How to Get an Editor to Buy Your Unsalable Article Idea

Carol Tice

Good Or Bad Ideas Signpost Showing Brainstorming Judging Or ChooBy Linda Formichelli

Your article idea is stale. It’s a rambling vent. It has no news hook.

In fact, it’s a mess!

Guess what? You can still sell it.

With a little creative thinking on your part, that unsalable idea can be transformed into one that earns you $1 per word — or more.

Here’s how.

Unsalable Idea #1: It’s been done…and done, and done

You really, really want to pitch an article on alternative treatments for anxiety because it’s a topic you have personal experience with. But to health magazines, this is old news.

How to Sell It: Skip the obvious targets and think of markets where you idea WILL be fresh and new.

Take a look on the newsstand and online for magazines outside of your usual purview. Pet mags? Business publications? Trade magazines?

So, your idea might turn into alternative treatments for anxiety for your ferret…or to calm you down before a big presentation or confrontation at work…or for owners of businesses in a high-stress industry.

I guarantee there are markets out there that haven’t run your idea. Just take some risks and think creatively about the types of markets you’re pitching.

Unsalable Idea #2: It’s really more of an essay

That article about your experiences with infertility — it’s really more of an essay than an article. But you don’t want to turn it into a straight service piece because you’re so close to the issue that you want to share from the heart.

How to Sell It: Turn it into a reported essay.

While essays are hard to place, reported essays are much more common — and salable. A reported essay has elements of an essay, like first-person perspective, but also includes information from research and experts so the reader not only learns from your experiences, but comes away with tactics she can try right now.

For example, I wrote a reported essay for Women’s Health called “I Was a Self-Help Junkie,” and another called “Worried Sick.” If you check these out, you’ll see how I blended essay style with traditional reportage.

More good news is that while you typically don’t pitch an essay because editors want to see the entire manuscript, you do pitch a reported essay, which saves you time and hassle.

Unsalable Idea #3: Your idea has no news hook

You want to pitch an article on how to help your overweight cat slim down, but there’s really no reason a magazine needs to run this NOW. The epidemic of obesity in cats has been covered in the media already, and you can’t find any new studies or books on the topic.

How to Sell It: Figure out some way to make your idea surprising to editors.

Sometimes an idea that’s interesting enough can make it past the editor’s “news” filter. This can be as easy as using the word “surprising” into your title: “5 Surprising Reasons Your Cat Is Overweight — and Real Ways to Help Her Slim Down.”

Of course, if you do that, you have to deliver. You need to do research and talk to experts to figure out reasons and solutions that really are surprising.

In the overweight cat case, that means you’d need to look beyond overeating as a cause.

For example, could your pet have a thyroid problem? Is low-quality food causing your cat to eat more to get the nutrients she needs? Could your cat’s medication be causing her to pack on pounds? Is undiagnosed arthritis keeping your cat from exercising?

Unsalable Idea #4: A vent about the people who piss you off

Carol mentioned this in her post about article types editors hate, and she’s right — too many writers pitch what are essentially vents. “Here’s what you’re doing wrong that makes me mad, and why you should stop.”

Notice something missing? It’s information that readers can use to improve their own lives. After all, that’s why we read most publications.

How to Sell It: Dig out the service aspect of the idea and focus on that.

My mom, whose career was in retail, always wanted me to write an article about why store customers should be neat, put back items they were looking at, and not come into the store five minutes before closing time. But really — who wants to read that?

However, I could get better results — AND sell the article — by positioning it as a piece for a trade magazine for retail store owners and workers on how to “train” your customers to do what you want them to.

Or, another angle I could take is a piece for a women’s magazine on how to get the best treatment and deals at stores — and one of those tips would be to treat employees nicely.

This way, you get the results you want but still have a salable idea.

Linda Formichelli is the founder and creative director of Hero’s Journey Content, LLC, which offers personality-driven content for complex brands.



  1. Holly Bowne

    I’m intrigued by the “reported essay” format. (I enjoyed reading yours, by the way!) I’ve sold a few essays in the past, but I’ve never done a reported essay. I’m just wondering, when you pitch it, do youactually call it a reported essay in your query? Or do you refer to it as an article?

    • Linda Formichelli

      Thanks, Holly! Yesi do call it a reported essay in the query.

  2. Joanie

    This is a great post, Linda. I’ve found this myself any number of times. In fact, I became a the go-to writer for the editor of a local event mag editor just because she could always count on me giving a fresh look to an old topic. My first big win with her was a Nutcracker article for the Christmas issue, when she only expected the same old Sugar Plum Fairy story. Any kind of slant that can be given to evergreen stories or topics that have been played to death in recent months can really help you make your mark with an editor. I got my per word pay rate raised 50% after only a few issues, just because I could always be counted on for bringing in a fresh perspective on anything I wrote.

    Thanks for the great info!


    • Linda Formichelli

      Yes! Being able to make old ideas new again is a very valuable skill for freelancers that sets you apart from the rest. Good for you for figuring it out and making it work for you!

  3. Alexandra Sheehan

    I’m a recent subscriber to the newsletter here and have really been enjoying the tips. I really wanted to give you feedback about this post, because I think it is so valuable and helpful. I think it is particularly helpful because it is universal and a great way to save yourself time. I used to always ditch my ideas after they’d been rejected a few times, and now I know how to add an extra spin to it. Thanks Linda!

    • Linda Formichelli

      Glad you liked the post! You’re very welcome, and thanks for reading!


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