As an editor I long to be surprised. Nothing gives me more joy than reading a pitch that makes me think about a place differently. Those are the kind of queries I finish reading and think “I wish I had more.” In other words, those are the kind of pitches that get assigned.
But I don’t always get those.
A lot of the pitches go too wide. “I want to write about Cape Cod” or “Would you be interested in a story about Burlington?” So many queries are these general “ideas.” These are stellar places to write about, no doubt, but casting such a wide net means you probably won’t get the assignment, and even if you do, you’ll probably wish you never took it on.
Here’s the thing: Focus is better. When you narrow your focus and come close on a particular angle, you’ll not only get the editor’s attention, but you’ll also find the writing and reporting to be a lot easier.
I’ll give you an example: Several years ago, I took an autumn road trip on Vermont’s Route 100. Along the way I stopped in Woodstock and picked up the local paper. In it, I found a piece about a local furniture maker who hosted a weekend craft event at his shop. At the event, attendees assembled table parts, then visited the woods to talk with the forester who harvested the materials. There was a trip to the wood mill where the final lumber was finished, and at the end of the weekend everyone sat under a covered bridge at their new tables and ate a lunch made from local foods.
That was one story. Then I found another.
While visiting the covered bridge, I noticed a plaque that celebrated the father-son team that built the wooden structure in 1968. I later found out that family business was responsible for restoring many of the covered bridges we associate with New England.
A profile of the son and his late father’s work became my second story.
Now I could have tried to write a sprawling story about Woodstock that included all these story lines: Route 100, the furniture maker and his event, the covered bridge restorers. But I would have hated trying to connect all those dots, and I’m almost positive my editor would have sent me back to the drawing board. Nothing about that process would have been enjoyable.
Instead, I came in close on a few different angles and in doing so hit on some of the themes that a larger, more complicated story would have missed.
You can do the same.
Think about a place you’d like to write about, then think about what interests you about it. What you’ll find is that there are several different things that draw you to it. Andeach one of those is a story.
You see where I’m going with this. Multiple ideas mean multiple assignments, which mean multiple ways to get paid. The narrower the idea the easier the story will come into focus, for you and your editor.
If you’re having trouble trying to divide up your big idea into smaller ones, begin by drawing on your own background or expertise. Maybe you’re a passionate gardener. Is there a garden tour of your favorite city you could showcase? Is there a master gardener who lives there that you could profile? Is there a plant closely identified with the region that you could feature?
The more you can do this, the more likely you are to catch your editor’s attention. Your ideas will be better, and I guarantee the writing will be too.
I’ll leave you with one shining example of this: A few years ago an unknown freelancer came to me with an idea that blew my socks off. Her husband was a ranger at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and she wanted to write about the favorite places in the park he and his colleagues liked to visit on their days off.
We’ve written about the seashore many times, but not in this way. Her idea was from the inside, it was surprising, and it was assigned before our meeting even finished.
You’ve got the same opportunities. Think different. Get creative. Go close. Just because a place has been written about a million times doesn’t mean your version of the story has been told. Find a way to tell it.
When you do, you’ll make your editor happy, and more assignments will come your way.