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Skipping Machu Picchu to find potatoes in Peru… the rudest cities in America… and a mountain-biking excursion with a pro basketball star… 

Those are just three of the not-so-everyday stories I’ve read in the last few days. They have nothing in common with each other, but they all share one attribute: Each takes an unexpected approach to its subject. 

Editors receive so many query letters pitching ideas and articles submitted for consideration, it’s important to stand out from the crowd. And you have about 20 seconds to do it. 

We move fast. We skim over the files we receive at break-neck speed. If nothing snags our attention immediately, into the rejection pile a story goes. 

As a freelancer, you have two useful lines of attack, both intended to pleasantly surprise your reader. 

1) Come at your story from an unexpected angle. 

Just like those three examples I gave up top do: Agitate your reader’s perception of a place or a person or an experience.   

Consider how you can tell a story that runs contrary to the everyday awareness people have of your subject. 

If everybody thinks your town is a culinary wasteland, show them where the gourmet-minded insiders hide. If everybody thinks a locale is a sleepy hollow of a town, prove otherwise. If the average reader knows the person you’re writing about as a basketball star, show him as a mountain biker…  

Editors want to publish stories that readers won’t see anyplace else. And they want to publish stories that will make readers say, “Huh, I didn’t know that.” 

As you’re doing research for a story, consider when you thought to yourself, “I did not expect to find this here.” That’s a clue that you’re onto a saleable story idea. 

How else can you catch a reader’s attention? 

2) Use the first few sentences of your query or cover letter to make your reader curious. 

Whether you’re crafting a query letter that pitches an editor a story idea or you’re writing a cover letter to introduce a completed story you’ve attached, you’ve got to use that first paragraph or two wisely. That’s about as much as an editor will read before deciding if your piece is worth further attention—or not. 

Make your reader curious about what’s coming next. 

One of the best ways to do that is to take your reader into your story immediately. Just as the lead of your article aims to grab your reader’s attention, so should the first few lines of your query or cover letter. 

One effective technique is to use your story lead. Paste it into your cover letter. Let that be the first thing an editor sees. 

A shockingly large number of freelancers will start letters, instead, by promoting themselves—they’ve written for XYZ other publications or they’ve traveled to ABC place many times. That credibility can be important when making your case for why you (and not somebody else) should write the story you’re proposing. But until an editor understands what the story is, he doesn’t care who you are. 

You’re not selling yourself up front. You’re selling your idea. And so put that idea front and center. And do it in an engaging way.

Don’t be predictable. Don’t say, “Would you be interested in an article about Paris?” Instead, drop your editor right into your story. Show your reader what that story is about and then—and only then—should you ask if he or she is interested in buying it or explain why you’re qualified to write it. 

When you take an editor a little by surprise, you stand out from the crowd of writers pitching stories all around yours. Armed with an unexpected idea, pitched in a way that makes an editor curious, you’re well positioned to sell what you write. 

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