Time is often the freelancer’s worst enemy—looming deadlines, tight appointments, and impossible schedules can invoke terror in even the most organized writer. Those scenarios may make the calendar feel like a ticking time bomb, but for freelancers who are able to step back and look at the upcoming months with perspective, the calendar is really one of the strongest ideation tools we have at our disposal.
Why? Because just paying attention to major dates is a surefire way to come up with topical story hooks that editors know will resonate with readers.
For example, food stories naturally tie into holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. Finance stories connect organically to year-end planning and tax season. Faith pieces are natural fits for holidays such as Christmas and Ramadan. And even major event anniversaries ranging from D-Day to the O.J. Simpson trial have proven to be solid pegs.
If you take a proactive approach to looking ahead at the calendar for ideas, there’s a good chance you’ll start to see more pitches accepted.
Sure, some ideas come to us out the blue while we’re sitting on the couch or walking through the aisles of the supermarket. But for freelancers who are searching for consistency with their schedule, using the calendar for ideas is a smart way to work backwards with a theme already in mind.
“Posts pegged to events help publications schedule their content, and their headlines bring good SEO juice, like the infamous ‘What time is the Super Bowl?’ posts you see everywhere,” said Andria Krewson, an editor at Mediagazer.
In Early February, I pitched my faith-angled Passover story idea to the Charlotte Observer, giving me enough time to hear back from an editor. The piece, which explained the backstory behind the four questions, ran at the end of March just in advance of the April 3 start of the holiday.
The best part about tracking dates is that if you keep your angle fresh, the same peg can be returned to time and again. I’d drawn from the Passover well years earlier for a food story that ran in the Raleigh News & Observer.
“Pegs answer the question for readers, ‘Why should I pay attention to this topic now?'” Krewson added. “Event-driven stories also mirror real life where we measure progress and goals over time, like earnings reports or new gadget releases.”
Mother’s Day is great example of how to answer Krewson’s “Why now?” question since it’s an emotion-laden holiday that just about everyone can relate to on some level.
Hallmark’s second-favorite holiday (after Valentine’s Day, of course) offers the ultimate calendar peg full of angles for freelancers. Relying on my pop culture beat and interest in the Charlotte Symphony, I uncovered this story about the principal violist and the loving tribute she paid to her mom. It ran on Mother’s Day a couple years back.
If you’re not used to looking at the calendar this way, it can also help to check out a variety of published articles that use dates, holidays, and anniversaries as pegs. A quick Google search for Mother’s Day could direct you to a PETA piece on animal moms, a traditional gift guide from the Independent, a New York Daily News piece on unconventional cards, and even a Nicholas Kristof op-ed. Same holiday, drastically different stories.
Considering the lead times for print publications, you’ll want to consult a calendar well in advance to try to snag a byline in a magazine or newspaper.
Editors for daily print journals typically slot feature stories at least three weeks in advance, but if you know your topic will take a lot of research, reporting, and interviewing, you might want to plan out as far as eight weeks.
Monthly magazines generally plan the editorial calendar at least three months in advance. If you have a good relationship with an editor, you may be able to get a peek at the upcoming editorial calendar, which can be a huge bonus. When reviewing the calendar of lifestyle publication SouthPark Magazine, for instance, I saw the editor wanted a profile for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. So with that insider knowledge, I pitched and wrote this piece for her.
“We want to provide relevant information for our readers,” said Michael Weinstein, senior features editor at the Charlotte Observer. “Relevance can take many forms, such as being local or time bound. When evaluating pitches, I look for stories with universal appeal that speak to the heart of the holiday, for example, stories that everyone can identify with.”
And for freelancers who pay attention to dates hiding in plain site on the calendar, story ideas can turn into major breakthroughs. Recently, photo journalist Mark Edward Harris pitched and secured a story with the Los Angeles Times Magazine about life along the DMZ between North and South Korea using an unusual event to make his idea topical.
“Magazines are constantly looking for new ideas,” Harris said. “I pitched the story a few months before the 50th anniversary of the signing of the armistice. If I had come up with the idea two weeks later, it might have been an interesting idea, but it would have been too late.”
For the freelancer searching for their next great story idea, remember that it’s never too late to make time for your calendar. Doing so could be the difference between getting work with a premier publication and dealing with another generic rejection.