The Renegade Writer

Let’s Make Your Article Ideas Not Suck — Right Now

Finger face having an ideaIn the Premium version of my Write for Magazines e-course, I critique three article ideas from each student.

I’ll take an idea that’s almost-but-not-quite there (which is almost every idea) and show the student how to play with it, how to experiment with different angles until it’s just right to pitch.

And you know the response I often get?

“Since you didn’t like that idea, here’s another one.”

No, no, no!

Article ideas rarely pop out of a writer’s head fully-formed and ready to pitch. Even someone with 17 years’ experience (ahem) comes out with what I call SEEDS of ideas. A seed is the most basic form of an idea before you nurture it into a fully grown, salable article idea.

When you brainstorm, generate as many ideas as you can without judging them. Then, go through them one by one and start playing with the topics, angles, and markets to turn seeds into fully realized ideas. Like so:

If your idea isn’t newsy enough:


Here are three tactics you can try:

  1. See if you can find a recently-released book on the topic, or one that will be coming out around the same time you’re aiming your article for. (Search on Amazon.com and sort results by Date Published instead of Relevance.)
  2. Search for stats showing that what you’re pitching is a trend, or is becoming a trend.
  3. Figure out if there’s some way you can attach your idea to something that IS going on in the news. Maybe a celebrity just announced that she has some rare disease you wanted to write about, or you want to write on a marketing topic and a big business made the news with a major marketing fail.

If your idea is too narrow:


Consider finding three or more similar things and pitching them as a roundup. For example, instead of pitching an article on an historic attraction in your area, find four cool historic attractions and offer a roundup to a regional magazine.

Or, bring in other, similar but distinct topics. Instead of writing a pet health article only for ferret owners, expand it to include cats and dogs and pitch it to a general pets magazine or one of the women’s or health magazines that have pet departments.

If your idea is too broad:


Take one thin slice of the idea and blow it up to feature-size. For example, every health writer is pitching about the GMO issue, and frankly, this idea is big enough to fill a book. Is there some small aspect of the topic that hasn’t gotten much press, that readers may not already know about?

If your idea isn’t relevant to enough of your target market’s audience:


Is there a magazine or online publication that caters to an audience to whom your idea WOULD be relevant? For example, if a certain autoimmune disease affects only 2% of women, it won’t be of interest to a women’s magazine. But it WOULD be of interest to a magazine that targets people with autoimmune disorders. (And you’d be surprised at the publications you can find out there.)

If your idea is too vague:


Ask yourself, “What ABOUT topic X?” For instance, you want to write about job hunting for seniors. That’s pretty nebulous. What ABOUT job hunting for seniors? How to make your resume relevant for modern jobs, the top 10 best work-at-home jobs for seniors, how to volunteer your way into a paid job?

If your idea is just plain boring:


Consider: What’s the opposite of your idea? Editors love surprising, counterintuitive ideas that surprise readers and make them think.

Years ago I noticed that peanuts were getting a bad rap due to allergies (they had been recently kicked off of airplanes), so I pitched and sold an article called “In Defense of the Peanut” to Oxygen, about the health benefits of the beleaguered nut.

If your idea is about how to save money on groceries (been there, done that), you turn that into an idea on when it makes sense to spend more on food. (I did this for Fitness magazine, in an article called “Splurge or Save.”)

If your idea is on how to market your small business (snooooze), turn that into an article on how to attract customers without marketing.

So from now on, when your brainstorming session produces ideas you fear are stale, overdone, too narrow, or too big, don’t give up in despair. Remember, these are seeds of ideas, and you can nurture them until they grow into perfect pitches.

How about you: Did you recently come up with an idea you thought stunk? Can you apply some of the tips above to make it, well, not stink? Let’s play with your article ideas right here in the comments!

Jun 8, 2014 Advice, Ideas

50 Responses

  1. Linda, thank you for sharing these thought processes that you use to drill down from topic idea to a salable article! It certainly helps to demystify how you can rattle off multiple headlines seemingly right out of thin air!

    This is among the top writing posts that I’ve read in months! By applying these deliberate scope changes to my ideas, I think it will make a significant and meaningful difference in my ability to come up with an article topic that someone will actually want to read. I have a bunch of fizzled-out ideas that I can go back and work on now!

    Thanks again for the ‘peek behind the curtain’ on how you work your article idea magic! I can’t wait to start practicing this until it becomes as second nature for me as it is for you! :)

    • Renee, I’m glad the post was helpful to you! Feel free to post one of those fizzled-out ideas right here and other readers and I will help you turn it into something salable!

