What Freelance Writers Can Do When Editors Steal Their Ideas

Carol Tice

What Freelance Writers Can Do When Editors Steal Their Ideas. Makealivingwriting.comHave you ever pitched an editor a story idea, only to read that publication a few weeks or months later and discover someone else has written your exact topic? It’s a fairly common experience for freelance writers, especially new writers.

I recently got a mailbag question about this problem, from KT of the blog Gluten Free Safari. She writes:

Recently, one of the blogs Media Bistro follows discussed the issue of a freelance writer who had pitched a political expose to his hometown paper. They passed – then proceeded to assign the story to a staffer.

It seems that once you trust an editor, this is less likely to happen. But, if pitching to an editor you know not, how do you help ensure that your crackerjack pitches aren’t assigned elsewhere — because, after all, they’re only ideas.

Here’s my answer:

There is absolutely no way you can ensure your “crackerjack” pitches are not assigned to other writers. I know, because I’ve had some of those assignments sent to me to write on occasion! And I’ve certainly seen publications write stories similar to ones I pitched that carried another writer’s byline.

I believe most editors are ethical and will assign a story to the writer that brought it to them as much as possible.

But ideas cannot be copyrighted. If you suspect your idea was stolen, there’s really nothing you can do about it, except not pitch that editor again.

Before we assume an editor is a thief, though, let’s examine a couple other possibilities:

  1. The editor may have already assigned a story on your topic. If there’s a sleazy political figure on the local scene, a writer can hardly think they’re the only person who will have the idea of looking into the person’s background for a story. This is one reason many magazines have boilerplate in their writer’s guidelines to the effect that they receive many submissions, many ideas are similar, and you can’t sue them if you think you’ve been ripped off.
  2. The editor thinks you don’t have the experience or skills to execute the idea you pitched. If you haven’t made a strong case in your query letter or phone pitch for why you are the person to write the story, your idea may well float off to another writer. Be sure to mention any special expertise you have, technical abilities such as online database mining, or knowledge of where the experts are for your topic.

The one weapon that fights idea theft

I’ve seen my story ideas pop up with someone else’s byline. Here’s how much time I spent fuming, fretting, or otherwise feeling pissed off about it:


Why doesn’t it piss me off? Because I have a lot of story ideas. So when faced with a possible idea ripoff, I can simply move on to one of my dozens of other ideas. Trust me, this is the most emotionally healthy way to handle it.

Generating many potential story ideas is your most potent weapon against editor ripoffs. You move on and don’t care because you have many other query letters ready to write.

If you’re feeling like your one, precious idea has been stolen and now your career is ruined, then you’re not developing enough ideas.

If I thought an editor really ripped off my idea, I might not pitch them again. That’s about all you can do.

But you can also turn this around and consider it another way. Maybe seeing your idea in print in the publication you pitched it to shows you have a good sense of what that publication needs.

You might try pitching them a few more ideas in queries that make a stronger pitch and a better case that you’re the writer for the job. Maybe you’re getting close, and a little persistence and stronger query-writing would land you an assignment.

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  1. margie

    My sister and I write locally for a web/print magazine in a small NY suburb and also for a professional womans magazine on the web. A local newspaper publication advertised for writers and asked for ten story ideas. We both submitted but did not know tha the other had. Amazingly all of our topics were written by writers who had previousy published in the print paper previously – practically in the order we gave them. I would think that since it has happened to both of us that this is the case. It is just tooooooo coincidental. Usually submitters would not know or speak to each other about things such as this so they would be aware that it was occuring to others.

    Consider that there are some publications and/or unscrupulous editors devoid of creativity and ideas because they are not familiar with topics and that they purposely advertise for writers to submit then steal their ideas or topics. Because it happened to both of us I believe that this was the case. Margi

  2. k.t.

    Hey, Thanks, Carol — you answered my ? = saw this in my “Inbox” and thought, “Wow, that sounds familiar!” I liked all suggestions, above — I think something should be said to let editor know that you “know.” But in a tactful way

    But, in my last 2 article pitches I made sure that I was really the only obvious 1 who could write the article b/c of subj. matter expertise or an “in.” That’s the way I’m going to go from here — w/new editors, at least! I have zillions of ideas — but after going to the time and trouble of writing a great pitch — well, I want to retain my ideas and IP – which are my stock-in-trade!


