The coronavirus crisis caused ad budgets to shrink, forcing lay-offs and freelance-freezes at many outlets. That meant pitching became be more challenging for a while, but the situation’s improving as some places ease restrictions! Our founder and instructor Amanda Castleman offers some recommendations for flourishing in our new normal…
1. Short is always good. Go even shorter now. I’d try to stay under 350 words, including pleasantries and your bio. Editors are anxious, distracted and often juggling heavier-than-usual workloads, often while adapting to working at home and schooling their kids. Make things easy on them. Include the essentials and trust they will ask for more information if they’re intrigued… Some back-and-forth is very common — as is selling stories on a second or third follow-up.
2. Don’t excerpt. Now is the time for “who, what, when, where, why, how and why you,” not rhetorical flourishes. In the past, you maybe had 20 seconds to rivet an editor. Today it’s more like five. Make each one count.
3. Think “inverted pyramid,” even for non-news queries. This structure developed during the telegraph era, because it prioritizes key information. Use its power to convey the most important selling points as close to your greeting as possible!
4. You can still write powerfully and colorfully, even with a short word count. Yes, it’s annoying to draft and redraft, micro-trimming and rephrasing. BUT it’s also great training for being a concise writer and a more successful pitcher. Imagine you’re doing reps and making your brain super-yoked, brah!
5. Get a spotter! At a certain point, your eyes won’t be able to see the material freshly. Enter the alpha reader, a fellow writer, friend or family member who can give you a fresh take.
Word and Google Docs both have a “read aloud” option, which can help (ditto for TTS and other free readers). I also find printing material out, then skimming it while NOT in my usual workspace is handy. But the “buddy system” really is the bomb. Those connections mature beyond editing favors into a support network… and can eventually lead to referrals to high-paying clients who don’t mess around with submission calls.
6. Now, more than ever, rely on your reporting chops to get editors’ attention. As this Politico article says, we’re seeing a swing back to science, expertise and serious journalism. Use stats, factchecking, pro/con voices and authoritative sources to help your pitches stand out… And research previous pieces on the topic so you can confidently explain how your piece is unique and advancing public discourse. (These techniques will even boost the most personal and intimate of essays.)
7. Pay attention to what’s selling and who’s buying, now more than ever. But generally speaking, coverage is falling into a few broad categories.
- Breaking news about the virus and its impact. Most of this content is done in-house, but subject matter experts are still having luck, like round-the-world sailor Diane Selkirk’s CNN piece on small boats stuck at sea.
- Advice about coping with the pandemic, lockdown and reopening, often drawing on expert tips. Alumna Colleen Stinchcombe is doing a brilliant job of spinning common questions and small revelations into COVID-19 coverage. Check out her approach here. Our instructor Blane Bachelor also seized the moment, writing “Brightening Up Coronavirus Quarantine With Christmas Spirit” for The New York Times. And our fellow teacher Jessica Poitevien weighed in with “What Does Travel Anxiety Look Like In 2021?” for Condé Nast Traveler.
- Food writers are getting a lot of traction too, as more people cook at home and try to support black-owned business. Our alumna Sophia Gottfried seized that momentum, writing about an entrepreneur fighting “food apartheid” for Bon Appétit. Amy Halloran took things a step further, looking at the supply chain and small-batch production preserving heritage ingredients with “Flour Shortage? Amber Waves of Regional Grains to the Rescue” for Civil Eats.
- Slice-of-life stories about this distinctive moment in time, including essays. This NYT op-ed by film-maker Sindha Agha knocked our socks off! So did this dreamy National Geographic piece, “‘Ghostly and melancholic’: Bustling Istanbul is muted by quarantine” and PBS’s “Coronavirus: The world has come together to flatten the curve. Can we stay united to tackle other crises?” written by Mira Patel, a high school junior. And Poitevien used this momentum too with “After George Floyd’s killing, I watched his baptism into American life.”
- Anything that distracts from the continuing coronavirus stress. Think “pure escapism.”
Be extra, extra patient with yourself and others. With 28 years’ experience and a strong reputation, I’m still getting ghosted right now. So are A-list friends, who normally have to shoo away clients. It’s just going to be the unpleasant new normal for a while. ALL THE CRICKETS AND REJECTIONS ARE ABSOLUTELY NO REFLECTION ON YOU, YOUR WORK OR EVEN THE IDEA.
But unless you’re crushed by “no’s,” keep querying! Fortune will assist the brave here, just as it did during the ’09 recession (I was a single full-time freelancer — sans safety net — through that whole mess. I took some work I’d rather not do again, but I survived.)
Remember, even when you’re not landing gigs, you’re improving your skills and getting on editors’ radar!
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Finally, on the “being gentle” front, check out this New York Times article, “Stop Trying to be Productive.”
“The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much,” explains Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant and the author of “Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction.”
My Write Like A Honey Badger colleague Alex Leviton also addressed this, explaining “there are no ‘shoulds’ at the intersection of creativity and crisis”… but “prepare to catch your creativity when it bubbles up. And by creativity, I mean not only classical arts like dance and poetry, but homeschooling kids, or simply feeling playful. It can even be searching your home for anything to entertain you or bring you relief. (We salute you, Magnus Muhr, the dead-fly cartoonist!)
“Creativity is about newness, innovation, and stretching ourselves. It can be the elastic that helps us bounce back.”