Posts Tagged ‘query letters’

Never Run Out of Story Ideas by Asking This Quick Question

Posted in Blog on June 24th, 2014 by Carol Tice – 25 Comments

Are good story ideas hard to find?freelance writer has lots of ideas

When you open up your favorite magazines, it can seem like other writers are always beating you to the interesting angles on a piece of news.

However, it’s not really true.

If you know where to look, you can always come up with fresh story ideas that other writers haven’t a clue about.

How do I know this? Because I used to have to come up with several story ideas every single week, as a staff writer. I needed enough good ideas to pitch that my editor would greenlight three of them. Each week.

Over time, I found one easy technique for turning up story ideas that I loved, and still use today. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it consistently yields unique slants that editors love.

Here’s how it works:

1. Talk to live humans

To begin, writers who consistently have a lot of great story ideas, do interviews.

They’re not just Googling around or reading press releases. They are getting fresh viewpoints from real people.

These people might be experts in a particular field. Maybe they’ve got a new book out on a topic that interests you. Or they’re a groundbreaking medical researcher or doctor. They might be business owners. They could be the head of an organization, association, or nonprofit.

Often, you will find yourself interviewing someone like this for an article you’re writing. If this isn’t happening to you, make it happen. Write something that involves experts for your own blog, if need be. But you want to start talking to experts to get good story ideas.

Stop guessing about what the latest trend is, the biggest breakthrough, the most unusual idea. Ask knowledgeable people and find out.

Then you won’t be starting at ground zero again, trying to develop your next article idea. You’ll already have it in your pocket, before you wrap up the article you’re writing now.

Ordinarily, with most articles you wind up interviewing some sort of expert, like the types I’ve just described. At the end of that interview is when you spring the question that will hand you your next idea.

2. Ask a final question

As you’re wrapping up your interview for your current topic, don’t just say, “Thanks, call you if I have any other questions.”

You want to ask one last question before you go.

That question takes many forms, but in essence, here is what you ask:

What’s next for you?

You want to get a little peek at the future from this source. Are they heading off to a conference, for instance? Publishing a book? Embarking on a research project? Meeting with their mastermind group? Headed to Capitol Hill to testify? Going on a round-the-world trip?

You might get a wide variety of answers to this question, and in my experience, they’re all leads to the next great story idea.

After you ask it, listen carefully to the answer. Then, take the next step:

3. Follow where it leads

Don’t just respond to their ‘what’s next’ news with, “Oh, that’s nice.” Instead, pick their brain about what they’re doing and why.

If they’re publishing a book, for instance, what’s it about? How long have they been working on it? Does it have any groundbreaking or explosive findings or news?

If it’s a conference, what are the panels going to be about? What are the hot topics in that industry that will be buzzed about in the hallways? The current controversies?

What’s their mastermind about? Who else is in it?

You get the picture.

Time after time, I’ve had this seemingly innocuous question lead to great new stories — often, more than one out of each conversation. For instance, one expert told me he was about to write a book about a once-in-a-decade update of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ forecasts for which jobs would grow most and pay best in the future, for instance.

Well, since I was covering careers and jobs at the time, getting unique analysis on what jobs would be great to have 10 or 20 years from now (versus trying to wade through BLS database tables myself and figure it out) was a slam-dunk story.

This final-shmooze question might also lead you to think of other markets you might sell a profile piece on this same expert. If your source mentions they’re headed to an alumni event, find out where they went to university — and then, pitch a profile of them to their alumni magazine. Presto, you can get two articles out of the same set of notes.

Often, like that career-forecast gem, the idea you’ll get won’t necessarily be something you can use immediately. That’s why there’s one final step to this idea-finding process:

4. Have an idea calendar

In the old days, we used to keep a physical ‘tickler file’ with a pocket for every day of the month, and we’d drop a note about upcoming ideas into the right day to remind us about it later. These days, you probably have an online tool you’d use to track them.

But save, stash, catalogue, or calendar that idea — and then pull it out to pitch when the time is right to pitch it around.

Ask enough experts that final question, and soon you’ll have a steady stream of interesting ideas filed and ready to go.

How do you find story ideas? Leave a comment and share your tip.


How to Get Skeptical Clients to Hire a New Freelance Writer

Posted in Blog on June 18th, 2014 by Carol Tice – 18 Comments

Skeptical business womanWhen you’re a newbie freelance writer, it can be hard to see how to take the first step. How will you talk that first client into hiring you?

At first, many prospective clients you pitch will turn you down. Which can be discouraging.