    • Carol Tice

      Hi Karen —

      Glad you got to see this response.

      Unfortunately, you can’t retain your ideas, much as you might like…they’re aren’t copyrightable intellectual property. They can and will be stolen.

      On the upside…that is a sign you’re on the right track and have good ideas. 🙂

      And also another point I didn’t raise above: You can repitch them to other publications! Feel free to pitch those great ideas again to others in other markets or niches. With a slight reslanting pitches can be sent over and over.

    • k.t.

      That’s totally true w/re-pitching, Carol. That’s where I get lazy. How to keep track of what pitches you’ve sent and the process? Do you use a particular software? Thanks!!!! Karen

    • Carol Tice

      Sort of ashamed to say I don’t have a very well-organized system, just a pitch file in a Word doc I’ll throw a note in about who I’ve pitched what. I have a pretty good memory for who I’ve already tried.

      In general I try to just keep moving on and not obsessing too much about any one particular pitch. The key is to send many pitches…it’s a numbers game.

  3. linda

    Oh I really needed to read this article (and comments) this morning. As a writer I haven’t worried too much about this, but I have wondered whether it happened much and what I should/could/would do.

    Today’s frustration was in seeing once again another blogger (who follows me) copy a specific feature – how I refer to my family members. I’ve done it from Day #1, she’s just started in the past couple weeks, and never did it before. In the whole scheme of things, I realize it’s no big deal. It feels invasive. I know I should just chalk it up to her not realizing it or ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’, but it still gets on my last nerve!

    I think your advice to ensure your pitch is strong on both concept and your capabilities is great. Within an office setting I suppose you could politely ask that if the editor ends up going with the story but with another writer, would they please let you know. Then if they did, you could be gracious, and then ask how you might have been able to cover the story. You might learn what the editor was thinking, what you might have been lacking, the schedule, etc. Or not.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Linda —

      Sometimes I have entire posts of mine ripped off from beginning to end, and someone else’s name put on them here on our wonderful Interwebs, much less one small feature like how you refer to your family. And unless it’s someone with a real audience, the folks at Copyblogger have taught me to just let it go. You should see how many people rip off their posts…actually you can just click on some of those pings here on this post to see a few examples, as I was a guest poster on there yesterday!

      Better to spend your creative energy making more great stuff than trying to find email contacts for all the people doing stuff wrong to your content and then explaining copyright laws to them.

  4. Amy Parmenter

    Carol! Believe it or not, this even happens in the newsroom. About a year and a half ago I pitched a story I was passionate about — but the editors didn’t really bite. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw another reporter at our station doing the story – and it’s going to win an Emmy.

    The thing is, as you say, I pitch stories all the time. Having your idea ignored, rejected or …eventually done by someone else…is something you cannot take personally — unless it happens a lot. Fortunately for me that is not the case.

    Another reporter might be assigned to a story sometimes, simply as a matter of better timing. There are very few stories I really feel the need to own and, if that’s the case, I try to express as much. So, as you pointed out, if you want to own the story – make a clear case for why you should.

    No doubt there are some sleazy editors but my guess is that most editors go with the easy option. So — make it easy for them to say yes to YOU.

    Also, they’ve got to assign stories to staff writers first, so sometimes it’s just a business decision.

    It’s hard not to take rejection personally and even harder, I’m sure, when you see your idea was good — for somebody else.

    Maybe you could even write the editor a note, ‘I was glad to see that the story idea I pitched got picked up by your mag. Of course I would have been even happier if I had written it, but at least I know I’m on the right track! More ideas to follow…’

    Just a few thoughts.

    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Amy —

      That’s funny — I had a newsroom experience of this kind as well. Not that I pitched an idea, but I walked into a staff meeting to hear another staffer discuss how the publication had sent her to freakin’ Mexico to do a story…on my beat. And it was first I’ve heard of it. Nobody thought they should even ask me if I was interested to do it, or warn me it was happening…nothing.

      I think that kind of stuff is really just not cool…and I obviously am not a staff writer there anymore.

      Sometimes in newsrooms there can be miscommunication…but often it’s got its own shark-tank culture where people poach ideas. I was fortunate to spend most of my career as a staff writer in environments that discouraged that sort of thing.

      In the freelance life I think it’s a different dynamic…and you can only protect your pitches with the strength of how you present them as something only YOU could do the best job of executing.

      Thanks for dropping by Amy!

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