Do You Have Story Idea Constipation? How to Break the Logjam

Carol Tice

Waiting to use the bathroomEver had a great idea for an article?

The moment you think of it, everything comes to a halt. You are entranced. You love this idea!

You’re sure you know the ideal publication for it, too. A big, important, great-paying magazine.

This is the idea that’s going to transform your portfolio and make your career take off. You can hardly sleep at night, thinking about how great this is going to be.

And there, your troubles begin.


The one-idea trap

Weeks or maybe months later, you have yet to send this idea out. You haven’t sent any other ideas out, either. All you think about is this one, amazing idea. You daydream about what it’ll be like to see your byline in that well-known magazine.

What’s gone wrong here? You’ve forgotten that the key to freelance writing success is to send out many, many ideas, as fast as you can.

Instead, you’ve fallen in love with this one idea. It’s so special that your query letter is never going to be good enough for you to let it go.

This one is just too important. You’ve got to rewrite it one more time!

You’re stuck. Instead of moving you forward, this idea has brought your whole career to a halt.

I call this problem story idea constipation. You become obsessed with a single article idea, and it stops your whole marketing machine dead.

How to move forward

How can you kick your one-idea fixation, and start regularly sending your article ideas out? Here are my tips:

  • Create a deadline. Give yourself a week to work on this, after which you must either press ‘send’ or move on.
  • Pitch down. You may have developed a complex because of how high-powered your target magazine is. You don’t feel ready to pitch them! So don’t. If you’re never going to send it off to your dream magazine, try pitching down the chain. Maybe a regional city magazine instead of a national lifestyle mag. You can always reslant this idea and pitch it nationally again — nationals respin ideas from regional and city mags all the time.
  • Pitch simultaneously. I know, the big magazines tell you they don’t want simultaneous submissions. Know what? That’s too bad. You’ve got to eat, and you can’t wait two months to hear back, so you can pitch the next publication. Think of this like applying to college — you apply to your favorite, but also hit a couple of ‘safety’ schools. Have several editors looking at your idea ups your odds of getting a ‘yes.’
  • Break up with your idea. Maybe you’re not sending this idea out because really, as you think more about it, the concept falls apart. Perhaps it’s not the One Great Idea you thought it was. It’s time to end this doomed romance and come up with other ideas. Or…
  • Refine your idea. It’s possible what you have so far is the germ of an idea, and you need to keep working on it to create the best, most newsy angle for it. If you don’t know how to do that, it’s worth it to learn how to craft salable story ideas. Once you’ve got a focused pitch, it may be easier to write — and to feel more confident sending it out.
  • Set a query goal. Prevent yourself from spending too much time on any one single idea by creating a target for how many queries you will send each month. If you’re serious about finding new magazines to break into, I’d recommend at least four, one a week. Better would be 10 or more.

Commit to developing many story ideas, and you’ll avoid a creative blockade that stymies your marketing — and keeps you from earning well. Better yet, you’ll spend less time worrying about the fate of each query you send out, because you’ll have already moved on to writing the next one.

How do you come up with story ideas? Leave a comment and tell us your approach.




  1. Timothy Torrents:

    Interesting. I know the feeling. I seem to either be stuck on one idea or unable to commit to one idea. It’s quite frustrating but the tips in this article definitely are a big help. I particularly like the deadline point. It’s hard to publish articles, especially on your own website, unless you set a deadline. Just focus on getting something out there, no matter what. Anyways, awesome article as always! Time for me to start pitching again!

  2. Laura Ryding-Becker

    These are great ideas, Carol! I’m trying to break into freelance writing, but I am stuck. I have it in my mind that I have to “finish what I start”, which translates to getting every piece published before I start on another idea. Unrealistic and self-defeating, I know. That’s why I like your tips here: they are all about moving forward. Thank you!

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, that is a bad habit, Laura! Instead, think of it as casting many lines into the water. That’s how you get enough fish to eat dinner. 😉

  3. Pattie Pace

    What’s the etiquette on multiple submissions? Is it necessary or customary to inform editors that you’ve sent the query to others? If not, what do you do if you’ve sold the idea and a slow-moving editor also wants it?

    • Carol Tice

      Pattie, the thing is, that just hardly ever happens. I think Linda Formichelli said it happened to her once in about 15+ years of simultaneous pitching.

      Yes, magazines say they don’t want you to…but you have to eat. Be sure to give each one a slightly different slant on it, tailored to that publication…but we can’t make a living waiting 2 months to hear back. Many story ideas will be obsolete by then!