    • Sabriga says:

      Yep, Renee, even though I’ve heard Linda say some of these tips before, having them collected in this list is just what you say – demystifies how great angles for articles seem to fly off the tip of her tongue at a moment’s notice.

  2. Josie says:

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks for this opportunity. Here goes:

    I am just formulating ideas for a city guide feature article. (I’ve already won the project, so no need for pitches.) The publication is available for an entire year, so the subject needn’t be newsy, but a general city-interest for anyone picking up the publication over that year.

    “Love Letter to Ann Arbor” is my idea. I will expound on all the loveable features.

    Sound to touchy-feely? How can it be tweaked?

    Thanks,
    Josie

    • Thanks for starting us off, Josie! So you were already tasked to write an article on the best features of Ann Arbor? ZIf so i think your title will work, but how will you carry off that theme throughout? It doesn’t seem enough for it to be just a listing of the city’s best features. Can you write the entries like an actual love letter to the city? Just a idea!

      • Sabriga says:

        what a GREAT idea! “Dear Ann Arbor, thanks for another gorgeous afternoon by the pond in the Botanical Garden.” Makes me want to write it!

        • Louise says:

          Sabriga, having lived near Ann Arbor for a bit, and having thoroughly enjoyed walks through the Arboretum, I was reminded of a memory that you are welcome to share somehow in your “love letter.” Rolling hills, occasional hikers, sporadic students all seem to find their niche here. I remember hearing someone play a haunting melody on flute on one of my trips there. I pursued that person to find the name of the piece…and it became a piece played at my wedding the following year. I’m sure you can make it sound better than I just did, but it was indeed just one of the magical places in Ann Arbor. Sounds like a great writing gig – both a challenge as well as a chance to be really creative. Wishing you the best!

  3. Williesha says:

    Thanks for this, Linda. This is where I struggle the most, and it reminded me to submit a rejected pitch to a different publication that was more suitable.

  4. I have a vague idea to submit to a parenting/family magazine. The concept is a sort of a yes/no comparison article with the title “Things your kid is ready to do and things they aren’t – with you”

    I brainstormed some things that adults find fun and what they might want to share with their kids. And I was going to talk to some experts about age levels that these would be appropriate for, safe for, and that would lead to quality time. But I don’t know if this is enough, and if these ideas are broad enough for a wide readership or too unique to my personal experience.

    Sushi nite/coffee date
    Massage/pedicure
    Hair color/temp hair dye
    E-reader/iPhone/

    • Hi, Elizabeth! Hmmm…this is a good start to an idea but it really seems to be a few ideas at once because it relates to different age groups and different types of experiences. Also, I feel like some of the answers will be obvious. If your kid is willing to try sushi, is he ever too young? Many nail places have special pedi chairs just for little girls, so I’d guess it’s okay for young kids. And so on. But the seed of the idea is a good one. What are some mom-time things you can share with your kid? You always think the kids only want to go to the bouncy house (ugh), but really they want to do what mom’s doing. Then you can offer a roundup of ideas for things that mom loves that the kids will also love. Mani/pedis can be one. Fancy tea at a nice restaurant or cafe could be another. (I did that with my kid when he was 3 and he loved it!) That’s all I can think of, but you can survey moms of Facebook, Help a Reporter, etc. to find out some unique mom-time things moms included their kids in just for fun. I hope you like that idea!

      • Renée Camus says:

        I recently read a blog online where a woman talked about watching some Jane Austen movies with her daughter (who was 9, I believe), and she was surprised how much her daughter enjoyed it. So that’s a thought: watch a particular movie or movie genre with your child, as opposed to watching Frozen for the 800th time. :)

  5. Karen Morse says:

    Hey Linda,
    I’ve been playing with an idea that I’m calling “Detox Do’s” which is a roundup of several cool products to treat a hangover. I think it’s a good idea (most of us have been there!) and I’ve pitched it to a few of my editors with no response. Maybe it needs a little something extra?
    Thanks for your help!
    Karen

    • Haha, that’s similar to an idea I’m pitching except mine is a roundup of what to do when you overdo all kinds of things, including alcohol. I have interest from a women’s magazine. So that would have been one way to slant it, but I’ve pitched that around everywhere myself! :) You could be getting no reply because many mags do product roundups in-house, and they like to select and test out the products they recommend. Could be you need to find a different market — for example, have you thought about changing the title to be more edgy and pitching it to men’s mags? Not sure how they handle product recommendations, but I think of guys as having hangovers more than women for some reason. Just a thought!

