Regardless of how many years you’ve been in the magazine biz, there is one thing that never seems to change: Whenever you pitch a story idea, it’s impossible to predict whether an editor will jump at your idea or pass on it.
And, sadly, all writers are in the same boat; veteran writers are often no better at hedging their bets than fledgling reporters who are sending pitches for the first time.
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Part of what contributes to the mystery, of course, has little to do with us. Timing plays a major role. An editor will often turn down a perfect story idea because a similar piece is waiting in inventory to be scheduled for an upcoming issue. Or it could be that the magazine recently published an article on your topic and is therefore unable to cover it again until years pass—if ever. These variables are beyond any writer’s control.
But there is something you can—and must do—to improve your chances for success: Make sure you deliver a solid story idea.
It may sound simple, but it is often hard to tell the difference between an idea that rocks and one that flops. And what’s a good idea? To find out, we turned to a friend of Mediabistro, an accomplished magazine editor who’d just as soon remain nameless, to reveal the must-have ingredients for a quality piece of journalism. If you can nail even a few of these essential elements, and you still get a rejection letter, then it’s your editor’s loss!
According to our friend, a great magazine story:
1. Is about someone appealing or intriguing or remarkable or abominable, someone to whom aggressive adjectives can be applied or someone caught up in circumstances that fit these adjectives.
2. Relies on tension, conflict and drama to move the story along at a steady pace, without bizarre detours which may in themselves be interesting but which do not contribute to an uninterrupted narration of the story.
3. Has a beginning, middle and end—in that order, preferably.
4. Tells you something new and unexpected, or takes a totally fresh new look at something familiar.
5. Has compelling anecdotes that illustrate specific points, but do so with some subtlety so the reader will not feel beaten upside the head.
6. Includes carefully chosen quotes that reveal the subject’s personality and perspective, quotes that might be cleaned up for grammar and clarity but never to change meaning or intent.
7. Leaves no unanswered questions and never strays off course with tangential musings from the writer and irrelevant anecdotes or quotes.
8. Is easy to follow and doesn’t confuse the reader, meaning that flashbacks and flash forwards should be employed with caution.
9. Evokes an honest emotional response, not a manipulated one—so resist the temptation to twist your story a tad to make sure readers get your message.
10. Has a resolution—a triumphant one is preferred, but if it’s a downer both prepare the reader for it as you go along and make sure you personally can live with that kind of ending.
11. Wraps with a kicker that clings to the reader’s memory, whether clever or noble or heartrending or even funny.
12. Is factually correct, not only for your sake as a writer of integrity but also for the sake of our profession at large which has had more than enough reportorial fiction in 2003.