Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Curiouser and Curiouser!"

Every great journalist I've ever met has one essential but universal quality:


If this is just part of your DNA makeup, then you're golden to run a freelance writing business.

I had this great teacher at my very first newspaper (I call him a "teacher" rather than an "editor," because he was much more than a snarly bear behind a computer). Dave Lanute. I can name him here, because he's connected to me on Facebook, and he'll get a kick out of it, won't you Dave? :-P

Anyway, Dave told me when I was at the malleable age of 23, "Curiosity is the most important thing about this job. If you can learn to ask questions about everything and everywhere you go, of everyone you encounter, you will succeed in this business."

He was right.

I started actually practicing the art of asking myself questions in every single situation. I forced myself to get into this mindset, and before I knew it, I just started doing it naturally. Now it's just part of who I am ... and it ultimately leads to story ideas, which leads to story assignments, which leads to .... you guessed it!


And that, of course, leads to being able to sustain yourself on a freelance lifestyle.

Let me give you an example from this week. I finished up a huge project on Tuesday -- a straight 10-day writing marathon on an annual story for one particular client. My brain was toast, and so I carved out Wednesday to handle errands and rejuvenate.

I took the dog to the groomer.

Ho hum, you might say.

But while dropping him off, I saw a little counter display next to the cash register for dog licenses. The name of the company was, "Dingo."

"Hey," I said to the groomer. "My child's piano teacher just rescued a puppy from a barn, and it was really smart but badly behaved. It turns out that this thing is one-quarter Dingo. My child gets in this puppy's face every time he has a piano lesson. Should I be concerned about the dog?"

Well this led into a dissertation by the dog groomer about Dingos, their roots in Australia, their rarity in the United States, their ability to be trained as pets, their affability when children are around ... I walked out of the place 30 minutes later fully informed, let me tell you.

Then I got to thinking about the different stories that could spin out of that one root discussion. And I would list them for you here, but I don't want to give them away. :-D  I'm going to pitch them to magazines for pet owners AND to magazines on parenting.

Here's another example:

I hit the salon last Thursday for the first time in three months. While I was waiting for my tresses to be transformed from brunette into Julia-Roberts-auburn tendrils, I looked around for magazines. There was the requisite stack of consumer magazines that most other foil-encased women were perusing. But off on a chair in a corner, there was another stack. I knew what was in it: the trade magazines that the salon owner was reading for his business.


These were magazines I never knew existed. Normally I see trade magazine listings on, but these were "off the terrain," as it were. As dye seeped into my hair (and scalp -- see what women have to do to be presentable these days?), I canvassed the publications and made mental notes of the types of articles they were doing, as well as which publications were linked under the same corporate heading. By the time I left the salon, I felt justified in paying the hefty bill, because I had potentially discovered three new clients.

Today I'm cobbling together lists of ideas from those two excursions and will be sending editors my pitches next week.

OK. Let me give you one more.

I went to the grocery and as I was checking out, noticed that the person bagging my food was elderly. The line was rather long, but it was because she was carefully putting each item very slowly into each bag. No one was complaining. All eyes followed this gentle old lady's movements. And all of us were thinking the same thing: Why is this poor soul working at a grocery and bagging food when she should be enjoying a quiet and placid retirement, sipping tea on a comfortable chair with a good book?

Or maybe the other customers weren't thinking it.

Maybe it was just me -- the curious person with a thousand questions -- and the writer who will find the answers and tell a tale.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to put together a story idea list for AARP.

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