Day 6: Why The Idea is the Most Important Part of the Process

Most freelancers I know want ready-made assignments. They can’t wait to be established enough that editors find their website and e-mail them to offer work. And it’s true, this happens all the time. I routinely hear from people looking for freelancers in my region and get work that way, most of it well paid.

But let’s get one thing straight: ALL journalists and writers pitch. Whether that’s your stringer at the local paper, the columnist with a regular space in The New York Times or the globetrotter with the unlimited expense account. The full-time staff of a newspaper typically have a different way of pitching their stories to their bosses since they can, after all, talk to their colleagues over a drink, show them research, call them every five minutes with new details, and basically make themselves a pain in the ass until their story ideas get approved, whereas as freelancers, we only get the one shot. So we write a more formal query letter, give it our best effort and leave it at that.

I think it’s a huge misconception freelancers have that once they’re established, they can sit back and relax and wait for their editors to come to them with story ideas. While that does happen frequently, as I mentioned above, wouldn’t you want to come up with stories that interest you and that you can be paid to report on? Doesn’t it make you sit up and start typing away like a mad person when something you’re passionate about gets assigned? Aren’t you sometimes so outraged by something that you absolutely must pitch the story to your editors, make sure it’s accepted, and then work super hard to write it in the best manner possible?

I, for one, love coming up with my own story ideas, which is just as well because while my editors do assign me stories every now and again, 95% of my work still comes through stories I’ve pitched.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The query process changes tremendously from when you’re a beginner or new to a publication to when you’re familiar to an editor. Most of my pitches to editors I know are no more than two or three lines, and I rarely write a full-fledged pitch unless it’s a new-to-me market or type of publication. Which is to say that when I decide to pitch a publication I’ve never worked with before, I make an exceptional effort to have my query letter shine. But when I send ideas to the editor who assigns me a monthly feature, for instance, I typically just send her five or six ideas at once with nothing more than a short paragraph on each.

I not only recommend, but insist that writers come up with their own ideas. Not only that, I believe that coming up with good, saleable ideas on a consistent basis is the key to freelancing success and it’s a skill that can override all others.

To understand why, you need to place yourself in an editor’s shoes. Let’s say an editor has got the January issue to plan and assign. I’m sure we can take for granted that she’s got more items on her to-do list than she has hours in the day. She sits down with her team and asks that everyone start coming up with ideas for this issue, especially the four main features they’re planning to run. In the meantime, she gets a query letter from a freelancer in rural Ohio who has a unique story that she’s never about but that would fit perfectly in the January line-up. She assigns it right away. Now she has only three major features left to assign. The team comes up with three ideas, two of which will be handled by editors at the magazine, and they farm out the remaining one to a freelancer who writes for them regularly. What about all the other freelancers who write for this publication? They're not getting features this month, that's for sure.

There are more freelancers (and staff writers and editors) vying for space in a publication’s pages than there are pages, which means that only freelancers who are indispensable get those few slots. And one of the quickest and best ways to become indispensable is to come up with story ideas that only you have access to or that the editor can’t assign to anyone else.

The thing to remember is that most editors hate generating ideas just as much as freelancers do. Month after month of trying to come up with interesting things on the same general topics can get boring and unexciting so when someone offers a fresh perspective, it’s almost always welcome. Not to mention that an editor can’t keep track of everything happening in every corner of the world all the time. She may know what’s happening in all the big cities around the world, but there’s no way for her to know about small, local projects that are having a big and potentially global impact. She may know about the Nobel prize winners but not about the quirky writer who lives next door to you or the mad scientist whose new water pump technology has changed the way rural Indian farmers irrigate their fields.

When you’re new to freelancing, a unique idea that only you can access (such as a hard-to-reach source or a story that’s easy for you to report because of your location), can help you break into publications even without any clips or credits because if the editor wants the story, they have to hire you for it. If you’re established and send editors ideas regularly, they love you for it because you’ve made their job easy from beginning to end. You’re providing the whole package, a full service, and they don’t need to do anything but sign off on the ideas and the stories. The less work an editor has to do on your story—from beginning to end—the more she’s going to want to work with you. Good ideas are key to that.

This is especially important if you’re not local to the publication. If you’re an international writer, for instance, the onus is on you to find the interesting stories. You’re based in the location, you know the people, the problems, the issues, so you’re going to have to be the one to find the stories. Editors who live in New York City simply can’t come up with enough story ideas to assign to me, a writer living in New Delhi, India or London, UK. So if I want to get work, I have to go find the stories to sell.

In your query letter, too, the story matters more than your experience, your clips, your credits, or even the way you’ve written it. An editor can fix a bad turn of phrase but she can’t assign a story that isn’t well thought-out or that the writer hasn’t demonstrated any understanding of. Sometimes editors will ask more questions about your query before they assign the story and that’s a good thing. Your query letter’s job is to intrigue. And good story ideas do that automatically.

Consider the following ideas I’ve had accepted recently. Can you see why they intrigued the editor enough to get assigned?

For a construction trade magazine

The construction business in India is going through a massive change, one that’s only obvious to those who’re actually involved in it. It’s a generation and mindset shift. Up until even a decade ago, most of the construction companies in India were family-owned businesses, passed on from generation to generation, and reliant on not only traditional ways of working, but run with a family-first approach. Now, however, rapid change in the way these companies are owned has also meant that there is increasingly change in the way they are run. Kishor Pate, the CMD of Amit Enterprises Housing Ltd. says that green homes and smart homes in India are largely a result of the infusion of a new generation of developers who have traveled and lived abroad and had more exposure to world markets.

