What to Do When Your Story Idea Gets Swiped

Frustrated man sees story idea has already been publishedSooner or later, this happens to every writer who pitches magazines.

You open up the publication you wanted to write for, or a competing one, and discover your clever, newsy story idea is already written up and published.

Aarrgh!

Maybe you pitched this publication, but someone else ended up getting to write the story. That really burns.

But story ideas aren’t copyrightable, and neither are headlines. Magazines often have a lot of irons in the fire and may well have gotten a similar pitch first from someone else. There isn’t really anything you can do about it.

Or maybe you hadn’t gotten around to writing your query letter yet. And now you feel like an idiot because clearly it was a good idea. But your foot-dragging left you out of the running to write it.

Or so you think.

Why it’s not over

When you see your idea in print, you have two choices:

  1. Give up and develop other story ideas
  2. Find ways to use the idea anyway

I’ve talked to many writers who seem to think #1 is the only option. “I saw USA Today did my idea, so now I’m just kicking myself!” one writer told me.

Before you leave scuff marks on your own behind, let me just say: There are a lot of markets in the sea.

Your idea has appeared in one of them.

That doesn’t mean the thousands of other magazines, newsletters, newspapers, blogs, and websites out there don’t want it.

Spinning old ideas into new gold

You may think your idea’s publication is the end of your hopes. But you’d be wrong.

The fact that your idea has been published somewhere is a strong positive sign that your concept is a good one. Good ideas often have a long lifespan.

To see how this works, let’s look at how different publications might have treated one big story. Every publication has its own mission and readership, remember. So they don’t all want the exact same story — they’ll want to emphasize different aspects of it.

Just to make it easy, let’s take a big celebrity story we all know — Angelina Jolie has her breasts removed because she has the cancer gene and a family history of cancer. Here’s how different markets might cover it (or in some cases, did):

  • NY Times: Angelina publishes an essay about her decision
  • Major newspaper: Coverage of Angelina’s press conference with some quick local reaction
  • InStyle: How Angelina’s choice may change her style in future
  • People: Exclusive interview: Angelina talks about her courageous decision. OR: Angelina’s decision, 1 year later
  • TMZ celebrity blog: Angelina’s reconstructed breasts look awesome!
  • Cancer research journals: What fresh data is there about double mastectomies, and what light does it shed on Angelina’s decision?
  • Trade magazine for oncologists: An interview with Angelina’s doctor, or reactions from experts
  • GQ or Details: The interview with Brad Pitt
  • Parents: Talking to your kids about Angelina’s mastectomies
  • Cancer Today: Experts discuss her choice in terms other cancer sufferers can understand
  • Local newspapers: Are there local people who have had this surgery? Find them and write that story.
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy: What does this mean for the non-cancer charities where Angelina is a spokesperson? How are cancer charities capitalizing on the publicity to their cause?
  • Entertainment Weekly: Scoop on Angelina Jolie’s first movie after the surgery
  • Tabloid update: Post-mastectomy, Angie is reportedly pregnant with twins!

I’m partly riffing off the top of my head here on ways this story could be spun. But I think this gives you an idea of how many aspects a story can have, and how many different audiences might want to know about it, through the lens of their own interests.

Also, a story is never just one story, because the world keeps turning. New studies will come out, a car crash, a divorce, a new scandal, a new movie, a baby, a cancer treatment breakthrough. And now, the story’s a little different, and needs to be told again.

If your story has come out, don’t give up. Think new markets and new angles — and find it a new home.

Have you had a story idea swiped? Leave a comment and tell us what you did.

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23 comments on “What to Do When Your Story Idea Gets Swiped
  1. Michael says:

    Loved this. I hope everyone keeps this in mind and doesn’t get discouraged.

    I mean, originality is good, is great, but what’s that old saying, there’s nothing new under the sun. So, there has to be balance between coming up with an original idea and deciding to move forward with writing it.

    Stephen King comes right to mind for me. When asked and interviewed about having the same concept as the Simpson’s Movie, i.e. a town covered in an invisible dome, he could prove he had started writing his book Under the Dome in the seventies and had put it away, only to recently come back and write it. He says, in fact, he hadn’t even seen the Simpsons movie, and when everyone was telling him about it after he published Under the Dome, he said maybe he would have considered starting up again writing it if he knew about the Simpsons. I think he was joking, but it shows it happens to everyone!
    Michael recently posted…Stephen KingMy Profile

  2. Gayle says:

    You swiped my story! Had to do that – I just scheduled a similar post on my blog, but you are inspired to use the Angelina Jolie thread as an example. GREAT article – I’ll have to tweak mine, and change the slant a bit!

  3. Heather says:

    Thank you so much, Carol! My idea didn’t get swiped, but a similar one showed up on the mag’s online newsletter about 48 hours before I sent in my pitch, agggh! I sent my idea to other markets since it’s not the same and has more in depth information anyway. Seriously, if freelancers check every scrap of information a publication puts out every single day, we’ll never write anything.

    Heather

  4. Mary H says:

    Thanks for the great ideas! You make a terrific point about the variety of way to tell a story from different angles for different publications. Years ago I translated an original book- an autobiography- only to discover that a very thoroughly researched biography also existed and had just been translated and published a few months before. It took the wind out of my sails for a long time, but recently I had the idea of reworking the material into a non-fiction piece for young adults. This is much more in my line anyway. I’m very excited about my new project.

