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Freelance Writing > How to Test a Story Idea Before Querying an Editor

How to Test a Story Idea Before Querying an Editor

The most important part of learning how to write an article for a magazine, periodical, or newspaper is recognizing good story ideas. No matter how skillfully you write, an editor won’t publish an article on a topic that’s been covered gazillions of times.

In The Complete Guide to Article Writing: How to Write Successful Articles for Online and Print Markets, Naveed Saleh describes how to write coherently, cohesively, and concisely (this is crucial when you’re learning how to write an article!). This book will teach you how to choose the proper structure for the article you want to write, and how to weave narrative and fact seamlessly into your story ideas. You’ll learn how to develop your freelance platform by using various social media outlets effectively, and ways to pitch your article ideas professionally.

I became a successful freelance writer as soon as I started pitching ideas to magazine editors because I read books about freelancing. I didn’t rely on online articles and blog posts on how to write an article (ironic, I know!) because I quickly learned that print books and magazine publications were more detailed, focused, and educational. That said, however, I haven’t researched all the blogs and websites that help freelance writers succeed 🙂

In Example of a Successful Query Letter to Reader’s Digest, I describe the actual process that freelance writers use to write for magazines. Here, I share 10 ways to know if you have a good idea for an article. If you have a sloppy or bad story idea, there’s no point in learning how to write an article. Your first step is to solidify, tighten, and pizzazz-ify your story idea.

Testing Your Article Idea Before Sending it to Editors

“The successful writer listens to himself,” said Frank Herbert, an American author. True, but successful writers also know how to recognize a good story idea.

Successful freelance writers listen to their gut instincts when it comes to finding story ideas. And, they know what editors are looking for. Luckily, finding good story ideas to write about doesn’t involve blindly sending query letters into the big black hole of email.

Here are a few questions to help you test your story idea and ensure the article is worth writing.

Is your story idea fresh and new?

A 15 year old musician running away from home to join a rock band and tour Eastern Europe isn’t a fresh new story idea. But, what if the musician is a blind girl drummer? What if she lost her sight when she was 10 years old and living in Africa with her missionary parents?

If you can’t find a book or magazine article that is already written about your idea, then you are ready to take it to the next step. Learn how to write an article. You might also read 11 Types of Articles to Write for Magazines, and think about a format for your idea.

Has the magazine published a similar idea in the recent past?

Editors say they want fresh new story ideas, but they publish articles about things written about millions of times. For instance, I just finished an article about diabetes prevention for a health magazine. Before that, I wrote a tips-based article for adult learners going back to school. I pitched an article about How to Choose an Instrument for Beginner Adult Musicians, but was shot down.

How do you deal with this contradiction? Learn the publication. Different magazines publish different types of articles. Part of learning how to write an article is studying the publication or periodical’s past issues, and seeing if the editors publish fresh new ideas or “tried and true” evergreen content.

Does your story idea deal with basic life issues?

The most popular ideas for magazine articles involve stories about money, love, death, work, and health. These issues affect all of us – even our children and teens. The blind drummer story idea can be inspiration to teen musicians, or parents who have children with disabilities.

Is your idea dramatic or compelling?

It’s time to think way back, and remember the three different types of conflict from elementary school story writing class.

Man-versus-man, man-versus-nature, and man-versus-self. External conflict (the first two) are the more popular types of conflict in story ideas. I like internal conflict because it’s psychological, which I find compelling.

If your article idea doesn’t have conflict, then it’s not a story.

Does your story idea challenge conventional thinking?

This tip on how to write an article is more about the content than the idea itself. For instance, I included unconventional health tips when I wrote the diabetes prevention article. The story idea seems a bit flat, but the tips in the article challenged readers to question their conventional health habits.

If you’re uncertain about finding good stories, read How to Find Article Ideas That Editors Will Pay to Publish.

Can you find anecdotes that support your idea?

If I had space in my article about adult learners going back to school, I might have interviewed a retired electrical engineer who is starting journalism school in September. Actually, I did interview a 45 year old pastor who is getting her Master of Divinity – but my word count restrictions didn’t allow me to include her anecdotes.

Readers love stories. Thus, editors love stories! Find the human-interest angle to your story idea, and you’re on your way to learning how to write an article that editors will happily publish. And pay you for.

Are you offering intelligent insight?

This isn’t the trickiest part of being a freelance writer, but it is a puzzle. Why? Because what I think is “intelligent insight” may be a yawner for you.

How to Write an Article
How to Write an Article

One way to determine if you’re actually adding something new is the Common Sense Test. Are your conclusions or statements common sense (eg, avoiding diabetes is good for our health) or insightful (eg, diabetics had the disease for several years before they recognized the symptoms; this is called prediabetes, and knowing it could have prevented diabetes from developing fully).

Can you supply photos with your story?

Here’s a non-surprise: many magazine and newspaper editors prefer writers to take and supply photos of their sources or story ideas. Not all magazines do this, though. The health magazine I write for has their own graphic artist and photographer; my job is simply to write the article. I’ve pitched ideas to newspapers; some ask me to take my own photos and others say they’ll send their own photographer. Part of learning how to write an article is discovering how different publications handle photography.

If combining photography and writing is your freelancing dream, read How to Become a Photojournalist.

Fellow scribes, I welcome your thoughts on how to write an article. Oh yes, I almost forgot – one of the best ways to learn how to test story ideas is to read an online magazine or print newspaper. How do the articles stand up to these test questions? That’s an assignment I’ve given my high school journalism students 🙂

May you fulfill all your writing hopes and dreams, and enjoy the pursuit of your career as a writer.


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2 thoughts on “How to Test a Story Idea Before Querying an Editor”

  1. Hi Paul,

    Congratulations on taking the journalism course! That’s a great way to start breaking into the field, and learning how to write articles.

    What’s name of the article you chose, and what ideas have you already developed from it?

  2. Hi Laurie,

    I have recently signed up for a freelance Journalism course and my first assignment is to read a published article. Once I have finished reading the article I have to try to develop 3 article ideas from what I have just read. I seemed to have hit a brick wall on this one and would like to ask you for some advice as to how I can start to to develop 3 articles, and if I can take text from the article itself.
    Any help would be very much appreciated thank you.