Recently I found myself burnt out—seven years of almost nonstop pitching as a full-time freelancer will do that—so I decided to spend more time reading the kind of smart, interesting journalism I want to write. I started by creating a spreadsheet with links to articles I admire, along with the writer’s name, publication, and a quick blurb about what I liked. But staring at spreadsheets has a way of killing my enthusiasm, so I moved my reading list to Pinterest with a secret board called “Articles I Wish I’d Written.”
I knew if I created a public board, I’d feel pressure to only pin stories from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, or to justify my fascination with stories about dogs. (There, it’s out in the open, and I don’t feel the need to justify it. Non-sappy dog writing does exist.) Having my own private, visual collection of the stories I love helps me gauge which publications publish those kinds of stories, writers I should follow more closely, and topics I should explore more in my own reporting.
I’m still pinning stories I wish I’d written, and doing so has impacted my writing in a few important ways:
I’m more aware of different publications
The trick here is to get out of your comfort zone. We all associate certain glossy magazines and newspapers with excellent writing, but I found a lot of beautifully crafted stories in trade magazines (a publishing niche some dismiss as dull), women’s magazines (admittedly known more for their quizzes and fashion spreads than in-depth journalism), in-flight magazines, and even blogs. Seeing these publications on my Pinterest board opened up markets I never would’ve considered previously. There was just a heightened sense of awareness that good writing gets published in a lot of places every day. It’s not New Yorker or bust, which is easy to forget.
If you’re still relying on an RSS tool like Feedly, make sure you’re reading beyond your usual RSS subscriptions too. I discover stories via newsletters (Ann Friedman curates a wide variety of stories in her weekly newsletter), Twitter, and the recommended reading list Pocket sends me every week—among other places—and then pin them to my board.
I’m tracking patterns
Just as it’s easy to get complacent reading the same things, it’s also easy to get complacent writing the same things. And since those two behaviors don’t always line up, my Pinterest board has turned into an unofficial gap analysis.
Even though I often write about personal finance, my board contains very few personal finance pieces. To me, this suggests that I should pitch more stories at the intersection of personal finance and my other interests (dogs, for instance) or explore other niches altogether to make sure I stay engaged with my work. I liked this Racked piece about credit-card-point junkies (one of the few money pieces on my board), and it got me thinking about what other quirky obsessions or subcultures I could cover.
I’m paying more attention to the craft
When many of us read on the Internet, we often go right from story to story without stopping. Not all the stories we read are going to be particularly well-written either. But with my board, I’m able to line up the best of the best and identify what caught my attention in each piece. After all, I have to make a conscious decision to pin an article, so I’m already thinking about the writing on a more granular level, which has paid dividends in my own work.
Ask yourself what makes each story sing. Is it the sensory details the writer included? The way she captured the subject’s colorful personality? How she tapped into the zeitgeist to cover a certain aspect of a trend you’d never considered? Use the answers to these questions to guide you in pitching and writing your own stories. Not that you would necessarily pitch a story on the same topic or copy someone’s kick-ass metaphor, but over time, you may start to identify brainstorming or storytelling techniques that could enliven your own prose.
I ended up choosing Pinterest because I like its visual feel and the ease of clicking the “pin” button on my browser, but if you’re interested in following my lead, there are other platforms that can work for you as well. You might choose a spreadsheet, a tag in Google Bookmarks, an Evernote or Pocket account, or even a scrapbook or bulletin board to catalogue the pieces you admire. The specific format isn’t all that important; you just need a place to keep track of stories you love.