  5. Nina Peacock says:

    I’ll take the Brad Pitt story, thanks! 😉

    Seriously, Carol, thanks for putting a positive spin on a very real fear I have. Sometimes I even avoid reading a magazine I want to pitch because I get angry when I see a great article on a subject I could have written! But this post reminds me that doing that it silly. I always enjoy your posts; Thanks!

  6. I’ve never had this happen (and hope it never does) when working on a magazine article, but I’ve had it happen several times when working on picture book manuscripts. I’ll sub something, get and —
    1) get it turned down because, “Your story is funny and engaging…but we just purchased a manuscript on the same topic. It’ll be in stores in about a year to 18 months. Be sure to buy it!”
    2) get it turned down because my idea is too outlandish…and then a similar book comes out a while later (don’t think they got the idea from me, but it still hurt).
    3) get it turned down and then see some other book that, despite my earlier research about similar books, does indeed sound very similar to what I’d written.

    I just try to remind myself that it just isn’t my turn.

    A couple times I did what you suggest and turned the idea that was originally for a picture book into a story for older audiences and then sold it to a print magazine.
    Rebecca Klempner recently posted…What I’m doing for my summer vacationMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      If it doesn’t happen to you, you’re not pitching enough! It’s a pretty common thing.

      Remember that pitching is always a numbers game — get more lines in the water to catch more fish.

  7. Suzanne says:

    I actually sold my first magazine article from Angelina’s BRCA news. I’m a BRCA positive cancer survivor and went into high gear when the news broke. I’d been mulling around ideas and queries, stagnant in fear, but when the news broke I knew I had specialized experience in a very newsy story so I pounced and pitched like 5 mags in 2 days, each a different angle. Phoenix mag ended up running my article on high rates of BRCA among Hispanics, a little-covered story since the mutation is commonly associated with Jewish people. The story just went on newsstands last week.
    Suzanne recently posted…How one simple joy can change your dayMy Profile

  8. Shari Held says:

    How inspiring! I needed to hear this today.

    I can’t count the number of times when I’ve seen an article that I was thinking of pitching already in print and that stopped me cold.

    OR I’ve seen an article that I SHOULD have pitched – I had all the info and the sources, but didn’t even think of it as article material.

    This only goes to show that setting aside the time to really focus on pitches (and alternative pitches) really pays off.

    Thanks, Carol.

    Shari (Indyfreelancegirl)
    Shari Held recently posted…Don’t Let a Vampire Client Bleed You DryMy Profile

  9. Mitch says:

    Good Writers Copy, Great Writers Steal.
    I say combine all the similar stories to make a more comprehensive new one.
    quote the other stories,
    Comments, quotes , poll results and Critics can be included, they pertain to the new story being written.
    People love to hear critics and many different point of views.
    Best Regards.
    Mitch recently posted…Free CV Builder, Free Resume Builder, cv templatesMy Profile

  10. Cathie Ericson says:

    Oh the coincidence of this article being posted today! I read it and then directly below I was glancing through today’s HARO inquiries and my heart skipped a beat. A national blog had posted a request for sources for the VERY SAME article I am working on. Mine is for a regional audience.

    I pitched the idea 3 months ago; got approval last month; postponed it due to vacations; and was going to get MY HARO request in this week. Well the week flew by, yada blah blah…I decided to post Monday since I think there’s better readership than a summer Friday (though I have no stats to prove that).

    And, bam, there it was! As a courtesy I just sent the writer a brief email describing my situation so on the off chance she saw my query next week, or, a source saw both and was confused, she would know that I had reached out and clarified that mine was particular to a certain region. Hope that was the right move.

    So I am not concerned about the story being swiped, I am concerned about me looking like the swiper!! 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      I wouldn’t have said anything to the other writer myself. Similar stories are in process all the time…fairly routine.

      I’d just make sure to write my HARO so that my regional slant is clear, is all.

  11. That’s why I always go back at least 6-months of back issues (online) skimming the article headlines to see if the topic was covered already. Sometimes you can find an important follow-up angle to a story that no one has covered yet. For example, I recently and brazenly contacted (via-Facebook) a young woman who was involved in a very big trial recently on TV and who received a lot of attention from the media herself while she was working on it. I told her I would like to do a story about her and her insights and plans for the future. She answered me back and said she’s considering it with a phone interview. Maybe I’ll get lucky and land a story that could have multiple magazines fighting for the article. Keeping my fingers crossed!
    Joseph Rathjen recently posted…Weiner…It’s Time To End The Charade!My Profile

  12. Important to remember that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat! Thx for keeping the wheels in my noggin turning, Carol. 🙂

  13. Best idea ever: state of interracial marriages in Birmingham, AL. Oh, wait – a competing magazine did the EXACT same story a month ago! LOL My solution was to do stats and a personal essay. Probably one of the best things I’ve ever written,
    Williesha Morris recently posted…How To Begin Your Freelance Life: My Story – Part 2My Profile

  14. I like this.

    It shows that you can make lemonade when you have lemons.

    It’s all about what you do not what happens to you.

    Excellent point.
    Darnell Jackson recently posted…Exclusive Interview with Pradeep Kumar the founder of HellBoundBloggers.comMy Profile