Which comes first, the story or the market?
Looking for story ideas first and then scrambling for market suggestions often doesn’t work out in the long run. It likely took me a while to figure this out because that method is so common amongst freelance writers that it appears as if it’s the way things are done. Freelance forums typically have a bunch of threads asking, “Where should I pitch this idea?” And many of my students wonder why the query they’ve written for no magazine in particular has not been assigned by any editor.
In short, it’s normally more efficient to first identify markets you can write for multiple times, and then develop ideas with the kind of angles, storytelling, sources, packaging, etc., for that individual readership in mind.
Starting with the idea can and does lead to sales, but in my experience, they quite often turn out to be once-off assignments. Even though my individual story may have been a good fit for the magazine/newspaper/website, I wasn’t necessarily a good fit for the publication on an ongoing basis. Either I didn’t readily cover, or want to cover, the kinds of stories that that editor typically worked on, or they had limited interest in what I do write about.
Pitching the first idea to an editor, and then working on that first assignment, almost always takes more time and energy than, say, the fifth assignment for that same editor. On the first piece, you’re less likely to want to discuss reporting difficulties, or hitting the right tone in your writing–even though you’re more likely to have problems getting it right. And there can be a fair amount of time spent in admin that you only have to deal with on the first go-round, such as multiple rounds of modifying contracts or getting paperwork set up with the accounts payable department.
If you already have a deep file of publications that you want to target, and are familiar with, when you come across a nugget of an idea, you’ll be able to start asking the kinds of questions that your editor will want answered.
For example, let’s say your specialty is writing about photography and social media. You have an idea for a service-oriented piece of tips for pet owners who want to post pics on social media. You look around for possible markets, and see a weekly pet column in your city newspaper. The editor thinks your pitch is great and assigns the piece.
But that newspaper section normally covers a wide range of animal lifestyle topics like agility training and pet-friendly hotels. They’re not interested in covering photography or social media regularly. Perhaps you can scrape together another piece about pet-oriented home decor, but it’s a stretch.
Now, you might be pleased to have that assignment. It was satisfying to write, boosts your cash flow, and gives you a nice clip. Maybe you can reslant it for another, noncompeting publication. But as far as that newspaper section goes, you’ve essentially hit a dead end.
By contrast, imagine if you’d originally searched for a publication that focuses on online marketing, and you pitched a piece about companies using cute animals in social media campaigns.
This editor also likes your query. But it’s a market that you can continue to pitch, because social media is one of your specialities. After the first piece runs, you send in a few new ideas. As you continue to write for them, you start to see more nuanced angle opportunities. An interview that you wind up not including in one article inspires an idea for another article, which is now partially reported before you even begin. Your editor sees that you get the readership and starts asking if you can write stories that they conceived in their staff editorial meeting. These ongoing relationships are the backbone of a successful career in freelance journalism.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way. Sometimes you sell an article idea thinking it’s going to be scenario B, but things go wonky and you’re not really interested in writing for that client again. But if you plan for long-term relationships with editors, you’re more likely to achieve them.
For practical strategies on finding publications that will have lots of long-term potential for you, download a free copy of “Create Your Ultimate Editorial Contact List.”