Ideas are the writer's raw material. And like any other raw material, they're far more valuable once they've been refined.
The most common problem that beginning writers seem to have is grasping the difference between a story idea and what's simply an interesting subject. Here's an illustration: Undersea exploration is an interesting subject but it's way too broad for a magazine article.
You might, however, be able to sell a piece on how undersea exploration is raising some tough new ethical questions. For example, is the wreck of the Titanic fair game for souvenir hunters or a sacred resting place for its victims?
One useful test is to try to write a headline for your proposed article. If it sounds like a book title or a fourteen-part PBS series, you need to bring your idea into sharper focus. But if it sounds like a headline you might see in a magazine—particularly in the magazine you want to propose it to—you're probably on track.
How Editors Look at Your Ideas
You can boost your ideas' odds of success if you learn to step back and look at them the way an editor does. Not all editors think alike, of course, but if you could cut an editor's head open (and wouldn't we all like to sometimes?), you'd probably see a thought process that works something like this:
1. "Does this idea belong in this magazine?" Sometimes the answer is pretty obvious: A magazine about dogs probably won't be interested in a story about cats. Other times, it's far more subtle. A dog magazine that last year ran a story called "Rottweilers: Those Gentle Giants" is an unlikely market from your proposed piece on "Rottweilers: Four-Legged Psychopaths From Hell."
What can you do? Look up what the magazine has run in the past year or two in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature or on a computerized magazine database at your library. Not all magazines are indexed this way, but some surprisingly obscure ones are. If you can't find out whether your idea conflicts with one the magazine has already done, just give it a shot. There's no shame in approaching a magazine with an idea that's just slightly off the mark.
2. "Have we done this story before?" And if so, how recently? Some magazines will return to the same topic month and month, as long as they can put at least the illusion of a fresh spin on it. Some women's magazines, for example, run a diet story in every issue, for the simple reason that such stories, however unbelievable, sell copies. Other magazines won't touch a topic that they've covered in the past five or ten years.
3. "Have our competitors already done the story?" Even if the magazine itself hasn't touched the topic, an editor may consider the idea old stuff if one or more of the magazine's competitors has. Magazines differ considerably in what they consider their competition. Some will look only to their specific category (boating magazines, decorating magazines, teen magazines and so forth), while other will consider newspapers, television and every other type of media. Generally speaking, you stand the best chance with ideas that have received no coverage or only local coverage.
4. "Is this the best way to approach this story?" Sometimes a fresh approach can inject life into a tired topic. For examples, "Six Ways to Childproof Your Home" would be a familiar approach to most editors of parenting magazines. But something like "How Professional Childproofers Rip You Off" or "Childproof Accessories That Could Injure Your Child" might get their attention.
5. "Is this the best writer for the job?" As I said earlier, magazines will seldom steal your ideas. But in some cases they may turn a perfectly fine idea down if you don't seem like the right writer. In rare instances, they may offer to buy the idea from you and assign it to another writer.
What may make you inappropriate? Distance is one thing. If you come across a great story in Australia, but you happen to live in Albuquerque, the magazine may not have the budget to send you there. Or, if you are obviously a beginning writer, the magazine may hesitate to assign you what's sure to be a complex, ambitious story.
A magazine is most likely to take a chance on you if an editor there has worked with you elsewhere or knows your work from other publications. A powerful query and strong clips can also make a difference.
6. "Even if this idea isn't right, is the writer someone worth encouraging?" Some editors are too busy or too self-important to send personal notes to writers whose ideas may have just missed the mark. So don't automatically assume the worst if you receive a terse form letter in reply. Other editors will suggest a way an idea might be reshaped or urge you to try again with another one. If your query is impressive enough, and editor may come back at you with a story idea of his or her own.
Greg Daugherty is the author of You Can Write for Magazines.