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You've got a great idea and an editor's interest, but the story gets trashed when a similar piece runs in another publication. What's a freelancer to do? A newbie writer offers her step-by-step guide on how to avoid—and survive—being scooped.

By Allison Devers - September 29, 2004

Stolen ideas, killed pieces, unpaid invoices, writer's block, rejection—these are just a few of the mischievous sprites that live to torment freelance writers. So why would anyone give up a perfectly good job to write fulltime? But around this time last year, I decided to do just that. In college, I wrote and edited for the alternative newspaper, but after graduation, work and life intervened; I found myself lacking the energy to moonlight and dipped my nib in the ink only once or twice. My new plan was to ease into it: I'd work for one more year, and in the meantime, I would take a writing class and workshop pieces. Then, I thought, I would have the good fortune to publish a couple of articles, garnering the clips I needed for the big career change.

At first, it seemed to be a good strategy. I took a travel-writing class and was productive. One article was particularly well received and I felt that it had good publication potential. In fact, I was sure that this article would be my first significant piece, paving the way to do other, bigger stories. Armed with constructive feedback from my peers, who told me to tighten my pitch letter and do a little more research, I was on my way.

And then it happened. Arguably the biggest writer's nightmare of all—I was scooped. And it was my own fault. I didn't act to publish my prized article fast enough. It's a year later, and I'm still at my job (though I'm leaving at the end of the month) and I only recently got around to submitting my pitch. The editor was receptive, but she told me she had a nagging sense of déjà vu. The story was probably a "go," she said—but she'd have to call me back after a little visit to Lexis-Nexisland. My heart murmured and I waited. Turns out her memory was correct—the New York Times had published an incredibly similar piece just three days earlier. The editor said she'd have to pass.

I'm told this happens to freelancers all the time. But like rejection, it is particularly devastating to a new writer like myself. I felt sick. I realized I'd made some naïve, newbie mistakes—the largest of which being that I decided I'd have a better shot if I completed the full article to submit on spec, which required significantly more research and time than just refining my pitch.

Like many freelancers, I also put up some serious psychological barriers that kept me from pitching my piece. I was nearly paralyzed by the dueling demons familiar to all writers: Overconfidence, which whispered in my ear: "Your story idea is unique. No one could think it but you!" and Self-doubt, which snickered: "Do you think this little article is worth all this energy and time? If you think it's going to make you a writer, you're a sorry little thing." Worst of all, when I finally exorcised my demons, I returned to the same pitch I developed in my writing workshop—which meant if I had pitched the article when I should have, I probably wouldn't be writing about my failure now.

Some would say that I don't have any right to be upset, and they're probably right. After all, I waited for almost a year, and good ideas are not copyrightable. The experience wasn't all bad, either: The editor I pitched was disappointed that another publication had beaten them to the story and encouraged me to pitch again. And, as a supportive friend pointed out, being scooped suggests that you have the right instincts for what makes a great story in the first place. (And she's right. If this is my fate, it somehow hurts less that it was The New York Times that did the scooping.)

So after a period of mourning, I'm implementing a system that will help me—and other writers—avoid getting scooped again.

Believe in a good idea. Don't predetermine your fate by giving in to self-doubt or fear of rejection. If you never put yourself out there, you'll never get rejected—but you also won't get published.

Be deliberate. Choose the publication, the section, and the editor to whom you pitch carefully, and tailor your letter specifically to them. If you're a new writer, don't worry about the execution of the whole article yet; first sniff out publications that are open to new writers. There are editors who will hire you on the basis of a strong pitch.

Follow-up by phone. Once. Wait a week. Some editors respond fairly quickly, whether they want the piece or not. Some need to be reminded of the story. No matter what the result, you may be able to glean a little bit more about their needs for future pitches. Wait a week before calling and don't be aggressive or annoying. If you don't hear back, find another publication and restructure your pitch.

If you've been scooped:

Accept responsibility. Even if you didn't make the mistakes I did, it will be easier to digest the loss of a byline if you accept the role that risk and chance play in this wicked profession. The article in the Times was very much like my own—it focused on the same places and the author even interviewed the same person I interviewed. It was hard to believe that someone else could have the same idea, and I felt robbed. But, in reality, the author was just quicker to the punch.

Mourn, but don't despair. Is there a different angle or approach for your pitch? In my case there doesn't appear to be, but I'm tucking it away for later. Time may reveal an opportunity.

Pitch again, quickly. Don't dwell on your misfortune or mistakes. Take a day or two to regroup and brainstorm your next pitch, and then move on. It worked for me: My next idea was for this story.

Allison Devers is the Communications Director at the Brooklyn Children's Museum until the end of the month, at which time she will dive head first into the crowded pool of freelance writers.

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