Pitch–Don’t Perfect–Stories

I was reading a post this week in a community forum about an essay writer. She wanted to know how she could find “homes” for her work.

Instantly, I felt strongly that her question revealed the problem. She was writing, storing up essays, without any publication in sight. She was spending her time wrestling over the writing process instead of focusing her time on selling the work.

Her method for selling the work was then to ask other writers to find “homes” for the essays. But her job as a writer–or at least as one who wants to earn money from working–is to do that work too. As you know, a freelance journalist rarely just writes. I can’t tell you how much time I spend searching for markets and connecting with editors. But in doing that work, I know where my work can find a home.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with penning essays and then selling them. Some of our best work can come when we’re not writing an assignment under a deadline. But when you’re looking to make a living out of it, you often have to pitch them first. Or at least know where you eventually want to propose the article. Otherwise, you’re just saying you have a stash of stories waiting to be sold.

So does everyone else. That’s never going to sell your writing, or sell yourself as the writer.

Focus on the Pitch Prior to Writing

This is what I see as one of the top problems that new writers face when they’re trying to break into this field. While I’m an advocate of the “just write” mentality, you’re wasting your business resources–and time–when you write without a focus on selling an article or essay. You’re also wasting your time if you try to perfect your work on your own, because an editor will want to make changes to it after they acquire it.

How do you know a publication will want your article if it’s already written? Maybe the editor wants to give his or her input for a specific angle. If you write it out and spend too much time “perfecting” it, you will be spending more time on it.

In looking at the writer’s guidelines, a publication may want to buy an essay after it’s completed. But don’t assume it. Many outlets want a thoughtful pitch before you begin writing. The editor wants to hear your idea, add something to it to give you direction, and receive a draft that meets his or her requirements.

This is a bit different in the essay-writing field, where a lot of publications want to buy essays on spec. A lot of those markets are low-paying, though.

Here’s my advice in this situation: Have a few publications in mind before you start writing away your best stories and wondering why outlets aren’t lined up to purchase them. If you do draft a piece, don’t worry too much about editing it–just get the idea down. Pitch your essays out so you receive an assignment. Editors rarely ask a writer they’ve never worked with what kinds of essays are sitting on their hard drives.

Your time is precious, and so is your creativity. Nothing kills a creative writer like the person with a trove of stories waiting to “find a home.” Shelter cats find homes. Your work needs to be sold if you’re going to be a reputable working writer.

Find yourself a home with a publication and connect with the editors there. Build up your portfolio. Then, hopefully by the time you have that killer essay idea, you only have to write an elevator pitch about it and you will have that awesome, paying assignment already lined up.

Got questions or just want to connect? Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!


5 Questions You’re Not Asking Sources, But Should Be Asking

As journalists, our job is not to simply ask questions–but to ask the ones that get original comments and insights that inform the reader! While I don’t cover many topics that are controversial and don’t have to ask gripping questions, I like to throw out a question or two during an interview that my source hasn’t heard. As such, I get answers that other publications may not be receiving, which gives my work a different angle. Editors love that.

While some organizations only want the news, you may add value to it by asking a question that other reporters may not think to bring up.

Here are a few that I try to include during interviews.

  1. What surprised you about this? Sometimes we get so wrapped up covering the who/what/when/where/why of things that we forget to prompt our source to give their personal opinion. Instead of inquiring about what the source thinks, ask them what surprised them about something. I love doing this for medical studies because an author likely knows what the outcome of an experiment will be, but you may get more insight into why findings should matter for a reader if you can tell them what surprised the expert. You can also use other feelings in place of “surprised” for other topics, such as “What angered you about this?” or “What pleased you most about this?”
  2. What is the media getting wrong in the coverage about this? I love this one because it gives you a chance to get it right. This can be a huge win because some sources have been interviewed multiple times and see inaccurate articles being posted with their comments referenced or taken out of context. They may be reluctant to share with you because you’re “the media.” When I can come in and “clean up the mess,” I please the source and the publication I’m writing for.
  3. What don’t you want people to take from this? We often ask sources to explain something or share how they feel about it. This doesn’t let the source speak to the reader who may not be fully comprehending the story or the ramifications of the news. This question addresses it!
  4. What does this mean for people? Got a source that can’t quite seem to break technical information down in layman’s terms? Note the audience of your article and ask the source what it means for that specific group of people. When I write consumer health news, I talk to a lot of researchers and doctors who are wrapped up in the findings and may not be able to translate the details into valuable information for consumers. This question helps you target your audience and get your source to speak to them directly.
  5. Anything you want to add off the record? While I’m all about getting the best comment to quote, sometimes you may understand the perspective of an issue by asking for information off the record. Not only can it help you understand an issue or action taken (or not taken), but it can give you insight to prompt another source who will speak about something on the record. It can also lead you to another story idea!

Got questions or just want to connect? Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!