And yet, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know it must be possible to break in and get hired — because every writer once had no clients.

One writer recently complained to me about her troubles breaking in.

I’m getting responses from prospects,” Tina told me. “But this is what they say: ‘Great — you talked us into it. We need a freelance writer! But you’re not the right writer. You don’t have enough experience.’ How do I get them to hire me?”–Tina

If you’re a new freelance writer who’s getting this response, there are three basic problems you may have. Here’s what they are, and how to fix them:

1. Targeting the wrong clients.

When you start out, you need to pitch your writing services to clients you are a perfect fit for. But that’s not what most new freelancers do. Instead, they apply for everything and anything — and then wonder why their response rate is so poor.

The way you sell a client on hiring you as a newbie is to show your connection to their subject. Maybe it’s a magazine for veterinarians — and you used to be a veterinarian. Or it’s an article for a parenting magazine about how to talk to your child’s teacher, and you’re a teacher. It’s Web content for a shoe store, and you used to work in a shoe store.

That’s one way to focus your marketing, to clients where you’ve got some inside knowledge most writers don’t have that makes you perfect for the gig.

One other way is to focus on likely first markets. Many new writers start out pitching major national publications, which rarely work with new writers. Then, the writer wonders why nothing’s happening.

When you’re a new writer, you want to go for some easy gigs you stand a good chance of getting off the bat, so you can start building your portfolio. In my new e-book on breaking into freelance writing, there’s a rundown on what these easy, break-in markets are. They include:

  • The newsletter of a charity of professional organization where you belong, give, or volunteer
  • Alternative papers
  • Small businesses you patronize
  • Small-town newspapers (may be daily/weekly/biweekly)
  • Business journals (especially in smaller or more rural markets)
  • Businesses owned by family or friends
  • Free-box publications such as employment newspapers

These places are often hard-up for writing help and would be thrilled to have you revamp their Web pages, cover the city council meeting, or write a play review. These are also all places that give you a real client you had to please, and who could give you a testimonial to impress future clients.

All of these types of first gigs are preferable to writing junk for content mills that will never impress a prospective client.

2. Not making your case properly.

Another problem new writers experience is that you’re pitching markets you have expertise for, but you don’t successfully convey that expertise. You want to flash your knowledge throughout your query letter or letter of introduction, starting right at the top.

Also, it pays to prospect locally, if you can — your nearness is another positive you can have going for you that a lot of the competition won’t.

Finally, count any writing experience you have, whether it’s from your blog, your day job, the college newspaper — anywhere.

Then put it all together into a pitch like this:

“As a freelance writer who had a 15-year career in financial services, I was intrigued by your new payment solution. I looked you up and saw you’re based right here in my town.

I noticed you’ve set up a blog, but that it hasn’t been updated in a few months. As it happens, I’ve been blogging for years. Would you be interested in having a freelance writer with a banking background keep that updated for you? I’d be happy to drop by and discuss it with you.”

Simple as that. Now, you’re not just any writer — and you’ll notice I said nothing about being a new writer, either. You’re simply the best writer for them, because you understand their industry and the type of writing they want, and you’re nearby.

3. No portfolio.

This is the problem that plagues every new writer. You need clips! If you don’t have any luck finding paying gigs right off, the best way to break this no-clips, no-job cycle is to do a little pro-bono work.

When I say that, I don’t mean you should sign up to give free samples to some website. You’ve got to do pro bono right — and that means a small, definable project for a good company or publication with a good reputation, where a clip from them will impress prospects. The scenario also has to include their never telling anyone you weren’t paid, and they’ve got to be willing to give you a testimonial and refer you business if they’re happy.

Put these three steps together, and you should be able to overcome objections to your newbie-writer status, build your portfolio, and start getting paying gigs.

What’s keeping you from getting gigs? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Freelance writing success

5 Super-Easy Ways Freelance Writers Can Stand Out

Posted in Blog on May 21st, 2014 by Carol Tice – 53 Comments

One freelance writer bug stands outDo you feel overwhelmed by all the competition out there for freelance writers?

I recently got an email from a writer who told me she was frantic to find a niche where she could somehow be noticed despite all the “entrenched” writers who would be nearly impossible to beat.

Actually, it’s not like that.

Mediocrity is the norm in much of the freelance-writing world, and there’s plenty of opportunity to stand out. If you don’t believe me, go to your Chamber of Commerce, get a copy of all the brochures out of the display, and go home and read them all. You’ll see they’re not all exactly Shakespeare.