  6. Barbara says:

    Hi LInda,

    I’ve got this article proposal on green funerals (environmentally friendly options for interment) and some really cutting edge ways to help the planet when we die – and thought it would be great for an October issue with all the Halloween and ghouls – but no one seems to want to touch the D word. (death) Any ideas on how to twist it so it’s not macabre? I feel like I’m giving it a positive spin but….

    • You’re right! Mags typically tend to stay positive, and no one wants to think about their death…especially the readers of these service magazines, who are fairly young. Did you try E: The Environmental Magazine? They might give it a go since it goes so strongly with their pro-earth theme. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right market.

      • Rosanne says:

        Another thought would be a trade publication for undertakers/funeral directors – do they even have publications like that? You could spin it for how to help clients that want a green funeral or something like that. Just a thought.

        My idea was choosing the right dog breed for your family. It would be a list of important things to consider before buying a dog for your family – things like energy levels, seeing a full-sized version of the breed you are interested in (you’d be shocked how many people didn’t realize a St. Bernard for example, gets THAT big!), and grooming needs. I was going to hook the story on a family that did NOT choose wisely but then re-homed the dog with a family that did work. While dog magazines might not be the best market since a lot of the people that read those already have pets and aren’t choosing one, I thought a parenting or women’s mag might be a good bet. Thoughts?

        Other ideas I had were “Top 10 questions to ask when adopting a dog through a rescue organization,” and “Is fostering right for you?” Thanks in advance for the help! :)

        • Barbara says:

          Thank you Rosanne – that’s a good suggestion. Rosanne – what about writing the piece from the dog’s point of view?

        • Hi, Roseanne! That’s a good idea but it’s an evergreen…pet mags and magazines with pet departments (like the ones you mentioned) do this idea a lot and I’m sure they get it pitched to them a lot too. How can you make this different? For example, one tip I always like to give is to add “surprising” to the title or the idea. So it would be something like, “5 Surprising Ways to Know That Dog Is Right for You” or “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Choosing the Right Pet.” Then, your task is to actually FIND some unique, surprising tips readers and editors haven’t seen before.

      • Barbara says:

        No I didn’t Linda. I DID try The Organic Gardener and the editor got back with me, said they’ve actually had healthy/green burial options bounce around the editorial table before, but always turned it down.

        • Jaya Z. says:

          You could try trade publications such as Funeral Services Times and Funeral Business Advisor. One of those publications actually had a green issue, where they talked about exactly those things (and spun it where they were suggesting options for homes that service families looking for green alternatives). Might be an idea.

        • Karin says:

          How about a pub for a life insurance company?

    • Sabriga says:

      I love this idea and would love to see the article whenever it gets published.

  7. Cheval John says:

    Thanks for this article.

    “What you need to do in order to be ready for college.”

    • Hi, Cheval! Good SEED of an idea here! This is where you apply one of my tips and ask yourself, “What ABOUT getting ready for college?” Will you be writing about getting ready emotionally, financially, socially, academically? Combine this with the tip I gave Roseanne below — once you have a narrow topic, think of ways to make it SURPRISING…because pubs that cater to kids going into college have probably heard all the basic stuff already. Hope that helps!

  8. Halona Black says:

    I read this article on superfood ratings here: http://www.fruitnet.com/americafruit/article/161743/and-the-number-one-superfood-is-

    People are always talking about kale as the big superfood, however kale is rated 15th on this list of most nutritional superfoods. Watercress is rated #1.

    I would like to turn this into a story for an ingredient supply trade magazine as well as a women’s health/general health magazine.

    For the ingredient supply trades, I’d like to pitch a story on vitamin companies utilizing these “new superfoods” in their vitamin recipes.

    For the women’s health/general health magazines, I could pitch a story on expanding their choices of green leafy vegetables beyond kale. I could talk about how other green vegetables benefit women’s health issues like iron and calcium intake.

    Question — Should we come up with the idea first, or target the magazine first?

    • Ooh, cool “opposite idea” you think kale is a superfood? Well, it ranks far behind these other foods! Could be an article in “The New Superfoods,” where you come up with ones that go beyond kale and blueberries.

      Like the idea of writing about leafy greens people tend to overlook. It MIGHT work for a women’s mag, but how about something like Cooking Light or Clean Eating?

      Re: Your question: Either way works, it just depends on your preferences! I like to come up with the idea first because, well, I can’t even shut the idea spigot off! But some people get inspiration from looking at markets.

