Timely Pitches and Trend Forecasting for Freelancers

Scrabble tiles spelling out "buzz," placed on a Scrabble board.

Writer Flora Tsapovsky from Tel Aviv, a white woman with long, curly blonde hair, a V-neck maroon blouse and a delicate necklaceThe ability to spot trends as they’re forming can help freelance writers beat the competition and land great placements. Here Flora Tsapovsky — who teaches Timely Angles for Freelancers — shares insights on forecasting, timely pitches, and the fine art of follow-ups!

Q: How am I supposed to predict the future? I’m not psychic!
You don’t need to be. Your Spidey Sense just needs to spot nascent patterns a few weeks or months out, giving you a chance to “break” a story and scoop your competition — both other writers and also other publications!

Trends embody a moment in time, revealing the zeitgeist and its underbelly, and providing insights into why we are the way we are. They also show what direction things are going in. Trends also don’t have to be super-defined phenomena. A #mood can be a trend. A general state of things. An atmosphere.

One easy avenue: look at current trends, then examine whether counter-trends are brewing. For example, the idea for this Wired article — about hybrid and high-tech athleisure-meets-officewear — came to me shortly after COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines started. What happens after the too-cozy sweatsuit, I wondered? Some digging around revealed sharp and chic brands that align with the next stage of the pandemic: more active, still at home, multifaceted but frumpy no more.

Speculate, guesstimate and look for these acerbic (but sometimes accurate) future-prediction tweets! Then look for budding clues that prove your theory is right. 

If you see even one example of something cool, new or outstanding, it probably exists elsewhere too. Start looking for those instances! Found three examples? You’re good to go!

Q: Really? Just three examples can demonstrate a trend?
Generally speaking, most commissioning editors agree with this principle, yes! Any time you find three instances of something new and novel, that’s potentially a trendlet gaining steam!

Perhaps it’s an emerging trend. Or perhaps the concept’s already somewhat known and has been written about, but not too much. Either way, the concept’s ripe for pitching!

Q: How do I know when a trend idea is ready to pitch?
When stumbling upon a trend, ask yourself: 

  • What is the trend?
  • Why, in my opinion, is this trend happening? 
  • What does the appearance of this trend mean on the cultural and societal level? Go ahead, and make some farfetched, bold, and totally instinctive assumptions here. You’re not an anthropologist or a historian, but you’re a smart, experienced human being and you have THOUGHTS. (Once a story’s assigned, you can test these hypotheses through reporting. If your angle then changes, make sure to alert your editor!)
  • What did this trend replace, if that’s the case?
  • What did this trend stem from? What inspired it?
  • How are people responding to this trend? Is it controversial (if it is, great! Editors love controversy). 
  • Who is benefitting or being victimized by it? How are those groups interacting?
  • How do I myself feel about this trend?

Once you’re familiar and comfy with a trend, it’s time to put it to good use — i.e., turn it into a pitch, of course!

A pull quote that says "“f you see even one thing that’s cool, new or outstanding, it probably exists elsewhere too. Start looking! Found three examples? You’re good to go!”Q: My trend has already been covered a bit. Can I still craft a timely pitch?
Absolutely! I’m a huge fan of the local ↔ global approach. Find an interesting nationwide trend or conversation, then pitch a local twist to publications in your area. Alternatively, pitch a unique local story that fits within a bigger conversation to a national or international outlet.

If you see even one example of something cool, new or outstanding, it probably exists elsewhere too. Start looking for those instances! Found three examples? You’re good to go!

Q: How else do you find trend stories?
Here’s my favorite way to come up with ideas. Make up an idea and see if the internet delivers! You can say things like “I wish more construction companies hired all-female crews. Maybe there’s a bunch of high-end outdoor coworking spaces opening up this summer! More parents than ever will homeschool now that they’re accustomed to it…” Think of what might happen, then search the web. You’ll be surprised how often your intuition is right on the money. 

Q: How do I write timely pitches?
Learning to write a persuasive query is a sales technique. So it’s normal for even hugely talented writers to experience a learning curve here!

The topic’s a big one (in fact, my school Write Like a Honey Badger teaches a whole monthlong class on it). But here are some elements I recommend including!

First paragraph: One line of intro + a few personal words for the editor + the pitch’s gist, emphasizing the timely angle.