      • Katherine Swarts

        The “no multiple submissions” concept is itself obsolete, and editors must know it by now. It might have made some sense before the electronic era when both submissions and publications were fewer and publishers considered it their duty to send at least a “no thanks” in response to every query; but these days, you have a perfect right to assume that a week without acknowledgment means neither of you owes the other anything. All you really need do, if you still want to play it safe, is space your “simultaneous” inquiries a week or two apart, and keep them general enough that you could write different articles for each query (a good idea, anyway, not to send in what amounts to an “almost-finished” article–that alone can kill your chances if they like the idea but feel they’d have no input into your approach).

        • Carol Tice

          I just think the speed at which news moves in the Internet age makes it impossible to be waiting 2 months to hear back before you pitch an idea again. Most strong ideas have a news hook that will be dead by then!

        • Sham

          Dear Katherine,
          Thank you for pointing out the “almost finished ” article . That by is itself a pointer to finish it once and for all and then send it.That way you are sure about doing the right thing. Thanks again !

  4. Joe Kovacs

    Hey, Carol, thanks for this very useful post. You know, the same rule is in play for fiction-writing, as well. And I would like to propose another possibility for why some writers don’t want to give up their ideas. I have been in writers’ groups where some participants just didn’t want to finish tinkering with their novels because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to come up with another idea for a novel! That fear of running out of ideas will always be there…so that if you hold tight and don’t let go of your idea for an article or your unfinished manuscript, you will never have to face the unsettling possibility that when you’re done with your current project, the well may have run dry!

    Of course that’s just a lack of self-confidence and, like you said, getting lots of ideas out there makes you care less about any one of them. And the more ideas you come up with, the more confidence you will develop and the more likely it will be that you’ll stop worrying about running out of ideas.


    • Sham

      Dear Joe ,
      Thanks for clearing some cobwebs and putting it right on the spot _ lack of confidence ! I was wondering too, what if I ran out of ideas ? Up till February ,all my life I had only penned poems , but in the last month or so I look back and realize I have done a lot of article writing , and have opened up a blog too and still think the well has run dry!And yet , I have a backlog of writing ideas to finish !

  5. Angela Wilson Ursery

    Carol Tice, stop reading my mind!
    My problem isn’t story ideas (in fact, I never run out of them), but what to do with them. I’ve been away from journalism for a while, want to go freelance–and freeze like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights every time I think about pitching. Ack. Constipation is so right. Thank you for providing us with some x-lax, my dear! (Now on to the doing…)

  6. Rachel

    Another “Just what I needed to hear today” topic. The goal setting is particularly helpful, because I find a lot more success when I can quantify my efforts. Thanks for motivating me to get going in the right direction.

    • Carol Tice

      Glad I could help, Rachel! I think it’s a totally different mindset, when you say, “I’m sending 10 queries this month” vs sending a query now and then, whenever you think it’s ‘ready’…which can often turn out to be never.

      • Sham

        Dear Carol,
        Thank you for putting it right again! Better to fix the numbers down than to have a vague idea about where you are heading.Which reminds me , I have to put my first step forward , yet !

  7. Vicky Poutas

    Hi Carol,
    You hit the nail on the head with this post. I managed to get one great (I thought) idea, then just kept “tweaking” the query. As a result, that idea has only been sent out to a couple of magazines, all nationals, and all probably to the wrong editor. Meanwhile, my creative muscle isn’t being exercised, and my ideas are drying up. Time to get unstuck. I’m going to look into the regional/local mags you talked about. How do I go about finding them?

    • Carol Tice

      I think most of us find them on our local newsstand, Vicky. For instance, here in Seattle we have Seattle Business, Edible Seattle, Seattle Magazine, Seattle Metropolitan, Seattle’s Child, etc. The Writer’s Market also has many of them. And Google can also help.

      But the bigger issue…is to have more than one idea to pitch them! Right?

  8. Evan Jensen

    The title of this post made me smile. It’s partly because I know first-hand what it’s like to get stuck on an idea. But I’ve also got three little kids, and thankfully only one still needs potty training. Constipation and breaking the logjam still comes up frequently. One phrase we use to help the little ones take care of business actually applies to getting queries out the door too. “Just go in there and try.” All the stall tactics aren’t going to help get the job done. Keep pitching, and you’ll feel a lot better than just holding on to that great idea.

    • Carol Tice

      I love it! A motto so many more writers should adopt.

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