Dr. Juli Fraga is a San Francisco-based psychologist and health writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Quartz.
You’ve written for some of the biggest publications in the world, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. When you were just starting out, how did you grab an editor’s attention?
I read articles/headlines in the pubs I’m interested in pitching, and I craft a catchy headline that I hope stands out from the crowd.
For example, in a pitch for the Washington Post, I used the headline: “What to Do When Therapy Feels Like Tinder,” which immediately grabbed the editor’s attention. Last year, I pitched a music essay to Noisey: “How John Mayer Helped Me Become a Better Therapist.” While the article wasn’t solely about the singer’s music, the provocative headline caught the editor’s eye, and I wrote a story about how expressive arts therapy can foster psychological healing.
“Rejections can be disappointing, but I don’t take them personally. It’s part of the process.”
For certain pubs, headlines don’t need to be catchy to get noticed. In a pitch to the New York Times Well section, I used the headline, “After a Pet Dies, How to Help Children Grieve.” It wasn’t a snazzy title, but it matches the voice of the Well section.
What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
My biggest challenge is coming up with transition sentences that aren’t cliché! I’m also a slow writer, and it can take me a while to organize my interview notes and craft the story. Like many writers, I’m always trying to write more concisely, too. Rejections can be disappointing, but I don’t take them personally. It’s part of the process. While I’ve landed some great bylines, I don’t think that makes me a stellar writer. My biggest writing goal is always to improve.
But I do like to write… I just know that I can’t do it in long intervals and I need to balance it with other things. Before I made this my career, I would write only if I was experiencing something very emotional and needed to articulate it. But that’s not me every day. So when tasked with writing as a career, I have to be very disciplined and come up with a system that works for me. (I’m still mastering it!)
How do you come up with ideas?
Because I write a lot of mental health stories, I keep up to date with new research, especially as it relates to psychology. Sometimes I’ll dream about an idea and jot it down in the middle of the night. I also pay attention to people’s conversations, listening for solutions they’ve found to everyday problems or conflicts they face with friends, partners, and co-workers. As a psychologist, I have a lot of experience working with new parents, which provides inspiration for stories, too.
“Most of my pitches are no longer than 200 words, and it’s essential to catch the editor’s attention in the first sentence.”
I also enjoy finding novel ways to solve everyday problems. For example, many people use talk therapy or medication to treat depression, but what about music therapy? After I land on an idea, I’ll locate experts/research to back up my pitch and go from there.
What are some key points to keep in mind when you’re pitching an idea?
- Why is it important now?
- Why should you be the one to write the story? (i.e., are you an expert in a specific field, or do you have personal experience with the said topic).
- Is your story idea narrow? For example, writing about anxiety among teen girls is an idea, but writing about why anxious teens are bullying themselves online is a story.
- Has your idea been covered? What new info will you add?
- Brevity. Most of my pitches are no longer than 200-words, and it’s essential to catch the editor’s attention in the first sentence.
- This sounds simple but put “Freelance pitch” in the subject line. Editors receive “pitches” from PR companies. Using “freelance” makes it less likely they’ll skip over your submission.
“Be honest with yourself. What are your growth edges as a writer?”
What’s your #1 piece of advice for writers looking to step up their game?
1. Write! Write! Write! The best way to step up your game is to write often. I write every day.
2. Take a class or hire a writing coach. I’ve taken many writing classes and worked with stellar coaches who’ve helped me become a better writer.
3. Team up with a friend. I have a couple of writer friends, and we get together regularly to offer each other feedback and share ideas.
4. Honesty. Be honest with yourself. What are your growth edges as a writer? I’m a creative person and can come up with many ideas, but executing can be more challenging.
5. Read. Reading articles and books helps me identify how I can improve my writing. For example, reading the New York Times Smarter Living section, I realized the importance of making every word count and applying new solutions to evergreen topics.