  9. Jaya Z. says:

    The idea I liked best that I came up with is:

    – using an understanding of personality types (specifically the MBTI system) to “fight better” in a (love) relationship

    I’m not sure if it’s a “good” idea so I’ve kinda been slacking on the assignments ^^; woops. But it’s what I’ve been working with in any case.

    • Interesting! The one thing this idea is missing is a news hook…why would an editor need to run this NOW? (As opposed to 5 years ago or 5 years from now?) Personality testing has been around a long time. You have what might be a fresh way of applying them for a women’s magazine, but if you could find something in the news — even some celeb that’s been fighting with her partner, or a new book on personality types, relationships, or communication within a relationship — that would be even better.

      If you CAN’T — sometimes a great idea will win out even with no news hook, if it’s unique enough. So the more you can make your idea stand out, the better. For example, can you think of some cool packaging, like a quiz or a chart, or fun subheds, or a neat graphical treatment?

      Keep going with the WFM assignments…you’re doing great so far!

      • Jaya Z. says:

        Hi Linda,

        Thanks so much for the reply!

        I actually did have a news hook for this idea – a recent study came out showing that relationship conflict may shorten your life span. So learning about your partner’s personality type –> understanding their motivations –> fewer conflicts, or better handling conflicts –> a long, happy life :)

        I’ll try looking for other news angles, and think of unique ways to package it. I think a chart might be a great idea!

        Thanks again for your help!

  10. Nicolette says:

    Hi there! Love this article, thanks so much for all the useful info!

    My idea is The Feminist’s Guide to Dealing With Trolls. I recently (foolishly) waded into a comments debate where the commenters were, let’s say, less than complimentary about women (they were horrid. Utterly, utterly horrid. Nothing like the lovely folk here!) and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

    Now that I’ve sufficiently calmed down, I’d like to use my experience as the hook, and also mention in the intro that I know that this is a universal problem (and find stats to back this up, hopefully).

    I’m thinking of trying to make the tone quite humorous and light to encourage a positive message – that trolls don’t have to get you down – and perhaps go with an ‘etiquette guide’ sort of structure. Do you think that this is workable, or should I take a more serious tone? I imagine the best places to pitch would be feminist magazines, but might Buzzfeed be a good place to approach too? What do you think?

    Thanks so much for your help!

    • Ooh, I like it! You’d need to check that this hasn’t been done already in your target markets, because I know women have been griping about this online for a while. Maybe you can get an anecdote from a woman who posted something online and attracted some awful trolls. Sadly, that shouldn’t be too hard to find. The other caveat is that you should do a little research to make sure there ARE good tips that go beyond the obvious “ignore them and they’ll go away.” Contact a few experts, ask them for 5 minutes of their time, and ask them for some advice.

      • Nicolette says:

        Hi Linda,

        Thanks so much for your feedback. I’ve been working my way through 4 Week J-School (though I could only afford the materials only version at the moment, so you won’t have seen me in the Den) and I’m finding it really useful :-) thanks for putting it together!

        Anyway, working through the modules has helped me to hone this a little more with a bit of a stronger news hook. I think I’m going to focus on the ‘Operation Lollipop’ Twitter hoax that targeted feminist women of colour, which was uncovered in June. Ideally I’d like to find some of the people who were swept up in the furore, and the chance to speak to some of the 4Chan members who were behind the hoax would be great, but it might be a wee bit tricky to locate them!

        I’m going to try to speak to some experts too, and get their take on it, and get everyone’s advice on dealing with trolls and find out what their takeaways are from their experience.

        Thanks again,
        Nic

  11. Meera says:

    Hello Linda

    I’m like you in that I cant slow down the IDEA machine but sometimes these are worthless esp since I never tweak them. So your article was such an eye opener. Now I can finally sell those ideas sitting idle.
    Here are two
    – international foods for toddler – since am introducing new foods all the time for my son, I thought I could list out some for a parenting/kids magazine. Foods like crepes, star fruit etc
    -Bollywood inspired summer makeovers – this would be for a woman’s magazine that lists anklets, mehendi designs in place of tattoos etc. all of these are DIY or something you could see on YouTube and style at home.

    Let me know what you think.

    • Interesting idea! I can see American parenting magazines running an article on how to get your kid interested in international foods. Kind of a starter guide. Maybe you could have a chart with three different options for each cuisine: the easiest option for new or picky eaters, an intermediate option in that cuisine, and then an advanced one. I hope that makes sense. You would also need to give advice on how to get your kids to try the new foods, and maybe ways to make them appropriate for little kids.

