Is Your Article Idea Too Big (Or Too Small)? Here’s How to Know the Difference Between a Topic and an Idea
If you bemoan your inability to tell a story idea from a topic or vice versa, I have a great tip for you that was given to me by an editor years ago. Here, an excerpt from my new eBook, ROCK-SOLID QUERIES: The 10 Surprising Reasons Why Magazine Editors Reject Your Ideas … and How to Write Queries That Get More Acceptances Today, which explains the difference.
Many writers have no idea what “too narrow” or “too broad” means, and what they need to do to fatten up — or slim down — their ideas.
I struggled with this problem in the beginning of my career, specializing in ideas that editors said were too broad, until one day an editor gave me a visual way of thinking about ideas. If I could picture my idea as the subject of a book, it was too broad for an article and was more of a topic. If I could picture my idea as a sidebar or a footnote in the book, then it was too narrow for an article. If my idea could be pictured as a chapter, or even a section, in the book, then I was on the right track.
Once I had this rule of thumb, I never again made the mistake of pitching articles that were too broad.
So if you suspect you’re pitching ideas that would work better as book topics or footnotes, the fix requires some trimming here, some padding there.
Let’s say you want to write a piece on raising eager readers. I hope you can easily picture a book called Raising Eager Readers on your imaginary bookshelf and agree it’s more of a book topic than an article.
Now think about the chapters that might be included in this book. Perhaps it would be structured chronologically so that parents could start molding their infants and babies into future readers, and have a plan to keep them (eagerly) reading as teens. How about a story on the TK ways new parents can introduce books to babies or a piece on new research that shows how babies respond to being read to? (TK is journalistic shorthand for the word “tokum,” a deliberate misspelling of “to come.” It’s used as a placeholder until the information is available.) A chapter on the characteristics of young eager readers could be pitched to a parenting magazine as an article on the TK habits of eager readers and what parents can do to develop these habits in less eager readers. A chapter on working around distractions? How about a piece on the best books for kids who like Minecraft, or a short piece on books with (kid-friendly) video game tie-ins?
If your ideas are too narrow for the magazine, you use the same process, only backwards. If you’ve pitched a story on an unknown fly-fishing spot in Minnesota, you can broaden it by including this spot, along with nine others, in a pitch called “The Midwest’s 10 Best Fly-fishing Spots You’ve Never Heard Of.” Here, you’ve broadened the geographical area covered in your story, thereby attracting a broader range of readers. A story aimed at mothers of sextuplets can be broadened to appeal to moms of multiples. A story that focuses on a disease that affects .0002 percent of the population is going to be a hard sell, but if a father is raising money to help raise awareness of the illness, he might be a good profile subject for a regional magazine. More readers can relate to a father fighting for a cause than they can to a disease more rare than Ebola.
Keep in mind that what one editor thinks is too narrow or too broad would work fine for another editor’s publication. Much depends on the style of the magazine, so keep your market knowledge handy as you shape your ideas.
Do you struggle with ideas that are too broad (topics)? Or do you pick ideas that are so narrow they only relate to three people on a remote island in Indonesia? Do you have any other tips or advice for narrowing and/or broadening ideas? Add your comments below! — Diana Burrell