This is a sample lesson from our very popular e-course 30 Days, 30 Queries. Registrations for the last session of 2015 are currently open. There will be no new sessions again until 2016.
Day 13: Finding Unique Slants to Common Story Ideas
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 query 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 it 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 seem more relevant. Magazines 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 about Bisphenol A (BPA) being used in baby bottles that was a very 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 voila, 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, etc.), 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 to TIME magazine’s travel section pretty much the moment I landed in Ghana because as it happened, the American President was also scheduled to visit around the time I moved there. (Read: What a TIME editor taught me about querying.)
Make it Counter Intuitive
Counter-intuitive stories are pretty much the easiest stories to sell, but the challenge with them is to have absolutely flawless sources and research material because, and I’m sure I don’t need to say this, you’re poking a sleeping tiger when you try and negate something the masses are condition to believe is true.
If you could find research, credible research, to show that being surrounded with pink is actually good for little girls, for instance, you have a sale (and an Inbox full of hate mail).
The challenge with the sale and the reporting of this type of story is convincing the editor of the credibility of your findings. If everyone’s saying renewable energy is the way forward and you come along and say, wait a second, have we really explored all the problems with these solar panels, etc., and here are all the potential downsides, you better have some very good arguments.
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.
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.”
These days, even news publications such as GlobalPost.com and Time.com want lists, so if you can find a way to explain a complex political or social issue using lists, go for it. While many journalists find these lists a dumbing down of their work, they do sell and can help you endear yourself to editors who have no choice but to assign them.
Appeal to a Reader’s Emotions
Many of us, when we first start writing service or how-to style pieces, think about solving problems. Most publications exist for the sole purpose of solving 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 online or in print. 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 Different and 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 instance, 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 (that are hard to break into and take years to publish and pay). 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 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 e-mail from an Indian writer who specialized in Bollywood and couldn’t find a way to move from Bollywood to a higher-paying market. 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. For instance, this story in Forbes may be about Bollywood on the surface, but really it’s about smart businesspeople and a clever marketing idea. This story is a personal narrative, and this one is a travel piece.
Could you similarly find ways to use your specialty or area of interest to target a different audience?
Create a Clever Headline
I’m going to talk about copywriting a bit more in an upcoming lesson, but for now, suffice it to say that a good headline can make or break the sale.
The subject line of your query letter should look like this:
Query: Proposed Headline for Article
First, in a world flooded with e-mails, a catchy subject line can be the difference between whether an editor even opens up your e-mail or throws it into the trash unread. Be clever, be engaging, and more than anything else, intrigue the editor.
Copywriters know that 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 be doing, 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 that you feel will grab a busy editor’s attention immediately. Make her want to read the pitch you’ve sent her there and then and you’re halfway to a sale.
Test The Tips
Another way of taking an idea and making it something fun and unique is to take several theories that have been advocated by experts over a period of time and putting them through a test. We talked about this earlier in the lesson about presenting your stories. 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 single relationship tip from the just-released books in the market in your own marriage and see how they hold up in real-life situations.
Again, there are dozens of ways to reslant articles, to come up with creative angles, and to tell your stories, and these are just some of the techniques that I fall back on. You may find that some of them work for you, some don’t. You may, over the course of the month or year, come up with your very own. Keep adding to the list and each time you have trouble making a story unique or giving it a twist, run it through the list to make it your own.
Today’s assignment is two send two queries. Use the tips above to make your ideas specific and focused and don’t forget to come up with clever headlines.
Ready, Set, Go!
If you enjoyed this sample, check out the whole e-course here: 30 Days, 30 Queries. Registrations for the July session close June 28, 2015.