get an inroad from No Longer Quivering and convince one of the former SAHD that I’d handle the story sensitively. Were you willing to assign the story with only one character secured? Generally, we aim for at least three when it’s a story about a movement or issue. That’s not something that has to be in place when a pitch happens, but is something I ask for.

This is definitely a timely story, and there is certainly reason right now for believers to question Christian patriarchy. In very recent years, some of the major male patriarchy leaders have fallen: Doug Phillips of Vision Forum (he had to withdraw from his ministry and from the biggest Christian film festival); Bill Gothard (kicked off the board of his own ministry and banned from counseling); and of course, Josh Duggar (not a leader necessarily, but among the most public faces of the movement). I checked in with Christy Winckles, a scholar who researches the Christian patriarchy movement (which advocates for SAHD), and she mentioned that she is just finishing a study on the Duggar family and the transference of Christian patriarchy culture from one generation to the next. I think once that’s complete, it might also add something to the article. What did you make of her response to the “why now” question? It helped a lot. It happened after the story was sold, but another big selling point for the timing of story was Trump’s election and the fact that people who think this way now have more access to the highest ranks of government.

I wonder if it would make more sense to talk to women who abandoned Christian patriarchy generally, which often includes the SAHD teachings and talk about those experiences among others for young women in the movement, because that would be so obviously timely and the number of women impacted would be more numerous. The thrust could be about recovering from spiritual abuse and how these women now help others. And I think it would be easier for me to find women to participate in the story if the scope were just a touch broader.

As for numbers, Winckles said that as far as she knows (and if anyone would know, it would probably be her), none of the few studies on Christian patriarchy have quantified the movement. She did suggest looking at the Gothard Biblical Institute Training Conferences (popular with the Duggars and how many in the movement who are homeschooled, including many of the Duggar kids, meet their spouses). The Institute in Basic Life Principles claims 2.5 million people have attended their seminars since 1964. That’s obviously not a number I would trust (who knows how many times the same person has been counted over multiple seminars, etc.), but it’s a start. From the blog, I see their week-long family conferences have an attendance of around 550-650 people. By my count there were 16 family conferences in 2015. These are week-long conferences that the entire family can attend, so I’m sure these represent a smaller subset of the total number of people in the movement, but I can’t say what that total would be. (There are also loads of other seminars and conferences, but I can’t get a headcount on these.) How did you read her response about the scope of the movement? There has to be something to quantify. If there are hard numbers that’s great, but with theology, that’s not always possible.  I thought this was a smart way of seeking their influence.

Let me know what you think, and I can keep digging!

 

Email 4: REPLY editor back to writer

December 8, 2015

Thanks for this, Sarah. I hear you on it being hard to find SAHD women to talk to, but I think that is really key to this story. I’m not interested in a broader story on Christian women abandoning the patriarchy. Maybe Samantha Field could connect you to other women like her? Stay on it, and let me know if/when you’re able to find 3 former SAHD (in 20s/30s) willing to speak out. Why weren’t you interested in a broader angle? That felt like a topic, not a story. I liked the idea of women helping women get out; I wasn’t looking for the general, loose notion of women escaping patriarchy.

 

Email 5: RESPONSE writer to editor, clarifying story idea

December 9, 2015

Got it. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the system of patriarchy that spans the history of Christianity generally, but an actual movement referred to as “Christian Patriarchy,” also known as Biblical Patriarchy. It’s the school of thought that teaches rearing SAHD, birthing according to Quiverfull practices, living in submission to one’s husband, etc. It’s the umbrella term for all these related teachings, but since there is no single person preaching this (rather many charismatic leaders who refer to one another’s teachings) there isn’t a single doctrine to point to, like you would have in a specific denomination. (This ideology spans denominations/churches.) It’s a collection of ideas that describe the manner in which women must live in Biblical submission to the men in their lives.

