How do you find subjects to write about to earn steady article income?

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In the last blog at this site (http://blog.gordonburgett.com) I explained the mechanical way to see what an editor probably needs on his/her pages and will likely buy if your query letter shows that you write well and have a good idea soberly posed.

But there are other ways to find salable article ideas too. I know they work because I’ve used all of them many times. Still, it’s always shocking when the editor you query doesn’t see the genius in your new idea, while other editors can scarcely wait to get it in print. Unfortunately, there are a lot more of the first than the second, but if you are dogged and a bit hungry you too, like me, can sell 1,700 articles. It also helps if you live a long time and learn how to sell article reprints!

Some of my best ideas just drop into my lap or brain out of nowhere when I’m not thinking about them at all. If that happens to you, grab that gift firmly, write the idea down, note anything related that immediately comes to mind, and also jot down a magazine or some publication lest it all will later appear too weird, or alien—or from aliens. If the idea comes when I’m running or cycling, I try to tie it to a memory hook so I’d remember it when I get back. (Think of those hundreds of lost ideas I left on the path, unhooked.) The issue here: when the mind is at rest or just rummaging around free, it seems to pop out good ideas, solve plots, or, for me, link up processes to make things happen.

I find myself asking “what if…?” a lot. From that I zero in on some topical research (thank God for Google) and from what I find following a couple of entries on the computer an article idea emerges, and a query takes form.

Once I told my publishing class to make a list of every activity they went through in the course of one day, and write three query letters, one each to a different editor about a different idea that had been listed—but let me grade those queries first. About a month later I was still so enamored with the idea I did it too, and I think over time I got about a dozen items in print from that source. (I don’t think I stole any ideas from the students. What amazed me more was how different their days were from mine. Bingo, there’s another article idea!)

My best source comes from research being done in a field in which I’m interested. The trick here is to make a list of everything you find that’s being researched or discussed, keep track of it as papers and articles appear, and try to blend the results into cutting-edge articles that editors love. Even better, you have willing, excited interviewees in the researchers and those they refer. Plus a subject to write about that editors will buy. Another good thing is that as you see other discoveries or innovations appear in print from related fields (sometimes even from afar), you are ideally positioned to make the new links or queries to create new articles that, again, editors gladly buy—with requests to keep them abreast of more new articles as they appear.

History is a hotbed of fun articles. I like “100 years later…” or “1000 years later…” (those are much harder!) where you return to the social climate of the past, tie in the life style, everyday things being used, and what kids did then. Lots of interesting books in the library reference section to help you. My favorite, in 1976, was a look back at 1876, and another that year to 1776. Another, at 2000, a paper trip back at the year 1000 where India was the most advanced area on earth and Eric the Red’s boy was about to stumble, by sea, on Vinland.

There’s another way to get more selling yardage from your query letter. Do the best sale job you can in the opening paragraphs, then, before closing comments, ask, “Is there any other slant or related topic that your readers might care more about?” I only did that when the topics were broad, and then only now and then. But many times the editor would tighten the focus (or, rarely, suggest another) as they gave a “go-ahead.” Incidentally, I only did this with editors to whom I had sold before.

The easiest way to find a specific idea for a magazine is to read the table of contents of a current issue. Find three or four pieces you feel comfortable with, then imagine that the editor just told you to write the follow-up or a related article of some facet of the subject expanded. Jot down a couple of ideas that come to mind about each topic (you may have to read the article first), then let that sit for a day or two. Then go back to the two best ideas you thought of and do some quick research to see how often that theme is in print and if that particular editor used it in the last three years. If it hasn’t been overdone or in the target magazine recently, do enough research to see if there is sufficient substance plus there are enough experts to interview. If so, write a query letter to the editor. If you have two exciting topics, write the editor again after you have a reply to the first query–or query a similar magazine simultaneously.

Some ideas about how to find topics that will enlighten mankind and fill your pockets with well-earned loot.

Again, I have a lot more about the writing and selling process in the Travel Writer’s Guide. It’s not only for travel writers. 90% of it works in almost any field.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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2 Comments to “How do you find subjects to write about to earn steady article income?”

  1. By http://www.zoctai.com/members/xdcbeth/activity/2724/, August 31, 2013 @ 5:31 am

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everybody else experiencing issues with
    your website. It appears like some of the text on your
    posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment
    and let me know if this is happening to them as well?
    This may be a issue with my browser because I’ve had this happen before. Appreciate it

    • By Admin, September 25, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

      Maybe you have a very narrow screen. I have no idea since I can see it. Check the browser.

      Best wishes,
      Gordon Burgett