The context would change, but the recurring narrative was that I was frantically scrambling to find and pack my clothes, computer and notes fast enough to catch a boat that was about to leave the harbor. The message I’d wake up with from these frenzied dreams was this: It’s high time you de-cluttered and simplified your freelance work life.
I’m not talking about general office cleaning. I’m referring to the piles (electronic and paper) of research ingredients for half-baked story ideas that have been cluttering my desk. What’s worse, they’ve been cluttering my mind, acting like speed bumps on the road to submitting pitches.
The thorniest ones for me are those that are those that I haven’t yet attached to a specific publication, meaning that I haven’t been in contact with an editor about the story idea. These pre-pitches, if you will, are an essential part of the freelance process; they are the seeds and roots to story pitches that have not yet broken through the proverbial soil to reach sunlight. Yet they start to sap my motivation and confidence if they sit unwatered for too many weeks without being transformed into query letters. (For tips on pitch writing, see Jill Adams‘s (bio) recent blog post: Haiku Pitch.)
Now that New Year’s has come and gone I’m allowing myself the month of January to sift through my “current pitches” folder and winnow the active, breathing ones from the ones that have been comatose for weeks or months. The ones on life support I am euthanizing (hitting “delete”), especially if I have lost interest in them. Those I still want to feed and bring to fruition eventually, but not quite yet, I’m moving to the electronic filing cabinet I call “story ideas.” Within that meta cabinet or folder I have 100-plus distinct folders that are labeled by topic. Some date back to 2008, which tells me it’s high time to prune this cabinet, too. Many of them still animate me but still lack entry point (news peg, strong character, etc.) that could transform them from topic to actual story.
Here are a few ways I have been de-cluttering my filing structure. First, I have sorted the half-baked “current” pitches folders into three categories:
- Trash me.
- Re-file me: Transfer the pitches into the “story ideas” meta folder described above.
- Feed me: This means I will jump back into these pitches now with vigor and with the aim of crafting and sending out a query letter soon.
Those I am bumping up to the “Feed me” category are “hot” topics with at least a budding narrative, and they are ones I fear someone else will jump on soon.
Sometimes it takes seeing an active story idea of mine in print with someone else’s byline on it to nudge me to either put my story idea on the fast track to pitching or trash it. For instance, just this morning I read an opinion column in the New York Times that squarely addressed a story idea on fertility that I have been researching and periodically interviewing sources on for several months. I am prone to self-flagellation after experiencing this kind of scenario. But it’s no use badgering myself over seeing a published article on a topic I’m trying to advance into a story pitch. If I did I’d give up freelancing, maybe journalism itself; it simply happens too often. So, after reading the opinion column I’m transforming my initial “Damn, I should have written that!” reaction into putting the story idea on the fast track to a pitch, by advancing my unique angle on the theme, zeroing in on a character, and homing in on another publication. In fact, I’ll weave a link to the New York Times column into my query letter, as a way to strengthen, not weaken, my case.
Clearly there is no one perfect formula for crafting, sending and following up on story pitches. But please, don’t hold back if you’ve found one and want to divulge it! 2014 is young, after all. (Emily Sohn (bio) recently wrote a useful blog post on what to do after you pitch a story.)
I haven’t finished the New Year’s whittling and winnowing process yet, but my brain already feels more free, focused, and energized. And come to think of it clutter-themed anxiety dreams haven’t infected my sleep as much this month.
Please let me know if this resonates with you, and especially, if you have tips for the rest of us.
Image Credit: patriotworld on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0