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:
- 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.)
- Search for stats showing that what you’re pitching is a trend, or is becoming a trend.
- 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!