How to Steal Your Way to Freelance Writing Success
To them I reply, “Why, I steal them!”
Now, I don’t mean that I break into other writers’ homes and rifle through their filing cabinets and hard drives. What I mean is that I find published ideas and think of ways to reslant them for my target magazines; after all, ideas aren’t copyrightable. Here’s how you, too, can benefit from a life of crime.
Nick Ideas from Newspapers
Who would have thought that your local paper — a haven to such stories as “Lotta Mums Takes First in Church Flower Show” — would give you ideas that you can pitch to the nationals? But these publications are chock full of the kind of small-town news that national magazine editors want to run but can’t find on their own.
For example, many women’s magazines run profiles of women who contribute to their communities by volunteering, creating non-profit organizations, and so on — a staple for local papers. Some true crime stories get their starts in local rags; can you pitch that compelling local murder mystery to GQ or Vanity Fair? And the business section runs pieces on local companies doing fascinating things; maybe your town diner’s hilarious new marketing plan will spur an article on marketing for a restaurant trade magazine.
Even Lotta Mums and her prizewinning roses might be worth an article: You can pitch “Secrets of Prizewinning Gardeners” to a gardening magazine.
Mooch from Magazines
You wouldn’t want to take an article idea in its entirety and pitch it to the magazine’s competitor — that’s just bad form. But no one says you can’t slant an idea you found in one magazine for a magazine in a different market.
For instance, I recently read a short in Rhode Island Monthly magazine about a gourmet hot dog stand in Providence. What a great idea for a food magazine: “Hot Dogs Go Highbrow.” My husband, an idea thief from way back, saw a short piece about the International Wife Carrying Competition in Reader’s Digest and sold an article on the event to GAMES magazine.
Here’s how to do it: Go to the bookstore and make a beeline for the parts of the newsstand you rarely browse — the pet section, say, or the sports section. Gather up a big armload of magazines and head to the café. Buy a cappuccino, then start flipping through the magazines, looking for ideas that you can slant for your target markets. Try turning a profile into a roundup where you’d interview a bunch of people, taking a national idea and giving it a local spin, or playing the contrarian with an idea by pitching the exact opposite (such as “Why Fat Is Good” or “How to Be Lazy”).
Pilfer from Press Releases
The press release’s entire raison d’etre (that’s French for “why publicists churn them out, spam them into your in-box, and follow-up mercilessly”) is to persuade writers to write about the product or service advertised therein — so feel free to steal, swipe, and snatch with abandon. For example, I found a release about new ways to deal with waste on space shuttles and sold the idea to Wired News. A release about a computer model developed by NASA that can predict the weather better than other techniques turned into another article for the same magazine.
Find organizations that deal in the subjects you like to write about and ask to be put on their press lists. If you’re into science, try Eurekalert (www.eurekalert.com) for releases on all sorts of scientific research. For books, contact publishing houses. If you enjoy writing about pets, ask to be included on the press lists for the SPCA and other animal organizations.
A caveat (that’s Latin for “watch your back”): Press releases are meant to sell you on an idea or a product, so they’re not the most objective sources of information. (Have you ever noticed that every business press release calls the company it’s publicizing “the leading provider of X”? They can’t all be leaders!) Do your own research on the topic and be sure to consult a variety of experts for the fairest reporting.
Grab from Government Reports
The government churns out an enormous quantity of written materials — reports, newsletters, advisories, and more. These can be great sources of inspiration for writers. I receive a nutrition newsletter from some governmental department or other, and have turned around and sold articles on the topics inside to health magazines.
Here are examples of governmental info you can turn into articles:
- The Food and Drug Administration website has a report about food safety after disasters such as hurricanes.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site has information on whether adults should be vaccinated.
- The U.S. Census Bureau site gives facts and figures of all sorts, including how many Christmas cards are sent each year and the number of unmarried and single Americans.
Bogart from Books
If you write about personal development, the self-help section of the bookstore provides a wealth of article ideas, from relationships to self esteem. Write about parenting? Check the childcare section. And for those who write about nutrition, the shelves are overflowing with books about new diets.
And don’t forget about online bookstores such as Amazon.com. Type in a keyword, such as “antiques,” “marketing,” or “yoga,” and see what pops up. Have the Web site sort the results by date so the newest books show up on top.
Magazine editors love ideas that are made timely by the publication of a new book, and as a bonus, you can interview the books’ authors as expert sources. When I read Judith Orloff’s latest book Positive Energy, I noticed a section about intuitive empaths — people (usually women) who are so empathetic that they soak up other people’s emotions like a sponge. I crafted a query using Dr. Orloff as one of my sources, sent it to O: The Oprah Magazine, and received an e-mail from the editor that she wants to bring up the idea at their next editorial meeting. (Please please please.)
Swipe from Yourself
Y’know all those articles and queries you wrote that have been languishing on your hard drive for years? Pull a Dr. Frankenstein and bring them back to life! You put a lot of effort into researching those topics, so you should get as much mileage out of them as possible. A few years ago I wrote an article for a health magazine about how too much of a good thing (vitamins, sunblock, exercise) can be dangerous. On a recent foray through my “completed articles” file, I rediscovered the topic, revised my query, and ended up selling it to a general interest magazine for almost twice as much money.
Every once in a while, scroll through your completed articles and queries and determine if you can resell the ideas using the same techniques you use when stealing ideas from magazines: Make a national idea local (or vice versa), turn a profile into a roundup, write up the opposite of your original idea, or update your idea using new research and sources.
Now that you know how to pinch article topics, you’ll never be short of ideas to query. In my next column, I’ll show you how to crack safes and jimmy locks.
This article originally appeared in Writer’s Digest.
If you liked that post, you might also like:
- Will Your Article Idea Fly? Here’s How to Find Out
- Do You Know What to Do with an Article Idea Once You Have It?
- Are You Under-Researching Your Queries? Here are 4 Ways to Create Queries That Get Assignments
- You Ask, We Answer: How Do I Find News Before It’s News?
- How to Respond to ProfNet/HARO Queries Without Pissing Writers Off