How to turn a topic of interest into a story idea that sells.
To this day, the hardest part of querying for me is still the slicing and dicing required to make a generic story idea specific, interesting, and meaningful.
When there’s news or a straightforward trend, the pitch all but writes itself, but what if you’re writing about something more general, like productivity, health, or parenting? How do you make it interesting? That’s a challenge and a test of your creativity.
Here are some ways to take a generic story idea, give it a twist, and turn it into something more.
Make your story idea newsier
Matching your story idea to current events is not only a good way to make an immediate sale, but it also helps to make your idea more relevant. Magazine writers do this all the time. They’ll sit on evergreen stories for months, and when the right opportunity presents itself, they make a quick sale.
When I was doing health journalism, I had a story idea about Bisphenol A (BPA) being used in baby bottles. The story was a hard sell. Then, the American Food and Drug Administration rejected a petition by the Natural Defense Council asking for an outright ban, I included that fact in my pitch, and I had a sale.
You can do this with pretty much anything. If you’re a parenting writer, for instance, all you have to do is wait until the next big controversy erupts (a new study, a movie star with foot-in-mouth disease), and if it’s relevant to the subject of your article, you can use it as a hook to make the sale. Or maybe you write about travel. I was able to sell a quick story idea to TIME magazine’s travel section the moment I landed in Ghana because, as it happened, the American President was also visiting. (Read: What a TIME editor taught me about pitching.)
Make your story idea counter-intuitive
Counter-intuitive stories are the easiest sell, but the challenge with them is to have absolutely flawless sources and research material. I’m sure I don’t need to say this: You’re poking a sleeping tiger when you try to negate something the masses are conditioned to believe is true.
If you could find research, credible research, to show that being surrounded with blue is actually good for little boys, for example, you have a sale (and an Inbox full of hate mail).
The challenge with the sale and the reporting of this type of story idea is convincing the editor of the credibility of your findings. Simple counter-intuitive stories include the link bait we see online every day: “Eat Your Way to Fitness” or “Write Your Novel in Less Than a Week” but for magazines and respectable newspapers, you probably want to try something meatier.
Use numbers in your story idea
Women’s magazines have known for decades what the online world is only just discovering: People love lists. The longer the better. So be specific and use numbers wherever possible.
Come up with 101 ways to do something, be something, know something, and you have a winner. Just remember to make the list clever. The 101 ways to be happier just makes editors sad because it’s been done 101 times. Be specific, too. If you’re talking about saving money, don’t say “How to Save More This Month.” Say, “How I saved $1,389 in a month.”
Even news publications such as Time.com want lists, so if you can explain a complex political or social issue using lists, go for it.
Appeal to a reader’s emotions
When many of us first start writing service or how-to style pieces, we think about solving problems. Most publications exist to solve readers’ problems, but the trouble with service pieces in the current marketplace is that there isn’t a problem you can think of that hasn’t already been solved. So unless you can come up with a unique problem (or a unique solution), my suggestion is to be counter-intuitive, personalize your approach, and appeal to a reader’s emotions. “How Asking for a Divorce Strengthened My Marriage” is a good example. Or perhaps, “How Traveling Around the World Made me a Patriot.”
Throw distinct ideas together
I like to come up with absolutely random subjects that, on the surface, have nothing to do with each other, and brainstorm story ideas that use both. For example, take friendship and confidence, two topics women’s magazines love, and put them together to create, “Are Your Wealthy Friends Wreaking Havoc on Your Self Esteem?”
This also works if you specialize in a certain subject or find that the markets in your areas of expertise are few or lower paying. You can use any subject and match it with another to write for pretty much every publication under the sun.
Let’s say you’re a health writer and want to broaden your base to publications beyond just national magazines. How about the trades? Could you talk about a health issue that is specific to workers in the egg industry? Construction industry? Professionals who work with precious metals?
But health is a pretty broad topic, so let’s talk about something more specific. I hear from writers frequently interested in writing about pets and animals, but can’t make a living because most of those markets are low paying. Could you write about pets for a parenting magazine, such as a piece I worked on years ago, on how reading to dogs could help autistic children curb aggressive and isolating behaviors? Perhaps you could write about toxoplasmosis for a pregnancy magazine. Or people who’ve created unique pet businesses for a publication like Forbes or Inc.
I once received an email from an Indian writer who specialized in Bollywood and wanted to move from writing about Bollywood to a higher-paying niche. I recommended that she use Bollywood as a jumping-off point. I suggested she start by using her contacts and industry knowledge to sell business, political, and current affairs stories to higher-paying magazines.
Could you similarly use your specialty or area of interest to target a different audience?
Create a clever headline
Your story idea is important, but a good headline can make or break the sale.
The subject line of your pitch should look like this:
Pitch: Proposed Headline for Article
First, in a world flooded with emails, a catchy subject line can be the difference between whether an editor even opens your email or throws it into the trash unread. Be clever, be engaging, and more than anything else, intrigue the editor.
Copywriters know they only have a few seconds to grab someone’s attention, and so they spend hours crafting the perfect headline. This is exactly what you should do, too. Don’t spend hours, but at least early on, when you’re just getting used to the process, don’t rush yourself either.
Come up with something you feel will grab a busy editor’s attention immediately. Make her want to read the pitch you’ve sent her and you’re halfway to a sale.
Test the tips
Another way of making an idea fun and unique is to take several theories advocated by experts over a period of time and putting them through a test. You could take ten of the most popular diets doing the rounds, for instance, and talk to experts to see if they really hold up against scientific analysis. Or try out every relationship tip from the newly released books in the market in your own marriage and see how they hold up in real-life situations.
There are dozens of ways to reslant story ideas and to come up with creative angles. These are just some techniques that I fall back on. Try them, test them, and come up with your own.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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