Besides simply writing competently — which in itself can make you stand out in some industries — what else can you do? Here are my top five favorite easy ways to win clients over:

1. Don’t be a flake

I wish I had a dime for every writer who told me they got an editor’s feedback on a story with some edit requests, or they got a request to pitch an editor — and then they freaked out and never sent anything back. Just walked away from the opportunity. Because I’d be retired now and not needing to write this blog post.

Why do writers do these things to themselves? I don’t know, but it means you can win points by simply being responsive.

Tell you a scary story about this point — I recommended a colleague once not long ago, whom I’d happily worked with on a previous gig, to a prospect I didn’t have time to take on. I knew her writing and interviewing skills were great, so I didn’t have any hesitation about passing her name on.

Unfortunately, the client got back to me later to share that after many delays, this writer had totally flaked out on him. She never turned in the assignment! He ended up having to change his whole project around because time ran out and her piece had to be scrapped.

Of course, I was mortified to hear someone I referred let a client down. And you know I’m never recommending her again.

You’ll be amazed how far simply being reliable can take you in the freelance-writing biz. Because a lot of writers are busy being artistes and blowing their deadlines.

2. Proof your work

I know — you’re thinking, “Doesn’t everybody?” No. They don’t.

You’d be surprised how many writers think the first thing they jot down should be turned in, or emailed off to an editor as a pitch. If you’re bad at proofing, try to swap some writing with a friend and get them to catch your typos.

Well-proofed work makes editors less suspicious that your article is sloppily researched and reported. Instead, they’ll think you’re brilliant.

3. Don’t be a diva

Writers who’re used to writing on their own blog or their novel have a tendency to fall in love with their words.

This emotion has no place in the world of freelance writing. Here, you write to please a client. Whatever they want is what you need to deliver.

After they hate your first draft and want 20 things different in it, the correct response is, “Sure thing.” Not a big snarky tantrum about how they’re killing your precious prose.

Also don’t be a boundary-pusher, always asking for more time or a cover byline. Just do you work well, and you will be rewarded.

4. Don’t be a basket case

Mentoring 1,000+ writers in my Freelance Writers Den community has taught me this: A great many of us are a tad on the mentally fragile side.

Look at a writer sideways, and often, they implode. One rough week with an annoying client, and they’re ready to pack it in. One rejection letter, and they’re devastated.

For instance, here are a couple of emails I recently got about rejected queries:

“Just got my first rejection and am heartbroken. I feel really bad, but know I should just man-up and carry on. I worked really hard on my pieces.

“How long did it take before you could just take it on the chin? This feels terrible, but I don’t want to waste time mourning.”–Michelle

“If a fairly large, local consumer magazine responds to a query with a note saying that they don’t see a place for the story in their mag but good luck placing it elsewhere, is it safe to assume it was a decent query, or is it typical for editors to send out generic rejections like that?

“It’s my first real attempt at getting into a consumer magazine, and I’m feeling despondent about the reply I got (after 2.5 weeks).”–Talia

As a freelance writer, you can’t do this to yourself. You can’t sit counting the days until you get a response from an editor. And you can’t fall apart every time you have a setback.

You also can’t waste time trying to read the tea leaves in a rejection letter to suss out what the editor’s secret meanings might be. You’ll never really know.

The correct response to a query rejection is to continue on immediately, as if nothing has happened. Ideally, you did that the moment you pressed ‘send’ on the query, and have another dozen queries out by the time you hear that ‘no,’ so it isn’t your whole world crumbling that this didn’t work out.

This is business, and you need to be mentally tough, deal with disappointment fast, and keep right on marketing. Learn more about writing queries, too. Michelle sounds like maybe she was sending in completed articles instead of writing a query, which generally gets poorer results.

If you don’t need a month off to second-guess yourself or to mourn that one single query letter wasn’t accepted, you’ll be able to get a lot more work done that could find you clients.

5. Up your skills

At this point, there are plenty of writers who can write a blog post, or a short article. The question is, what else do you know how to write that commands higher rates?

If the answer is nothing, think about learning a specialized area — how to write case studies or annual reports, for instance. I’ve done both and they pay great.

Or hit the motherlode of reliable, great pay and learn how to write a sales page. Clients will always pay well for writing when they can see it directly results in more sales and income for their business.

Maybe this one is a bit less easy than the other four tips I’ve listed, and might cost a few bucks. But investing in your business is a major way to move yourself out of the mass of starving writers and create a viable niche for your freelance writing business.

How do you stand out as a freelance writer? Leave a comment and share your approach.