Every time I teach a magazine writing class or speak at a writers' conference on magazine freelancing, at least one person asks the big question: do editors steal ideas from writers?
But the real question, at least to me, is how do you prevent it from happening to you?
Do editors "steal" ideas? Well, yes--but not as often as you probably think. Magazines tend to run the same types of evergreen stories again and again. Just because a parenting magazine rejected your pitch about fun family summertime activities but ran a similar piece doesn’t mean the editor stole your idea. She may have already assigned the idea to another writer or had a similar piece in inventory.
Editors, especially those at national magazines, are inundated with hundreds of queries about popular topics like health, fitness, diet/nutrition, parenting, technology, and business. Chances are slim that you’re the only writer who has ever pitched a story like “Ten Easy Ways to Lose Weight" to a fitness or women's magazine, for example.
On the other hand, I once pitched a very specific fitness idea to an editor who had called me personally, asking for story ideas. I followed up on the query but she never responded. Six months later, I saw “my” idea in the magazine, complete with the sidebar I’d suggested. Did she "steal" my idea? I can’t say for sure, but I never queried her again. (The fact that she'd asked me for ideas, then blew me off after I pitched her, sunk her in my eyes.)
So, how do you prevent an editor from taking your idea and assigning it to another writer?
First, show that you’ve done your homework. Your query should reflect that you’re already spent time researching and exploring the story idea. If you’ve already spoken to possible expert sources, mention that. If the piece is a profile and you’re received the subject’s permission to write about him, let the editor know. Highlight your relevant background or experience with the subject matter, especially if you're a new writer.
Your goal is to convince the editor to let you write the story. A detailed, professional query that demonstrates why you’re uniquely qualified to do so is the most effective weapon you have against idea theft.