But it’s a school of thought that has been adopted by families throughout the country to slightly different degrees. Some only homeschool and live in submission to their husbands and are spiritually manipulative of their kids, but might not insist the girls only train for domestic duties as SAHD. Others do all of it and raise their girls as SAHD. From what I’ve read, it’s a pretty screwed up ideology to grow up with all around, particularly for girls, because whether or not you are strictly speaking raised as a SAHD, your duty is as a “help mete” to the men in your life, and your authority (from interpreting scripture to making life decisions) must be your father, and eventually your husband. I only considered expanding beyond SADH in my hunt because I thought I might also be able to find a woman in her 20s or 30s who could reflect upon this system from the viewpoint of a young married woman, not just a daughter.

Sorry for all the choppiness. Once I find the right sources, I’ll put it together in a nice, clear pitch.

 

Email 6: QUICK REPLY editor to writer, with directive

December 9, 2015

Got it, but I think the whole insisting girls only train for domestic duties is the key thing here. Just homeschooling and living in submission to their husbands is sadly not surprising. I think our sources have to be ex-SAHDs specifically since that would be the thing we say they are in the dek. See who you can track down!

 

Email 7: RESPONSE writer to editor, offering update (Nieman Storyboard note: The actual names of the three women referred to as Jane Does below were in the email pitch to Marie Claire but have been taken out because those sources did not want their identities made public.)

January 8, 2016

First, I wanted to make sure that you saw a lawsuit was filed this week, with ten more women accusing Bill Gothard of sexual abuse. Gothard’s Institute is the one I mentioned before that hosts the conferences so many of these families attend and from which a generation of them got their homeschooling curriculum (he was the source of education and theology for many). It’s more timely than ever to look at all the structures of control here, especially because it so often breeds abuse that is just starting to gather public attention. It’s tragic, but maybe showing how these women got out (and are helping other women) could do some good. How important was the lawsuit in your sense that the story was timely? Not at all—that was just a nice-to-have.

It took a bit, and was complicated by the holidays, but I now have a good list of former SAHD who are willing to be part of an article. Samantha Field is definitely still interested, and I’ll put her description at the end as a reminder. Also:

Jane Doe 1: She has spent the past six years helping other SAHD “escape,” (and mentioned one heartbreaking story of a girl she once helped get out, who then was diagnosed with a terminal disease and had to go back to her family for care until she dies). She is still suffering a few chronic health problems herself which are a result of abuse and neglect she experienced during her years as a SAHD. But she’s set on never returning to her family.

Jane Doe 2: Was a SAHD until 35, which might make her a touch too old for Marie Claire as she’s now 42, but her story is interesting in that her parents attended a Gothard seminar when her mom was pregnant with her, but despite ongoing participation with the movement, remained rather moderate until she was 12. That’s when they joined the Advanced Training Institute, and from that point on she “drank the koolaid” and believed all the teachings, even when her parents began having doubts. Now he entire family is out of the movement.

Jane Doe 3: She was the oldest of 12 but didn’t leave until she was 23. Throughout her teens she began to resent the notion that she was expected to live with her parents until she married, but she believed it, and so stayed. When she did leave, her parents cut her off completely. It’s been five years since she has spoken to them or ten of her remaining siblings. She heard from one brother by text and expressed how much she still loves and misses the family; he flatly rejected her.

Eleanor Skelton: She is among my favorites because she’s so feisty, and I was really hoping she’d agree to the story. She’s an absolute activist, even a tax extreme in the language she uses (but it’s totally understandable once you hear how these women are treated by their families).

Ashley Schnarr-Easter: She was for a time the blogger behind www.stayathomedaughter.com (with about 3,500 followers), but is now an abuse victim advocate and Christian feminist, and she is developing a ministry to assist church leaders to spot and stop abuse (which she feels SAHDs are particularly vulnerable to). She appears to also be taking steps toward the ministry herself, so she is still quite faithful, just taking on a role that would have been unthinkable in the circumstances in which she was raised.

Samantha Field: She’s smart and open, and has quite a tale describing her fight to dictate a career path for herself (other than keeper of the home). She’s also openly bisexual, which coming from her religious upbringing would offer some new dimensions for discussing sexual repression among these girls and women.

That’s it for now. Let me know what I should do in terms of next steps!

What were your thoughts about this list of sources? I liked that there were so many of them. She found many options for women who were willing to talk, most of them were willing to use their names, and they had good connections to their issues. It was nice to see that they weren’t just random women, but also thought leaders. What happened next? She started reporting!

 

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