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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Another Worry of New Freelancers: Do Editors Steal Ideas? (and How to Prevent it!)

I'm revisiting some classic freelancing topics over the next few weeks. Every time I speak about freelancing, I hear from at least one writer who is afraid to pitch an idea to a magazine--because the editor will steal his or her idea. 

Here's the thing. It happens less than you might think. Magazines tend to run the same types of stories over and over. Parenting publications run stories on discipline, sleep, and children's health, for example while fitness magazines run workout and diet stories every month. So just because you pitched a piece about ways to work out on the beach to a magazine like Fitness and the editor rejects your query (or you never hear from her) and then you see a beach workout a few months later, that doesn't mean she stole your idea. (Now, if you had pitched a piece on a new cutting-edge workout that no one has heard of, and the same thing occurred, then maybe, yeah, she took your idea.) 

Here's what I mean. Early in my freelance career, I was pitching dozens of different markets. I was thrilled when one editor took the time to call me and ask for story ideas. I spent a lot time coming up with a specific idea, researched it, and mailed the query. I didn't hear anything from her, so I followed up on the query. Still, no response. Still, I sent her another idea...and then months later, I saw “my” idea in the magazine, right down to the specific sidebar I’d suggested. A little strange, huh? 

Wondering how I handled this? I stewed about it for a while, then decided to send her a new query. I opened with language like "I was delighted to see you included a piece on aquatic fitness in the August issue, an idea I'd pitched you back in January. This lets me know I'm on the right track, and I have another idea for you to consider." She never responded. Here's the thing. I'm 99 percent sure she stole my idea. Remember this was an editor who contacted me personally, asking for ideas...and then never responded to me. I didn't even want to write for her at this point or accuse her of anything, but I did want to let her know that I knew  what had happened. And no, I never heard from her. (Footnote--the magazine folded a year or so later.) 

So, how do you prevent an editor from taking your idea and assigning it to another writer? YOu write the best query you can--it's your only opportunity to make a first impression. Your query should demonstrate that you’re already researched the story idea. If you’ve already spoken to possible expert sources, quote them in the query. Cite statistics or recent studies if relevant. If you're pitching a profile and you’re received the subject’s permission to write about him, include that information. And highlight your unique qualifications in your ISG. 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 as a new writer.

Readers, what about you? Has an editor ever "stolen" your idea? How did you handle it? 

***Are you a new freelancer who stumbled onto my blog? Welcome. If you want to make the jump from unpublished to published (and it's a big one), check out my new ebook, Dollars and Deadlines Guide to: Selling your First Article. You'll find everything you need to know to get to published and paid! :)     


  1. Great post - something I've often stewed over myself. Once, when I was pretty certain my idea was used, (also, included a sidebar I mentioned), I wrote a very similar response to yours. Basically: I saw the article, glad you thought it was a good idea, here is another article I think would be a great fit for your magazine and I'd love to write it.

    In the end, I didn't get a response. And I saw a similar article a few months later. So I didn't pitch them again until they changed editors.I did hear back. And I wrote for them.

    In the end, I'm glad I remained professional about the situation because it paid off.

  2. A challenging situation, but handled extremely thoughtfully and professionally. This is a good thing to learn -- your handling was assertive, not wimpy or aggressive.

    I have certain article ideas which feel very special, but it's also good to remember that there is nothing new under the sun, and I have a constant stream of ideas, so if one is "stolen" it's not the end of the world.

  3. I suspected my idea was stolen, but it was just a little one. I pitched "Five Tips for a Nicer Lawn" which included maintaining your mower. A couple months later, I saw a 150 word piece about successful grass growth which mentioned sharpening the mower blade. I just let it go thinking it could have been something they had in the queue already. This editor would often send a quick post-it note response to my queries and eventually did assign me so maybe he had guilt, or maybe I just finally got it right. If it happens again, I like your idea for handling it, but I probably just wouldn't pitch again.

  4. I think you're probably right about it already being in the works, and the fact that you got an assignment speaks to the fact that you were writing good queries. Great job! :)

  5. Janine, and Leslie, thank you both for your comments! Janine, I love the fact that you wrote for the mag after the editor had left...good for you for keeping the publication on your radar. And Leslie, I agree--there's very little, if anything, new under the sun. :)