Second paragraph: Context and quick pops of additional research, which can include authoritative statistics that show off your reporting chops. This also might contain a sourcing plan (you can just list the types of people you plan to speak with, if you haven’t locked down interviewees yet). Show the editor that the story’s based in reality and will draw on material beyond your own POV. This is highly compelling, even for essays!

Third paragraph: Explain why this publication is the right home for this story. Elaborate why are you the right person to write it. Points could include your unique expertise, experience or access. (If you don’t have this element, don’t stress! Sometimes being a good writer with a cool concept is plenty.) Touch on what’s been written about this already – hopefully not a lot — and how your piece will be different and add to the broader conversation!

For cold pitches: Unpack your bio a bit more, perhaps in a brief “About Me” section. Common elements include your portfolio URL, recent awards, name-dropping some titles you’ve worked with, and links to two or three relevant “clips” (published articles. Don’t worry if you don’t have any yet; blog posts and other samples work).

Q: I pitched a great idea and didn’t hear back. Should I hide my shame and never write again?
NOPE! Everyone hits stumbling blocks, even the most successful, influential, bigwig freelancers on the planet. That’s because we can’t mind-read the continually shifting needs of an editor, their title and how the stories in a particular issue work together.

Reasons for rejection can include:

  • We just ran something similar
  • We’ve already commissioned something similar
  • There’s not enough lead-time for our publication cycle
  • The subject is too broad or too niche
  • We’ve run out of budget
  • The publisher “just hates stories about <topic>”
  • The list goes on and on. What it does NOT include is “this idea’s trash and you’re a terrible writer.” That’s the internal voice of your Imposter Syndrome talking. Tell it to shush with the filthy lies!

Q: How often should freelancers follow-up?
A day or two for super-timely pitches which would require a quick turnaround (hours to days). A week or two otherwise.

Q: How do you follow up?
We’re all human. Missing emails —  as well as being anxious about emails — is OK. I’ve installed Streak in my Gmail (it’s free software that lets you know whether someone opened your letter or not, and when and how often). If an editor hasn’t touched my note and it’s been a week, I simply reply with a casual “just wanted to float this pitch up.” If I see they opened the email but didn’t respond, I follow-up with a polite “hi, I’d love your thoughts on the timely pitch below” type of note.

A pull quote that says "Everyone hits stumbling blocks, even the most successful, influential, bigwig freelancers on the planet. That’s because we can’t mind-read the continually shifting needs of an editor, their title and how the stories in a particular issue work together."For another perspective, here’s the school’s founder and lead pitch instructor Amanda Castleman’s take: “I just select the query and hit ‘send again’ in MacMail, which presents it as a fresh note,” she says. “I’ve edited at newspapers, glossy magazines and an app – I know the pressure of wanting to be responsive, but losing control of one’s inbox… and that’s happening tenfold during the pandemic from what I hear!”

“My logic: why underscore the editor’s stumble when you’re trying to make a sale? And if someone gets tired of seeing the same email every week or two, I figure they can use their Adult Words to pass or explain they’re not commissioning or whatever. But I’ve never had a negative reaction, just a few comments like ‘thanks for circling back, I meant to respond!’”

Q: How do you track all your pitches and follow-ups?
Gonzo pitchers who are super organized often use Kanban project-management tools like Trello, Asana and similar free software.

Personally I like to tab all the outgoing pitches in my inbox with a label named “Pitches.” A few years ago, I installed a customer relationship management service called Streak (free basic membership). I couldn’t recommend this more! The app lets me know whether or not someone has opened my email. I use the feature only for important emails like time-sensitive correspondence and, of course, pitches!

Once a week, I open my tab and see if the editors have read my emails. I send a polite, short follow-up if an unanswered email is more than a week old. No response? One more follow-up in two weeks, then I take my idea elsewhere.  For really timely pitches, this timeline’s more compressed — maybe a day or two — and I label them “time-sensitive.”

Note: email trackers like Streak and Boomerang can become a massive time suck and anxiety sink for many writers. You’ll hear “the editor opened my pitch 20 times, but I haven’t heard back. WHY DOES THE WORLD HATE ME?”

Maybe the editor is reading obsessively. But it’s more likely they left their web-based email open on a buried browser tab… or they’re scrolling during a commute… or maybe their grandfather pressed the “inbox” icon instead of the Angry Birds one on their smartphone. A lot of things can result in artificially inflated “read” counts. So we recommend using these tools sparingly and only for folks who don’t spiral on “what ifs.”

Flora next teaches Timely Angles for Freelancers, a month-long course, several times a year. The next session starts September 29th, 2021.