Why every freelance writer should ABC (always be curious)

Ideas, Inspiration and Dogs
Why every freelance writer should ABC (always be curious)

I was a busy technology/telecom freelance writer during the dot-com boom. (Remember that?) When it went bust, so did many of my newspaper, magazine and corporate clients. Around the time of the technology meltdown, our family added a new member – a Giant Schnauzer puppy. I walked the dog routinely and quickly discovered there’s something about dogs that causes perfect strangers to start chatting to the person walking the dog.

Each day I’d come home from my walk and tell my wife about the people I had met. She’d say, “You should write about it.” I’d nod and smile and get on with trying to drum up non-existent technology writing. We went through this ‘I can’t believe all the people I met today…’ ‘you should write about it’ routine several times and then I thought, “Why not?” So I wrote my first non-technology query letter in quite some time and pitched it to a major daily newspaper. Forty-eight hours later, I had an assignment.

That was nine years ago.

Writing that one article helped me see so many other article possibilities in the world around me. It also helped me reinvent myself as a writer. I’ve written several other articles related to, but not about, walking the dog. Every day when I walk the dog I hear sirens. Every day. Without fail. I mentioned this to my wife who said, “You should…” I didn’t even wait for her to finish the sentence.

I found the person who does media relations for 9-1-1 in Toronto and asked a simple question: “Why do I hear sirens every day?” As soon as I heard the reply, I knew I had an article. “You hear sirens every day because Torontonians call 9-1-1 up to 5,000 times a day or about a million times a year.” Who would have thunk it? This was news!

The article was published two weeks after I made the call and sent off a query letter. I then resold the article to the Canadian Police Association Yearbook, a market I didn’t even know existed until my 9-1-1 article was published.

Also, while walking my dog, I met a dog owner who runs a telescope shop in Toronto. Learning that it pays to be curious, I asked: “So how did you get into telescopes?” The article containing his answer should be published within the next few weeks. I also met a woman, a dog owner of course, who hated “ugly dog crates” so much that she designed her own. She is now selling designer dog crates and recently displayed her hip alternative to traditional crates at an event called Woofstock. My query letter about her business made the rounds and I actually used her in two separate articles.

The point of this? There are several. It is our job, as freelance writers, to always be curious. It is our job to ask questions on behalf of those we want to inform, educate, persuade and/or entertain. It is our job to listen to answers, develop focused story ideas, select appropriate markets and write query letters that demonstrate our curiosity and our ability to write.

When an editor says “yes,” it is our job to negotiate the sale of the article, conduct more research and then write and file an informative article — while meeting the word count and deadline if we hope to generate repeat business with the editor.

But it all starts with curiosity. What are you doing to expand your curiosity horizon? Where do you go to meet people who have interesting stories to tell? I walk my dog. That is now one of many ways I exercise my curiosity. Dog walking helped me reinvent myself as a writer. Writing about topics other than technology and telecom helped me rediscover the joy of writing. And, ironically, with renewed vigor and a new, more curious way of looking at the world, I am now selling more interesting technology and telecom articles as well, and am as busy as I was during the dot-com boom.

(Paul Lima is a freelance writer and trainer. You can find out more about how to develop article ideas and sell them to newspapers and magazines in Paul Lima’s book, appropriately titled, Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing (www.paullima.com/books.)


2 thoughts on “Why every freelance writer should ABC (always be curious)

  1. Hi Paul, great post! I think that most of this applies to all freelance professionals, not just writers. I myself am a freelance programmer and copywriter, and while I love the constant challenges and learning experiences that it entails, I’d also like to simplify my fellow freelancers’ lives a bit. I recently launched a freelancer marketplace with a focus on fine-grained reputation (i.e. skill-based proficiency scores) and meritocracy. If you’re interested I’d love to hear your feedback: https://www.sevendays.co. We’re always looking for talented writers.
    Anyway I wish you a happy new year and I look forward to reading more of your insightful blog posts!

  2. This is terrific advice. We are always told to find a niche, to brand ourselves — but how much better it is to follow our interests and focus on writing well. I’ve been a kind of serial rebrander, shifting my writing markets as my interests (or circumstances) change, but I would be better off just going with my curiosity about a lot of things — including new markets where I can sell stories.

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