How to Get an Editor to Buy Your Unsalable Article Idea

Good Or Bad Ideas Signpost Showing Brainstorming Judging Or ChooBy Linda Formichelli

Your article idea is stale. It’s a rambling vent. It has no news hook.

In fact, it’s a mess!

Guess what? You can still sell it.

With a little creative thinking on your part, that unsalable idea can be transformed into one that earns you $1 per word — or more.

Here’s how.

Unsalable Idea #1: It’s been done…and done, and done

You really, really want to pitch an article on alternative treatments for anxiety because it’s a topic you have personal experience with. But to health magazines, this is old news.

How to Sell It: Skip the obvious targets and think of markets where you idea WILL be fresh and new.

Take a look on the newsstand and online for magazines outside of your usual purview. Pet mags? Business publications? Trade magazines?

So, your idea might turn into alternative treatments for anxiety for your ferret…or to calm you down before a big presentation or confrontation at work…or for owners of businesses in a high-stress industry.

I guarantee there are markets out there that haven’t run your idea. Just take some risks and think creatively about the types of markets you’re pitching.

Unsalable Idea #2: It’s really more of an essay

That article about your experiences with infertility — it’s really more of an essay than an article. But you don’t want to turn it into a straight service piece because you’re so close to the issue that you want to share from the heart.

How to Sell It: Turn it into a reported essay.

While essays are hard to place, reported essays are much more common — and salable. A reported essay has elements of an essay, like first-person perspective, but also includes information from research and experts so the reader not only learns from your experiences, but comes away with tactics she can try right now.

For example, I wrote a reported essay for Women’s Health called “I Was a Self-Help Junkie,” and another called “Worried Sick.” If you check these out, you’ll see how I blended essay style with traditional reportage.

More good news is that while you typically don’t pitch an essay because editors want to see the entire manuscript, you do pitch a reported essay, which saves you time and hassle.

Unsalable Idea #3: Your idea has no news hook

You want to pitch an article on how to help your overweight cat slim down, but there’s really no reason a magazine needs to run this NOW. The epidemic of obesity in cats has been covered in the media already, and you can’t find any new studies or books on the topic.

How to Sell It: Figure out some way to make your idea surprising to editors.

Sometimes an idea that’s interesting enough can make it past the editor’s “news” filter. This can be as easy as using the word “surprising” into your title: “5 Surprising Reasons Your Cat Is Overweight — and Real Ways to Help Her Slim Down.”

Of course, if you do that, you have to deliver. You need to do research and talk to experts to figure out reasons and solutions that really are surprising.

In the overweight cat case, that means you’d need to look beyond overeating as a cause.

For example, could your pet have a thyroid problem? Is low-quality food causing your cat to eat more to get the nutrients she needs? Could your cat’s medication be causing her to pack on pounds? Is undiagnosed arthritis keeping your cat from exercising?

Unsalable Idea #4: A vent about the people who piss you off

Carol mentioned this in her post about article types editors hate, and she’s right — too many writers pitch what are essentially vents. “Here’s what you’re doing wrong that makes me mad, and why you should stop.”

Notice something missing? It’s information that readers can use to improve their own lives. After all, that’s why we read most publications.

How to Sell It: Dig out the service aspect of the idea and focus on that.

My mom, whose career was in retail, always wanted me to write an article about why store customers should be neat, put back items they were looking at, and not come into the store five minutes before closing time. But really — who wants to read that?

However, I could get better results — AND sell the article — by positioning it as a piece for a trade magazine for retail store owners and workers on how to “train” your customers to do what you want them to.

Or, another angle I could take is a piece for a women’s magazine on how to get the best treatment and deals at stores — and one of those tips would be to treat employees nicely.

This way, you get the results you want but still have a salable idea.

Linda Formichelli is the founder and creative director of Hero’s Journey Content, LLC, which offers personality-driven content for complex brands.


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28 comments on “How to Get an Editor to Buy Your Unsalable Article Idea
  1. Holly Bowne says:

    I’m intrigued by the “reported essay” format. (I enjoyed reading yours, by the way!) I’ve sold a few essays in the past, but I’ve never done a reported essay. I’m just wondering, when you pitch it, do youactually call it a reported essay in your query? Or do you refer to it as an article?
    Holly Bowne recently posted…Quote of the WeekMy Profile

  2. Joanie says:

    This is a great post, Linda. I’ve found this myself any number of times. In fact, I became a the go-to writer for the editor of a local event mag editor just because she could always count on me giving a fresh look to an old topic. My first big win with her was a Nutcracker article for the Christmas issue, when she only expected the same old Sugar Plum Fairy story. Any kind of slant that can be given to evergreen stories or topics that have been played to death in recent months can really help you make your mark with an editor. I got my per word pay rate raised 50% after only a few issues, just because I could always be counted on for bringing in a fresh perspective on anything I wrote.

    Thanks for the great info!

    Joanie recently posted…The Best Kind of Recycling? ReferralsMy Profile

    • Linda Formichelli says:

      Yes! Being able to make old ideas new again is a very valuable skill for freelancers that sets you apart from the rest. Good for you for figuring it out and making it work for you!