India is still a difficult country though. Here, established family businesses that have reputation and credibility built over many years and generations tend to win over customers more easily than credentialed businesses with new blood.

I’d love to explore this old and new within the construction industry, how it affects the business, and of course, what it means for the changing way in which business is done in India.

For a custom pub focusing on business

Cashing in on home delivery: It started off randomly, with Domino’s pizza offering home delivery in “30 minutes or your pizza free”, but no one knew that in less than two decades, home delivery would become synonymous with shopping in this country. So popular is home delivery in India, that everyone from the fruit and vegetable seller and the local grocery store to big brands like McDonald’s and Baskin Robbins deliver to your doorstep for free. But food is just the beginning. The latest home delivery comes straight from your computer. Online fashion portals now bring customers select items to their homes so they can try these clothes, shoes, and accessories in the comfort of their bedrooms BEFORE they make the purchase (if nothing fits, no worries—send it back. You won’t be charged anything). A report on the appeal of home delivery in India (and the reasons behind it) and the innovative strategies that companies are undertaking to deliver, even within poorly-connected tier-II cities, could be very interesting for brands looking at delivery options in India. For instance, Flipkart, the Indian equivalent of basically had to create a local version of Fed Ex in order to create a delivery mechanism for their products.

For an environmental publication

Every couple of months, Vimlendu Jha makes a trip to a few of New Delhi's best private schools, gathers up the children, some of whom come from the richest families in the country, and takes them to sewers and landfills, to meet the children working there.

He teaches the higher-income kids about environmental degradation-- where does your empty packet of chips end up once you throw it away?-- poverty and class alienation, and educates them in what they can do to make a change in the way we live.

For this educational program, Jha charges the private schools an exorbitant amount of money, which they're happy to pay, and invests it back into the community through ventures such as Green the Gap, a project that takes waste and converts it into trendy and modern household and daily use items such as lamps, bags, clothing, notebooks, etc. (

He also funnels the money back to the circle to launch educational programs and health services for the children of some of India’s poorest communities.

His own office in a small middle-class neighborhood in Delhi is fashioned entirely out of trash. There’s a chandelier made of diet coke cans, an exhaust lamp made out of bike parts and a vegetable carton bookshelf.

Originally from Bihar, Jha came to Delhi as a student and was shocked by the state of the Yamuna river. He says he was surprised to see how this dirty water from the river was ending up in the city's taps. Jha started a small NGO to "save the Yamuna" and it became so successful that they later expanded it to its current form-- Sweccha: We For Change.

One of the most popular programmes that Swechha runs in collaboration with the Delhi schools is the “Yamuna Yatra,” where the river Yamuna is tracked from its source. “It’s about how the river is so clean when it is with uneducated people and how it dies as soon as it comes to people who speak English and have watched An Inconvenient Truth” he told an Indian newspaper recently. “This 22 kilometer stretch of the river in Delhi contributes to 80 percent of the pollution and this is where all the environmentalists of the country are stationed, where the top ministers live.”

Would you be interested in a story about Jha’s programs? I think the idea of reaching kids from the top 1% of society is especially interesting, given that it is the rich and middle-classes of India who need the most educating about the environment. Jha is an outspoken and young environmentalist and for his efforts, was sent a legal notice from Gap for using the name “Green the Gap.” He’s decided to fight against them from his little office where he spends his time with his puppy, curiously named “Gap.”

For a magazine for writers:

Fix Your Cash Flow in 4 Simple Steps: No matter whether you’re a freelancer working on a different project each week or a novelist who only gets paid one big lumpsum a year, cash flow is one of the biggest problems of a professional writer’s life. Between the inevitable delays of accounts departments, the pay on publication policies of several publications, and royalty checks that don’t come through for months at a time, most writers—even financially-savvy ones—struggle to keep on top of their monthly income. In this piece, I’ll show writers how they can fix their cash flow problems quickly and simply by taking a few actionable steps. For instance, create a spreadsheet with a list of months. Each time you get an assignment, jot down your payment info in the month that you’re expecting to receive it. Do this for every assignment and you’ll soon be able to see that while you have enough money coming in six months from now in March, your cash flow might be tight next month, which is why you need to do a bit more online work in order to get paid quickly.

What Makes an Idea Good

The word “idea” is a vague term, so don’t think in terms of what makes a good idea. What you need to do is think in terms of the published story. What makes a good profile? What makes a good reported essay? What makes a good news story? Answer those questions and then make sure the story ideas you’re pitching hit all of those targets.

For instance, a good profile published in a national newspaper would have three major things going for it: (1) The person has done something unique and interesting. (2) The person’s work has made a difference in the world or in other people’s lives, that is, there is a purpose to this work that goes beyond just this one person, and (3) It was fairly recent.

Ideas that will make good published stories and therefore get accepted, have to be extremely sharp and focused. If you can’t sum it up in a single sentence, you’re not slicing your story thin enough. Once you have an idea, think of a headline. Think of the core point of the story and what you’re trying to convey through it. You have to get really specific. A story for a writing magazine on how writers can make more money is interesting but not clever enough. A story about how writers can make an additional $1,000 a month got me my first break with The Writer. See the difference?

For today’s assignment, you’ll be sending two queries. Pick two publications from your list, read through them to see how they handle different sorts of stories, and write your queries keeping those styles in mind.

Your ideas should be such that they can be summed up in a single sentence. They also need to say something new, something interesting that the editor may not have heard of before. Local ideas and sources that only you have access to can help you get your foot in the door.

We’re going to be sending queries consistently starting today, so make sure you get yours done each and every day in order to avoid a backlog.

Ready? Go!