What to Do When Your Story Idea Gets Swiped

Carol Tice

Frustrated man sees story idea has already been publishedSooner or later, this happens to every writer who pitches magazines.

You open up the publication you wanted to write for, or a competing one, and discover your clever, newsy story idea is already written up and published.

Aarrgh!

Maybe you pitched this publication, but someone else ended up getting to write the story. That really burns.

But story ideas aren’t copyrightable, and neither are headlines. Magazines often have a lot of irons in the fire and may well have gotten a similar pitch first from someone else. There isn’t really anything you can do about it.

Or maybe you hadn’t gotten around to writing your query letter yet. And now you feel like an idiot because clearly it was a good idea. But your foot-dragging left you out of the running to write it.

Or so you think.

Why it’s not over

When you see your idea in print, you have two choices:

  1. Give up and develop other story ideas
  2. Find ways to use the idea anyway

I’ve talked to many writers who seem to think #1 is the only option. “I saw USA Today did my idea, so now I’m just kicking myself!” one writer told me.

Before you leave scuff marks on your own behind, let me just say: There are a lot of markets in the sea.

Your idea has appeared in one of them.

That doesn’t mean the thousands of other magazines, newsletters, newspapers, blogs, and websites out there don’t want it.

Spinning old ideas into new gold

You may think your idea’s publication is the end of your hopes. But you’d be wrong.

The fact that your idea has been published somewhere is a strong positive sign that your concept is a good one. Good ideas often have a long lifespan.

To see how this works, let’s look at how different publications might have treated one big story. Every publication has its own mission and readership, remember. So they don’t all want the exact same story — they’ll want to emphasize different aspects of it.

Just to make it easy, let’s take a big celebrity story we all know — Angelina Jolie has her breasts removed because she has the cancer gene and a family history of cancer. Here’s how different markets might cover it (or in some cases, did):

  • NY Times: Angelina publishes an essay about her decision
  • Major newspaper: Coverage of Angelina’s press conference with some quick local reaction
  • InStyle: How Angelina’s choice may change her style in future
  • People: Exclusive interview: Angelina talks about her courageous decision. OR: Angelina’s decision, 1 year later
  • TMZ celebrity blog: Angelina’s reconstructed breasts look awesome!
  • Cancer research journals: What fresh data is there about double mastectomies, and what light does it shed on Angelina’s decision?
  • Trade magazine for oncologists: An interview with Angelina’s doctor, or reactions from experts
  • GQ or Details: The interview with Brad Pitt
  • Parents: Talking to your kids about Angelina’s mastectomies
  • Cancer Today: Experts discuss her choice in terms other cancer sufferers can understand
  • Local newspapers: Are there local people who have had this surgery? Find them and write that story.
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy: What does this mean for the non-cancer charities where Angelina is a spokesperson? How are cancer charities capitalizing on the publicity to their cause?
  • Entertainment Weekly: Scoop on Angelina Jolie’s first movie after the surgery
  • Tabloid update: Post-mastectomy, Angie is reportedly pregnant with twins!

I’m partly riffing off the top of my head here on ways this story could be spun. But I think this gives you an idea of how many aspects a story can have, and how many different audiences might want to know about it, through the lens of their own interests.

Also, a story is never just one story, because the world keeps turning. New studies will come out, a car crash, a divorce, a new scandal, a new movie, a baby, a cancer treatment breakthrough. And now, the story’s a little different, and needs to be told again.

If your story has come out, don’t give up. Think new markets and new angles — and find it a new home.

Have you had a story idea swiped? Leave a comment and tell us what you did.

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