How to Turn a Ho-Hum Story Idea into a Brilliant (and Salable) One
The very best story ideas are unique, specific, and targeted to a particular audience.
I say that to our workshop attendees all the time. They nod enthusiastically and write it down. Yet when we go to brainstorm about ideas, those aren’t the sort they come up with — not at first, anyway.
Now, to be fair, they aren’t the sort I come up with at the drop of a hat, either. That’s because the best ideas — the most saleable ones — are those that lie hidden inside the more general (and easier-to-come-by) notions. The trick is to draw them out.
Let me show you what I mean. Take this list of article ideas one budding travel writer suggests. She says:
I’m heading to France in two weeks… driving with a friend through Provence and down to Valencia, Spain. We’re two single women in our 50s and neither of us speaks French or Spanish. Which of these story ideas do you like best?
“Beat the crowds on the Riviera and travel in the fall”
“Best Lunches with a view of the ocean/mountains/etc”
“What’s so special about …each town we visit … “
“Menton, France – They named the town after me, won’t someone buy me a drink!”
“Short reviews on the places we stay.”
“Traveling to Europe and feeling secure”
“Getting ready for the America’s Cup in Valencia”
I should say, first, that this writer is smart to be thinking about more than one article at a time. You maximize your income when you generate multiple stories on a trip.
However, I don’t think she can sell those stories — not in their current state, anyway. Those ideas are all too general and not focused enough on one particular audience.
Yet inside each lies a more unique and specific article — one with a clear benefit for a certain reader — and that’s exactly the kind of story that will appeal to an editor.
Take this one: “What’s so special about …each town we visit …”
The macro idea of focusing on the villages seems sensible. But she’s got to come at it with more focus.
A travelogue that takes me through each village she visits sounds not only long… but hopelessly chronological and too much like, “what I did last summer.”
Instead, I want this writer to bring some judgment to bear on her experiences. Focus on the highlights — and do it in a way that offers some benefit for the reader and appeals to a specific audience.
For a bargain-minded traveler, she could write: “Three French Riviera Villages with Provincial Charm, Authentic Restaurants, and Good-Value Hotels”.
For a shopper, she could write: “Five Small-Village Shopping Finds on the French Riviera”.
How about this article idea she suggested: “Traveling to Europe and feeling secure”
As an editor, I think to myself, “Well, people do want to feel secure when they travel. But what’s this story about, really?”
Recast it to incorporate more benefit for the reader and more specifics, though, and it’s an idea transformed:”Five Smart Precautions to Ensure a Trouble-Free European Trip” or perhaps “Women
Traveling in Europe: Three Tips to Ensure Your Safety and Comfort”.
(Having said that, I want to caution: These “safety” articles could be tricky to sell. That’s because they imply that there’s danger in a certain destination. And if there’s danger, the average traveler is wary of venturing there. And if folks are wary of traveling there, then editors are, in turn, wary of running articles about that place. After all, they want to run articles about destinations where people want to go.
But I do I think a “safety”-related article about a destination at least perceived as somewhat risky probably has its place, particularly if your main idea is something along the lines of: This place, long renowned for its pick-pockets and scams, is, in fact, perfectly pleasant — as long as you take these five smart precautions. )
Let’s look at one more idea our travel writer proposes: “Short reviews on the places we stay”.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this idea, generally speaking. In fact, short pieces are often easier to sell than longer ones, and readers are always in the market for hotels to try out.
But the key to selling these will be making sure that each one highlights something unique, even extraordinary about the place. This writer won’t have any luck selling an article about “a nice hotel on the French Riviera.”
She’ll need to figure out what one special thing makes a place uniquely different. She needs to create a “position” for each place, some way to highlight what is most striking about it.
For example, she might write one short article on: “An Artist’s Retreat on the French Riviera” or another on:”French Riviera: Small-Village Charm, Small-Village Price, but World-Class Views” or perhaps a third titled:”Coastal France: A Humble Auberge with Extravagant Meals”
In articles like those, you wouldn’t ignore the other aspects of each hotel — you’d still talk about the service and the rooms and the décor and the price — but you’d focus at the outset on that “position” you came up with and then return to it again within the body of each piece.
It’s your job as the writer to help your reader distinguish one hotel (or one anything — restaurant, park, shop, tour, even country) from another. Do a good job of “positioning” each place — using specifics and targeting a certain reader — and an editor will sense, immediately, that you’re writing with authority and judgment.
In other words, he or she will see that you’ve done the hard thinking about your story. You’ll have drawn out the strong, specific idea hiding in the too-general one, and that’s what will sell your articles for you.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]