      I like the Bollywood idea too… I think for that one it’s all about finding just the right market.

  12. Karin says:

    I just sent off a pitch to a parenting magazine using the ‘opposite idea’ trick. It’s on the myth of quality time with pre-schoolers/toddlers. The idea (backed up by experts) is that your toddler will benefit just as much from helping you do the hoovering as she will from spending an hour at a museum. Fingers crossed!
    I love it when you come up with an idea based on a preconception and then you discover that your preconception is wrong. This happened to me once when writing about bilingualism in children. I always thought that kids learn languages faster than adults, but it turns out that’s not entirely true. That little nugget opened up two more article ideas.

  13. Rachel Erin Horsting says:

    Do you have some kind of spreadsheet or organizing system for noting these down so you can scan them when something comes up?

    I often have idea clutter, where I get distracted from my current task by idea storms. I’d love ideas on how to note them down quickly, but with enough method that I can find them again when it’s time to develop pitches.

    • I hope others can jump in with their organizing tips because I just keep my ideas in a notebook I carry everywhere. It’s a pink Moleskine book and I use it to jot down all kinds of things throughout the day, not just ideas. So it’s not the most super-organized method!

  14. Betty says:

    Linda, all of your articles have been a huge help to me, and I really appreciate you sharing your wisdom and insight!

    I had an idea to write about the experience of being transgendered/transsexual in the Deep South. I’m a straight ally who was born and raised in Louisiana, and I have numerous acquaintances who were in various stages of transitioning. Several of them have agreed to grant me an interview. My ideal publications/websites would be something like Vice, Slate, Mother Jones, but I don’t think I’m experienced enough to even try to pitch to publications of that caliber. I am wondering if my idea is too broad, or if there is a more interesting angle I could look at.

    • Interesting! It does seem very broad, though, and what is the news hook? In other words, why would an editor need to run this now? Has there been something in the news, or can you find a good, recent stat on how many transgendered/transsexual people there are in the Deep South and whether that number is growing?

      You definitely wouldn’t want this to be what readers expect, which is a vent about how hard it is for these individuals in the Deep South. Can you dig up any surprising, uplifting stories from your sources as well? Maybe some info on groups that have formed, support available — how things are changing? (If they indeed are.)

      You get the idea! You need to give the editor a reason to run this — why now, and what will readers get out of it?

      I hope that helps and would love to hear other people’s take on this idea!

  15. Tigran says:

    Hi Linda, thanks for this very nice and relevant article particularly now when I got some ideas going-on. I will start collecting them and re-visiting them constantly.

    Recently I wrote an article on drink-driving and went-on pitching it to car dealers. The article was about a local incident when a person died while driving completely intoxicated. The story was in the local news and the parents got involved in the campaign against drink-driving. I thought that the local car dealers would also support the idea but apparently they didn’t want it since it touched a nerve and they claimed that they would lose future customers. I kind of get it but now I’m left with the article and the idea of against drink-driving.

    How would you go about this idea? Where would you pitch-it? Probably a different angle?

    Thanks in advance for your response.

    • Hi, Tigran! Yes, car dealers would absolutely not want an article on the perils of drunk driving. if you want to pitch an idea on drunk driving to a newspaper or magazine, you’ll need more of a news hook than a recent incident since, sadly, they happen all the time. Is the incidence of drunk driving going up (and can you find a stat to prove it)? Has someone famous made it their cause? Was there a huge drunk driving accident that made national news?

      THEN…this is one of those “What ABOUT drunk driving?” cases. A roundup of new, innovative ways people are fighting it? Tips on how to watch our for drunk drivers and how to protect yourself on the road? Ways to talk to your kids about drinking and driving? You get the idea! You need to take a small slice of this very big topic. Niche it down.

      I hope that helps!

  16. Mike Cusano says:

    Hey Linda, thanks for this great and relevant article.

    I am a recent college grad and am new to the business world and found this to be a very useful article.

    I am working sales for an HR IT company and want to write articles targeting potential clients. Whats the best way to grab a readers attention in the first few moments?

    http://jsimple.com/

  17. Patricia del Valle says:

    Hi Linda,

    Thank you so much for this article. Exactly what I need right now. And a reminder of what my Univ. Prof told me about my photography ideas. They are seeds to be nurtured–I had torn up my ideas written on paper and tossed them in the trash. She told me to get them and bring them to her. Ayayaeee!

    But it worked. I grow plants well. Now I have to remind myself to nurture my brainstorm seed-ideas.

    Puts things in a whole new light.

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