Are you approaching freelancing all wrong?
You could say I’m a slow learner. I’ve been writing and editing professionally for more than 20 years, and only this year did I realize that I’ve been approaching my freelance career backwards. The conventional wisdom suggests that success comes to the freelancer who studies the markets and pitches stories that she thinks editors are looking for. And it works! You can pay the rent forever by offering editors the low-hanging fruit, the service stories on the latest gadgets or how to slice a pie in seven ways. But I now think it’s the absolutely wrong way to go about freelancing, unless your greatest ambition is to pay the rent. (If it is, I’d suggest there are easier careers with which to do it.)
I think we should be identifying the stories we’re passionate about, going after them, digging deeply, and offering them to markets that fit — not finding the markets first and then searching for a story. There is, in fact, a market for every story, and why go into this business if you’re not in love with learning new things, meeting new people, investigating new ideas or illuminating the conflict between two passionately motivated groups? Why go into freelancing if you don’t love telling stories?
So I’ve started looking for the “big stories” –the stories about issues I care about and that really matter. It’s given me a new lease on my writing life. And when I met with a new-to-me editor in N.Y. recently, he loved my pitch on a big, meaty subject, even though it will mean big travel expenses for him. He wasn’t interested in my other pitch, a “low-hanging fruit,” easy profile. I’d pitched the profile to him because it fit his demographic and I could toss it off easily. Guess which story I’m in love with? His reaction proved my thesis — that pursuing stories that interest me, outrage me, and scare me is the right way to go.
At a meeting of Way North Writers last week, I noticed that one writer with great ideas is pitching local papers that pay almost nothing with stories that could be national. Despite talent and a deep well of knowledge and experience, he’s constricted by fear. He has phenomenal potential, and yet he’s holding himself back, doing the small stories to pay the rent. It’s hard to watch.
Interestingly, at the Nieman Conference last month, freelancer Dan Baum, a long-time New Yorker writer, said, “Most freelancers think way too small.” He advises doing just what I’m talking about — pitching the big, meaty, controversial stories that get you jazzed. It’s the way in to your dream publications, but more importantly, it’s the way to maintain inspiration and purpose in your writing. And maybe in your life.
What do you think? How do you approach story ideas? Do you hold yourself back?
We’ll discuss this — and a myriad of other intriguing and challenging questions — in the next session of Magazine Writing Basics, which starts on Monday. It’s not too late to sign up. [Elaine Appleton Grant]