How freelancers can predict trends
Predicting future trends can be a freelancer's ace in the hole. Here are some tips on how to cultivate that sixth sense.
Published: March 10, 2010
(This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Writer as "Think Ahead of the Curve.")|
Lately the words “ahead of the curve” seem to be popping up with growing frequency in writers guidelines, and for good reason. While editors have always shown a competitive relish for predicting hot trends and printing cutting-edge content, the constantly-in-motion Internet has created an even greater demand for sharp prophetic skills.
As Web sites have morphed into perpetual news tickers, both print and Web magazine editors—responsible for keeping an accurate pulse on society’s ever-changing tastes while typically planning their content months in advance—have been forced to become cultural gurus, visionaries and even trendsetters. One minute Britney Spears is the teen diva du jour; the next it’s Christina Aguilera, followed by Miley Cyrus.
But how can writers know who or what is next and there-by gain an edge with these editors? Lacking a crystal ball, writers can only train themselves to think in terms of coming trends and events, removing as much of the guesswork as possible, and eventually mastering the skill.
I began my own rewiring back in 2001-’02 while living in the Caribbean and researching the current-affairs book This Is Cuba. With the Elián González crisis in full swing and the world’s cameras zeroing in on the island, it was obvious that the news frenzy was only a preamble for a coming wave of in-depth coverage—my specialty. With the lid flung wide open and Americans suddenly fascinated with all things Cuban, the question for me became: How could I tap into this widespread interest and sell some magazine features?
The first thing to consider was the seasonal aspect. When Elián returned home to his father, I began to pitch travel-related articles, knowing that thousands of curious tourists would soon visit the Caribbean nation. The gist of my pitch was simple:
“Dear Editor, as you know, tropical cover stories are always big in late fall to pre-empt snowbird travel. This year, Cuba is it, and it’s gonna be huge. Wanna beat the crowd with an exclusive that will literally jump off the rack and into readers’ hands?”
I successfully sold the first epic feature on Cuban golf ever published in the United States, as well as an exclusive inside view about motorcycling on the island and a few interviews with members of the explosively popular Cuban orchestra The Buena Vista Social Club.
In all, I ended up selling more than a dozen well-paying stories, banking everything on the accuracy of my prediction. Not only was it convincing, but when it proved correct, some extremely pleased editors shot me invitations to pitch away. I had hit pay dirt.
But my success wasn’t specific to Cuba; the island just happened to be the current trend. The seasonal aspect weighed more in importance, and this is something every writer should consider, pitching as far in advance as possible. Three to five months’ notice gives editors plenty of lead time to fully flesh out ideas and kick them around when planning future content.
Upcoming events are an-other way to capitalize on things to come. Say Celine Dion has just announced an upcoming tour. With several months’ notice, you can pitch a feature about the singer to any number of publications. If you score your interview early in the game, then, as the tour approaches, Celine Dion interviews will be much harder to nail down, making yours even more valuable.
With a little foresight, I recently sold a feature Q&A with renowned historian Howard Zinn, whose book The People’s History of the United States had just been adapted for the documentary The People Speak! It was July 2009, and the minute the History Channel announced that the film—starring Matt Damon, Viggo Mortensen, Bruce Springsteen and others—was in post-production for a December airing, I began dialing.
Within an hour, I had sold a feature Q&A with Zinn to a major Web magazine whose editor agreed immediately that it was powerful stuff. The following week, I cornered Zinn on the phone for a nice, un-hurried conversation, and he gave me gem after gem for responses. Had I waited until November or December, Zinn would undoubtedly have been booked solid for interviews, and the idea would have been mission impossible.
Like upcoming events, another sure bet is anniversaries. Nostalgia sells, and whether it’s Earth Day’s 30th birthday or the 130th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, cultural milestones offer a way to gauge our national and personal progress.
For writers, having months of lead time makes it much easier to conjure up unique angles, add some engaging verbiage, and snag multiple interviews. Speaking of which, most special-interest and business-to-business magazine editors give their writers plenty of time to brainstorm and develop ideas by planning the entire next year’s editorial calendar in December.
It’s all about understanding media cycles and exercising a lot of foresight, skills that only improve with practice and soon become second nature. Nowadays, in a market saturated with both seasoned and fresh talent, a freelancer’s ability to consistently generate great, timely ideas has become as important—if not more so—than developing a solid writing style. The ability to predict the coming drift of trends and events is a necessary avenue on the road to any writer’s success, and knowing this can only put you “ahead of the curve."
Writer-photographer Ben Corbett has had articles in publications ranging from Salon.com and VH1 to High Times and Kirkus Reviews. The author of This Is Cuba: An Outlaw Culture Survives, he most recently contributed text to the literary edition of Gonzo, a visual biography of the late writer Hunter S. Thompson.