What I Learned from Writers and Editors at #ASJA2015

I still remember the exhilaration and pride I felt the first time I landed a story on the cover of The Indianapolis Star newspaper when I was a college intern. Since then, I’ve built a rewarding career—and now a successful business—writing and editing primarily for membership associations and custom media publications. But a part of me wants to challenge myself to seek out story ideas to pitch to major newspapers and consumer health magazines.

With that goal in mind, I applied for membership to the American Society of Journalists and Authors and, once accepted, registered for the ASJA Annual Conference 2015 in New York City April 30–May 2. It looked like a valuable opportunity to learn more about pitching and to make connections with magazine editors. #ASJA2015 exceeded my expectations. I gained so much knowledge from the sessions about pitching and content marketing and connected with several potential clients and editors.

I’m an incessant live tweeter, so for a detailed summary of tips for freelance writers, visit my Storify “Highlights from the ASJA Conference 2015.” But here are a few takeaways:

1. Be obsessed with your story idea. This advice came from Katia Bachko, executive editor of Atavist Magazine, but this theme was woven throughout the conference. If you’re going to spend time pitching an idea and then, if it’s accepted, laboring over the story, the research, the interviews, you need to love the story idea. Be passionate about your work, and it will show in your writing.

2. Pitch stories, not topics. Several editors said they receive pitches all the time that are only topics, not well-thought-out stories. Don’t just say you want to write about the latest news in women’s heart health. Find the hook. Woman’s Day includes heart health in every issue, and recent ideas included “How your marriage is affecting your heart health” and “Shortcuts in the kitchen to boost your heart.”

Honor Jones, an editor with The New York Times Opinion section, said she looks for stories with more than one layer. Don’t send in an essay about your mother dying. There needs to be another element, another layer, something else happening at the same time or something you learned or changed because of the ordeal.

Provide creative ideas on how to package your story idea, as well. Perhaps it should be a slideshow or video or include a reader poll.

3. Build relationships. Who knows what the return rate is on pitching, but it’s likely not very high. Some writers email dozens and dozens of pitches, only to wonder why more aren’t being accepted and what they’re doing wrong. Pitching can still work, but aim to build relationships with editors. ASJA’s conference provided a unique opportunity for writers to meet directly with editors and share their expertise and interest. Sometimes writers are able to get their foot in the door by writing for the online version of a consumer magazine. Show you have the chops and you’re easy to work with, and that editor might share your name with the magazine staff editors down the hall.

The same is true in the world of custom media and content marketing. Often, editors oversee multiple publications and brands. If you’re working on one project, make sure you shine and leave a great impression with the editor. Then, ask him or her about other opportunities writing for other clients and brands.

ASJA attendees, what lessons did you learn at this year’s conference? Please share in the comments below.

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