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.

23 Comments

  1. Nina Peacock

    I’ll take the Brad Pitt story, thanks! 😉

    Seriously, Carol, thanks for putting a positive spin on a very real fear I have. Sometimes I even avoid reading a magazine I want to pitch because I get angry when I see a great article on a subject I could have written! But this post reminds me that doing that it silly. I always enjoy your posts; Thanks!

  2. Rebecca Klempner

    I’ve never had this happen (and hope it never does) when working on a magazine article, but I’ve had it happen several times when working on picture book manuscripts. I’ll sub something, get and —
    1) get it turned down because, “Your story is funny and engaging…but we just purchased a manuscript on the same topic. It’ll be in stores in about a year to 18 months. Be sure to buy it!”
    2) get it turned down because my idea is too outlandish…and then a similar book comes out a while later (don’t think they got the idea from me, but it still hurt).
    3) get it turned down and then see some other book that, despite my earlier research about similar books, does indeed sound very similar to what I’d written.

    I just try to remind myself that it just isn’t my turn.

    A couple times I did what you suggest and turned the idea that was originally for a picture book into a story for older audiences and then sold it to a print magazine.

    • Carol Tice

      If it doesn’t happen to you, you’re not pitching enough! It’s a pretty common thing.

      Remember that pitching is always a numbers game — get more lines in the water to catch more fish.

  3. Suzanne

    I actually sold my first magazine article from Angelina’s BRCA news. I’m a BRCA positive cancer survivor and went into high gear when the news broke. I’d been mulling around ideas and queries, stagnant in fear, but when the news broke I knew I had specialized experience in a very newsy story so I pounced and pitched like 5 mags in 2 days, each a different angle. Phoenix mag ended up running my article on high rates of BRCA among Hispanics, a little-covered story since the mutation is commonly associated with Jewish people. The story just went on newsstands last week.

    • Carol Tice

      Congrats Suzanne — and thanks for sharing yet another great angle on the same story.

  4. Shari Held

    How inspiring! I needed to hear this today.

    I can’t count the number of times when I’ve seen an article that I was thinking of pitching already in print and that stopped me cold.

    OR I’ve seen an article that I SHOULD have pitched – I had all the info and the sources, but didn’t even think of it as article material.

    This only goes to show that setting aside the time to really focus on pitches (and alternative pitches) really pays off.

    Thanks, Carol.

    Shari (Indyfreelancegirl)

    • Carol Tice

      I wrote this just for you! And everyone else who gets “stopped cold” when they see their idea in one magazine. It’s not the end!

  5. Mitch

    Good Writers Copy, Great Writers Steal.
    I say combine all the similar stories to make a more comprehensive new one.
    quote the other stories,
    Comments, quotes , poll results and Critics can be included, they pertain to the new story being written.
    People love to hear critics and many different point of views.
    Best Regards.

Related Posts

How to End A Blog Post: 6 Easy Options

How to End A Blog Post: 6 Easy Options

If you're wondering how to end a blog post, there are a few things you should keep in mind. What should you say? Should you do a call to action? Should you write a conclusion? Should you pitch a product? All of these answers might be correct, depending on what your...

Ghostwriting 101: What You Need to Know

Ghostwriting 101: What You Need to Know

At some point in your freelance writing career, you'll come across ghostwriting gigs. You might be wondering what they entail, how they work, and if they're worth pursuing while you're building your writing career. While ghostwriting gigs can be fun and pay well,...