Rookie, a site for teenagers, is a magical place. Started in 2011 by then-15-year-old Tavi Gevinson, it has since grown into a powerful community of creative, progressive voices and thinkers of all ages. As big fans of (and, full disclosure, sometimes-contributors to) the site, we sat down with friend-of-STET and Rookie’s Story Editor-turned-Managing Editor Lena Singer to find out what she looks for in a pitch, what it’s like working with first-time contributors, and why she’s feeling good about the next generation of storytellers. —Jinnie and Maura
Hi, Lena! What is your role at Rookie?
Right now my title is Managing Editor, and that means I’m charged with making sure that the editorial vision is carried out for whatever our theme is that month. So, I manage our editorial calendar and contributors. We have Tavi, who’s the editor in chief, then we have the publisher, then me and three other editors. We have a pool of contributors, and in any given month we may be working with more than 70 people. I give them their deadlines and make sure they turn their stuff in on time, then work with our other editors to edit and put it on the site.
How does the pitching process work?
A month in advance we’ll send out the theme, which Tavi will write herself and then ask for input from the other editors. That lays out what she has in mind for what the theme is, and then our contributors have a week to come up with pitches. First and foremost, we look at what’s “themely”—if pitches fit with the theme.
How do you know if something’s a good pitch?
Personally, I think about three things, which are: One, will this thing, whether it’s an essay, a photo set, a comic, or whatever, make a teenager feel less alone? Two, will it give them information that they’ve asked for [through our advice email account, social media, or comments], or information they might be looking for, whether it’s about sex, or school, or whatever? And three, will it make the reader laugh? A pitch doesn’t have to satisfy all three criteria, but if it does, it’s going to get my attention.
For many of your contributors, Rookie is the first place they’re being published, so they don’t have a “body of work” when other websites may request sample clips.
Yeah, clips don’t really come into play—someone might be really funny on Twitter or send a couple of poems that are amazing. Recently Rookie started this thing called “Creative Prompt.” Every week, two of our writers give a writing or visual [art] assignment to our readers, and sometimes we’ll receive something that completely amazes me. I’ll definitely write to that reader and say, “Hey, have you ever thought about pitching? Do you ever write?” or “You made this amazing collage, would you want to illustrate for us?” And the same with our poetry roundups. Sometimes somebody is so talented [that it shows] with even a tiny piece of writing or art.
When young readers get in touch with you to for career advice, what are they looking for?
Young people, mostly young women, when they reach out to me, are looking for permission to do what they want to do. A couple years ago I talked with this woman in her early 20s on the phone, and then we met up in person a year ago, and both times she was saying she was in a job she didn’t like and that she wished she were freelancing. Recently I got a LinkedIn notification that she is now freelancing. I don’t take any credit—she already knew what she wanted to do, but it seemed she needed someone to sit down with her and say it’s all right. Most people want reassurance.
How has Rookie evolved over the years?
I wasn’t at Rookie when it launched—I joined a year and half after—but [the people in] that earliest crew are in their early 20s now, and they’re slaying. Knowing the contributors we’re working with now, the same is going to be true for them. And that will never stop happening, because Rookie contributors are the best people in the world.
It’s like you launched their careers.
They launched us—we wouldn’t exist without them! We owe so much to them. It’s mutually beneficial. We need each other. Actually—they don’t need us! We need them.
Do you find that a fear many young writers have is, “I haven’t had enough life experiences or haven’t had a weird and wacky, cool thing happen to me, so I have nothing to write about?”
Yeah, and that’s something that’s come up in Tavi’s editors letters. I think that’s something Enormous Eye [launched by Rookie contributor Amy Rose Spiegel] does really well, which is showing people you don’t have to have had something fantastic or traumatic happen to you for you to be able to tell a story about your own life. Each Enormous Eye entry is [a recounting of] one day, and it’s totally fascinating to read. I think Tavi, as much as she can, has been trying to encourage our readers to look at that kind of writing as something that they can do if they want to write.
What do you think makes a good editor?
The best editors trust that their writers and staff are capable, talented people.The best editors I’ve ever worked with—and this is Tavi—set the tone or give a little direction and then they let people run with it. That works out really well. If you’ve got the right people working together, then they’ll do something that you wouldn’t even have expected. I know that sounds really trite, but it’s true. I don’t think anybody works well when they feel someone’s right over their shoulder, breathing down their neck, waiting for them to mess up; that doesn’t help anyone. Let people be as free as possible.
What are some of your pet peeves?
One of my pet peeves is when a writer says [in pitches], “I know what your readers need.” It’s like, “Do you?” I don’t tell our readers what they need, so why should I let you tell them?
Is there a Rookie piece that you’re really proud of?
Yes. So many, but “The Horny Girl’s Guide to Life” immediately comes to mind. Marie Lodi is the funniest person, and letting her rip and pull out all the stops in talking to other horny girls of the world—specifically teenagers—was really fun and gratifying.
So much has already been covered on Rookie. How do you find newer, fresher things to publish?
Even if, for example, we’ve written about kissing, it’s not off-limits. We can write about kissing again. [Laughs] Somebody could come to us when they’re 13 and get something completely different from the site when they’re 17. But then hopefully there’s always going to be another 13-year-old coming to us for information on what kissing’s all about.
Working with Rookie contributors, do you think the experience of being 13 has changed a lot since you were a teenager?
I was 13 in the ’90s. But reading about what 13-year-olds have questions about, how they respond to our articles, I think that teenagers now are pretty similar. I truly love working with them. I have no worries for the future. At least if they’re in charge someday.