Sulagna Misra is a writer, editor and frequent Toast contributor who writes a popular pitching newsletter, Pitching Shark. Here she shares some advice for aspiring freelancers.
I’ve always had a tendency to go on at length about things I can’t stop thinking about, eager to talk about things I’ve just realized or weird jokes I’ve cooked up that no one in my vicinity really gets. It was only when I started pitching and writing that I realized it was my choice of audience and venue, rather than my tendency to overthink everything, that wasn’t working. This is why nobody in real life has ever asked me when or where or how I get my ideas. My friends already know – it’s usually in that moment when they’ve looked at me, slightly flummoxed at the station my train of thought has arrived at.
When I’m obsessing over something, or when I’m overthinking it – that’s when I know I have an idea, and a potential pitch on my hands. Another hint is when I want to research something – or find that I’m already researching it (I’ll blink and realize I have ten tabs open). Yet another hint that I might need to write something out is when I have a mess of thoughts I want to sort out through a personal/cultural essay.
I think the way you happen upon ideas and stories is partly based on your personality. After all, your subject matter is just as much a part of your voice as your writing style. Are you having trouble coming up with ideas? Think about asking yourself the very romantic question: Why do I write? If you can’t answer that, focus on that question first.
What if you don’t have enough ideas? I definitely have off days, when it feels like coming to the bottom of a bag of popcorn before the movie’s over. My best ideas usually come from things I’m naturally drawn to during my off-hours — certain books or critical readings of entertainment — or what I find myself looking up idly in my spare time, like the composer of a certain TV show or the movie page on TV Tropes.
In my first year as a freelance writer, I focused on stories and articles I’d been interested in for a while, things that had been cooking in my mind for years and years. When I ran out of those ideas — when I couldn’t think of anything — I’d freak out. Even though it has happened before, and even though I know I’ll come up with a fresh batch of ideas soon, I still worry a bit when that happens. But this anxiety has waned the longer I’ve been working, because I have realized that after a week or two I’ll feel fresher and sharper, with an idea or two to go on. Think of your mind as a garden: with the right care, it’ll be constantly replenishing itself. Staring at it incessantly won’t make the grass grow faster.
I try not to dwell on the idea drought when it comes. Instead I push myself to do something. I might work on some of the projects I’ve been ignoring, watch the new TV series everyone keeps talking about or the one I’ve been meaning to try for years, cook something, read a novel nonstop over a weekend, go to the movies or watch a silly movie at home, talk to interesting friends I haven’t seen in a while, reread old essays that I really liked, exercise, etc. I try to avoid social media, random nothings on my phone (you know what I mean — I have to sit on my hands sometimes to accomplish this), and talking to people who suck my energy. The point is to get outside of my own head and look at the world around me.
If you’re in an idea rut, it might also mean that you’re a bit burned out. It’s an awful feeling, I know, but it’s happened to me enough that I’ve written multiple articles on burnout…even while feeling burned out. In these times, I try to “practice self-care,” as they say — which, for me, means re-watching old favorite TV shows, reading good comic books, or painting.
But! Let’s say you’ve gotten beyond that point. You finally have something that feels like it could be a good article or essay. So now you have a hazy ghost of an idea following you around, which means you might need a friend to help you exorcise it. I have several friends with whom I like to discuss potential ideas — it’s like a makeshift workshop session, but over dinner or coffee with people I really, really like. All these friends are good listeners, and there’s quite a bit of overlap among them. These are people I’ll talk to before I have a solid idea, but also while I’m pitching the piece and later when I’m ultimately writing and submitting it. I love writing and it feels natural to sort out my thoughts that way, but other people’s perspectives can sometimes help me figure out what exactly I want to say.
Here are the friends I like to consult, in no particular order:
The one who comes at it from a different angle: I have a few friends like this, but I have one friend in particular with whom I can talk for hours and hours nonstop about a subject without going in circles. Kind of like the Before Sunrise movies, except platonic and without nostalgia for our younger selves. We’ve kept in touch on Facebook, by text, and even over the phone when we lived in different cities for a couple years. I usually turn to her when I have an idea that is still a fragment and not yet a sentence, because she’s good to talk to when I want to figure out which threads are interesting and important and which aren’t.
The one who finds the structure inside the idea: Especially when I first started writing, I had a hard time figuring out what order my thoughts should go in. A talk with this kind of friend helps me envision what the piece will look like. Sometimes that means understanding that it’s an essay more than a list, or a two-parter instead of a shorter piece. As I said before, I used to rant to lots of friends about these ideas of mine, and they wouldn’t always understand. The friends I turn to for structure help are the ones who not only get it, they can also help me figure out how to communicate what I want to say.
The one who agrees with you but cares about different aspects of the idea: These friends help you figure out which points you want to hit and which ones you don’t. Usually what happens is that you tell this friend your idea, and they will counter with another idea, and then it’s like you’re having two different idea workshops in tandem.
The one who has a million relentless questions for you: I am kind of a baby when it comes to criticism – if there’s merit, I always try to learn from it, but it can sometimes bring me down and make me feel kind of dumb. But I do have a couple of friends who will help me interrogate an idea for holes and problems, and they’re sweet enough that it can feel like intellectual exercise instead of an attack on my soft, squeamish soul. (Obviously I will also be like, “And how are you?” and change the subject when I’ve reached my endpoint.)
The one who encourages you: Sometimes our ideas seem paltry! Sometimes they are, but often they’ll just be rejected if that’s the case. A very good friend — although in my case it’s often my mom, because she’s awesome – will encourage you to pitch despite your insecurities. The more you pitch, the less you’ll agonize over each individual pitch, and then you’ll have more time to better support this awesome supportive friend in their endeavors as well.
The one who’s just plain different from you: Hopefully you have a ton of friends like this! Like most humans, I have a variety of interests and tastes and experiences. I’ll connect with friends because of our similarities, but it’s rare to experience a total overlap, because we are complex and unique beings, so we’ll have a lot of differences to discuss too. This always helps me get a perspective on my idea beyond the swirl and slurry of my mind, and get pushback on any assumptions or judgments that might be floating around in there.
At this point, after I’ve come up with a solid idea and talked it through with a friend or two if necessary, it’s time for me to take that idea and turn it into an actual pitch. Remember, even if you get rejected, an editor who likes your work and wants you to pitch again will give you good feedback! Editors I really enjoy working with tend to be kind of like the friends I mentioned above: they might have an idea of what they want the piece to look like, or they’ll help me get to a bigger or more specific vision for it. Don’t forget, if you get rejected from one place, it doesn’t mean the idea is bad — it might just mean it will work better elsewhere. Good luck!
Sulagna Misra writes about the weird things that pop into her head when she's not paying attention. She's on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.