  3. I’m a recent subscriber to the newsletter here and have really been enjoying the tips. I really wanted to give you feedback about this post, because I think it is so valuable and helpful. I think it is particularly helpful because it is universal and a great way to save yourself time. I used to always ditch my ideas after they’d been rejected a few times, and now I know how to add an extra spin to it. Thanks Linda!
    Alexandra Sheehan recently posted…How to Disagree Politely on TwitterMy Profile

    • Linda Formichelli says:

      Glad you liked the post! You’re very welcome, and thanks for reading!

  4. Daryl says:

    Great ideas Linda!

    I’ve got a few ideas that have been knocking around but I haven’t pitched them because they may not be “current”. Your advice has given me a great angle to make things more current and hopefully make it more “salable”. Thanks!

    (PS – had no idea “salable” was an actual word. You learn something new every day!)
    Daryl recently posted…Marketing Psychology 101: 3 Sneaky (But Above Board) Persuasion TacticsMy Profile

    • Linda Formichelli says:

      Oh yeah, it’s a word all right! 🙂 I’m glad the post was helpful to you!

  5. Even experienced writers sometimes fall into these “unsalable” traps, and you don’t just identify them, but teach us how to dig ourselves out of them.

    I had a number 4 moment a few years ago. I ending up waiting the angry moment out (okay, it took a couple years) and then taking just a small part of it out to rework into a piece with more introspection and less ire. Then, I had to find the exact niche with an audience who would be interested into it. The article ran this week, and I’m actually happy my first, angry attempts at venting failed in favor of an article that wouldn’t embarrass me in the long run and might do someone else some good.

    Now I want to dig through some of my other “old” bits of writing to see if your other tips could work on them. Thanks!
    Rebecca Klempner recently posted…Soul-bearing writing–writing personal essays that are a little too personal for comfortMy Profile

    • Joanie says:

      Good points, Rebecca. Life can be so frustrating, so it’s easy to fall into the venting trap when a good writer has the opportunity, instead, to offer a solution to the problem. Your waiting gave you the time you needed to craft a winner. Wonderful!

      Joanie recently posted…The Best Kind of Recycling? ReferralsMy Profile

    • Linda Formichelli says:

      Wow, what a great story! And I agree…go through your old pitches and see if you can rework any of them. Sometimes it helps to look at them with fresh eyes.

  6. I’m working on a query idea that fits #2 the reported essay. Your two article examples are great resources!
    Janet Thomson recently posted…Hello world!My Profile

  7. Fantastic article, Linda. I’ve got a boatload of ideas that fall into this category, and now I can finally make use of them!
    Patrick Icasas recently posted…Read This FirstMy Profile

  8. Tom Bentley says:

    Linda, great stuff. Your piece prompted me to change my pitch slant for two articles I’ve been trying to sell—thanks. And you also made me realize how to change a vent travel rant article I wrote into a service piece.

    (And maybe I’ll write a “How to Make Your Cat Oveweight” piece, so I can follow it up with a “Cross-fit Training for Your Cat” article.)
    Tom Bentley recently posted…Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and EarthMy Profile

  9. Jennifer says:

    Love this post! I have a couple essays I’ve started–one on being a childhood cancer survivor and one on how to appreciate your church pianist that I’m going to try #2 with.

  10. Thank you for this Linda.

    I recently did #1 with the topic of yoga – I pitched it to Ultimate MMA as simple yoga poses for fighters and linked the poses back to standing or grappling to show the why.

    They loved it because they hadn’t done anything like that before. What would’ve never worked for a health or fitness mag was a solid fit and since I’m a teacher, it was super easy to write.

  11. Williesha says:

    Ohhhh, Linda. This is hot stuff right here. Really hot stuff. And a good kickback to Carol’s post. I’ve been able to successfully capture an editor’s attention with been-there-done-that posts. But it’s a little of the reverse than what you said.

    For about 7 years, I’ve wanted to do a story about interracial relationships , not knowing I’d end up being in one permanently and in Alabama of all places. I wanted it to be a feature of other couples…until I saw a competing magazine do that very same thing. So instead, I did a personal essay about my experience, and suggested to the editor to do a sidebar with stats. It worked great! (Unfortunately my story on how this came about was a blog post I wanted to pitch to you, and now it’s been spoiled LOL.
    Williesha recently posted…Becoming A Better Blogger: Interview with Sophie Lizard (Part 2)My Profile

  12. One of the reasons I love your blog is your constant reminders to think outside the box. When I see your ideas, I always think that they are so obvious. But I wouldn’t have thought of them in a million years. Sometimes I think I just need to sit down and breathe so that I can get rid of some of the silly barriers that I have erected.
    Rhonda Kronyk recently posted…The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of E-PublishingMy Profile

  13. Jawad Khan says:

    Hey Linda,

    I was hoping for an article with this title after Carol’s last article. Nice post.

    Just to add to the first point that you made, it can be a good idea to relate old topics or ideas to current events or popular trends so that they seem new. In fact, I think there’s hardly any article idea that will excite the readers and editors if it doesn’t have some relevance to the current trends.

    Jawad Khan recently posted…Simplified Project Management for Freelance WritersMy Profile

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