How to come up with ideas for saleable material

So you want to write for your favourite magazine and you are brimming with ideas – you’re a little disappointed that most of them – or something similar at least – has been covered already – but it’s still worth a shot, right?

Wrong. If you spot a piece in a target publication that bears any resemblance to the germ of an idea you have been slaving over – but too nervous to send – for days or even weeks then you need to change direction immediately. First pause a moment to congratulate yourself that you are on the right wavelength – then move on, pronto!

Either come up with a new angle to suit a different sort of market, or start again.

You have to find something that is different, new and fresh, but at the same time, relevant and newsworthy. How do you do that? Give your ideas the ‘so what?’ test

Think about what is so different about your idea, why is it current now? And why are you the one to write it? A general piece on ‘home education’ may not be deemed worth looking at, and could easily be researched and written in-house.

But a piece on home education with a cracking interview with a mum who refuses to send her son to school may be nearer the mark – especially if there has been a topical development. If there hasn’t, file your idea away until a piece of relevant research or celebrity or politician hits the headlines for such a course of action – then bam! Hit the commissioning editor where it matters.

You have to time it right. And I don’t mean pegging your piece on a forthcoming awareness day, week or month. How many times have I read that awareness weeks make great hooks for stories? Yawn. Too many. Beware. You can bet that if you know next month is bowel cancer awareness month, so will many other wannabe contributors. Again, what’s so very new and different about your angle?

Lead-in times for publications vary. Pitch a monthly with a Christmas type story in October, and you are marking yourself out as a fool. Pick up the phone and find out when the deadlines for copy are.

How then do you market your ideas? It all comes down to your chosen market. Study your chosen publications or online markets carefully and make sure you send them what they ask for – to the right person at the right time.

Should you send your pitches by phone or email?

Here I go again: It depends.

Editors are so busy now that they won’t take kindly to you ringing right on deadline to pitch an idea, however good it is.

Nor will they welcome a zillionth email chasing them over an idea you first sent just three days ago.

So what can you do? Finding out when they are most likely to be less busy, for a start. Yes it’s their job to look at freelance pitches (possibly) but please don’t moan if they don’t reply. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – they didn’t ask you to contact them, so why should they race to reply?

Linda Jones is the director of Midlands editorial agency Passionate Media and author of The Greatest Freelance Writing Tips in the World. More details are available at


4th August 2008

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