Thursday, October 12, 2006

Does Persistence Pay?

What if you have an idea for an article that you absolutely love. You write the query and there really are no bites but you firmly believe it is a good idea. Do you re-write the pitch? Is it bad form to resend a rewritten pitch to an editor who had not responded the first time around? Should you go the extra mile and write the article?

Let's answer the last question first. No - writing the article isn't going the extra mile; it's shooting yourself in the foot. You should never, ever write the article before it's assigned (travel pieces and essays are exceptions). It's the mark of a newbie: an editor wants to shape the story idea and thus the story from the get-go. If you've already done this, you've taken her out of the equation and not only limited the potential scope of the piece, but also limited the market and readers to whom it might appeal. DON'T DO IT.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about persistence and how to go about this. Nearly every established freelance writer I know has been in this position. You have a jewel of an idea - you shop it around - you keep shopping it around - you shop it around some more - and one bites. Sigh. In fact, I'm dealing with this very thing right now. It totally sucks. But you already know that since you asked the question.

There are a couple ways to handle this:

1) Shelve the idea until it becomes more topical. For example, my query deals with breast cancer. Most women's magazines cover BC in October, which is breast cancer awareness month. And, I discovered, most of them don't necessarily tackle many BC stories during other months of the year. (This is a sweeping generalization, but for the most part, it's true.) story came close to getting bites for this year's Oct issues, but nothing happened. And the best thing for me to do is probably to sit tight, knowing that I still have a great nugget of an idea, and repitch it this Feb or March, which is around when mags will assign Oct ideas. So, even if your idea isn't about breast cancer, it might be seasonal or might be better suited to certain world events, I dunno, but you might want to think about setting it aside until it's more timely.

2) You could rewrite the pitch, but if you rewrite it, I wouldn't just reword it, I would reangle it. Chances are, your editor didn't shoot it down because she didn't like the way your query paragraphs read; she shot it down because the story angle didn't work for her. Sometimes, if you're lucky, the editor will come back to you and say, "Hey, this idea on how to save money doesn't quite gel for me, but what about this way of thinking about it?" Most often though, you're left to develop the new angle on your own. One of my editors once told me to try to make my queries as counter-intuitive as in, okay, we're going to cover the same subjects over and over again, we already admit t that, but can you approach it in a rarely-considered way? Can you take an almost backwards approach to the idea? It's really hard to do this, but if you can, you might be able to recapture an editor's attention.

3) You could also repitch the editor to whom you originally sent. I don't know if you'll have a ton of luck, but certainly, things slip through the cracks and slip even easier through in-boxes. Or double-check to be sure that you sent it to the correct editor in the first place. Call up the mag and ask. If you didn't, aim for a new editor.

4) Expand your potential markets. Look, if you really believe in your story and want it to be told, period, then get thee to Barnes and Noble or to google or even to Writer's Market and try to unearth new-to-you magazines and outlets. The piece doesn't have to be published in a magazine with a 2 million circulation to be of value...or to be sharply-written and edited. For example, a lot of parenting writers query Parents and Parenting. But these mags don't necessarily take edgy, science-y stories. So if you have a more off-beat piece, maybe you should lob in a query to Brain, Child, which isn't nearly as popular, circulation-wise, but certainly is an excellent publication.

So those are my thoughts. I know that there are a ton of writers out there who have struggled to place a stellar story idea, and I'm sure that I'm missing some tips. Want to add in your own?


Jocelyn said...


Your advice is GREAT! I love your blog and I think that you are providing some truly valuable lessons and suggestions for writers.

I can't wait to read your book!


Anonymous said...

Patience and persistence...I am learning that both are essential in this industry. Thx.