When it comes to freelancing, ideas are currency.
This is especially true when first pitching a publication, or when you’re still in the early throes of developing that editor/writer relationship. As the managing editor of Writer’s Digest, far too often do query letters cross my desk in which the idea being pitched is excessively generic—“10 Tips to Finally Publish That Novel” or “5 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block.” Such bland pitches demonstrate a lack of familiarity with our publication, as any regular reader would know that we frequently cover such topics, but do so from creative angles or with original insight. As a writer, you have to bring something fresh to the table.
This post is part of a series of freelance writing-related posts from Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.
A truly unique pitch, on the other hand, will excite an editor more than a Monday-morning box of Krispy Kreme. Back in November, Zachary Petit—the editor-in-chief of Print magazine and the author of The Essential Guide to Freelancing—posted an excellent piece that detailed innovative ways to come up with inspired article ideas. I’d like to build upon his suggestions with a few specific recommendations of my own, along with some examples of how I’ve put them to use in my own freelancing career.
Peruse Reddit for Leads
Reddit.com is the undeniable epicenter of niche nerd culture. Within this online bulletin board, you can find such narrow enthusiast communities as the subreddits r/legaladvice, r/askhistorians (and stranger ones such as r/WhatIsThisThing and r/showerthoughts), as well as all sorts of quirky information from around the world. Use reddit as portal to introduce you to strange facts or compelling premises you can then dig into in further detail.
For instance, in the subreddit r/Outdoors, I once stumbled across a blog post by an Irish swimmer who had just completed his first Ice Mile—an official challenge in which participants must complete a mile-long slog through sub 38-degree water without wearing a wet suit. Curious, I reached out to the swimmer, read up on the Ice Mile’s origins, and successfully sold the story “Polar Plunges Are For the Weak: Meet the World’s Ice Swimmers” to Outside magazine.
Search for Studies
For anyone with even a passive interest in popular science or the way it interacts with our culture, I recommend conducting a Google News search at news.google.com and searching for “new study.” Scrolling through the results, you’ll find page upon page of research that has largely flown under the radar. I’m not recommending you pitch a simple summary of these studies, but that you use your imagination to package the implications of the study in an interesting way.
Just last year I stumbled across a study from the U.K. that found babies born in the fall typically grow up to be more physically fit than their peers born in other seasons. That’s because the mothers of babies born in those months have greater exposure to Vitamin D (from summer sunlight) during the crucial-for-development third trimester. The study reminded me of an anecdote about the concept of Relative Age Effect explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers—that some individuals incur an advantage from being born at the early end of the calendar window for youth sports leagues, and thus are relatively bigger and stronger than their younger teammates in the same leagues. Together, I fused the separate concepts into a story for New York titled “How to Conceive an Athlete.”
Investigate Stray Facts
Novelists are often encouraged to read widely the works of others in order to absorb as much diverse content as possible and repurpose it into creative fuel for the fire—a sort of inspirational osmosis. Freelance writers should do the same, but I’d extend your indulgences to everything from TV to movies, newspapers to magazines. Strong story ideas will seep through the woodwork in even the most unexpected of places.
While watching the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition on PBS in 2014, I was struck by a line from a short segment on bootlegger Roy Olmstead—that he was the first major figure in the U.S. arrested based on evidence acquired through phone tapping. Inspired, I conducted further research and ultimately sold the piece to a history journal.
In 2012, while paging through the Living section of The Oregonian, I stumbled across a story about a local man who had been a finalist on a Norwegian reality show. At the end of the article, it mentioned the man had decided to stay in Norway to open up a craft brewery. Intrigued, I reached out to him via Facebook and learned that the brewery was being constructed on a farm built in the 1700s, where the brewer and his partner planned to serve ice cold IPA alongside local wild moose steaks. The story, “All for Norway,” became a feature for the beer magazine DRAFT.
With a little vigilance and ingenuity, the genesis of a fascinating freelance idea can form from just about anywhere—but employ the strategies outlined above for a bit of a jump-start.