Fibro Q&A: Will a features editor steal my idea?

Posted on February 16, 2012

Untitled designOne of the questions I’m most often asked by freelancer writers who are starting out is this: will a features editor really consider my idea when I have no experience?

My answer is always yes – if your pitch is strong enough, if your idea is good enough, if you give him or her enough reason to think that you can.

But why take my word for it?

My friend Alex Carlton is the Associate Features Editor, and Wellness Editor, at marie claire magazine here in Australia. I asked her to give me a job description to make my life easier, and this is what she wrote:

“I help come up with the features well each month [fyi, this is the bank of features that make up the middle of a magazine – the meat], making sure we have the right mix to keep our readers interested. Features come from our own heads, from the news, from other publications (we buy a story or two here and there) and from our freelancers. Along with the rest of the features team, I commission, edit and write (and then re-edit and rewrite in a crescendoing frenzy as deadline approaches).

“And I attempt to read and digest every single word written by every journo, blogger, writer or publication on the entire planet every day, so I can do my best to know as much as it is humanly possible for one person to know about what’s going on in the world. *collapses*”

It’s a tough job, but she’s the person to do it. She’s smart, funny, a great writer herself… and she’s the gatekeeper for that idea of yours. So, to help make it a bit easier, I thought I’d invite her over to ask her some of the questions I know you want answered.

Q&A with a features editor

What does a freelancer need to do to catch your eye with their pitch?
AC: “There are no magic tricks here. I’m not going to tell you not to send me chocolate and flowers, of course (in fact, send me some now. Now.), but the idea is key. If you send a kick-arse idea, I’ll consider it. But I do mean kick-arse, especially if I haven’t worked with you before. It would need to be a fresh take on a topic I’ve never considered, access to a real person I would struggle to find myself, a tale that will make me shout “WHAT THE HELL?!” out loud so my colleagues leap from their seats and crowd round my desk.

“I’d also advise that one fabulous idea is much better than 10 so-so ones.”

What are the qualities that you look for in a freelance writer?
AC: “marie claire has extremely high standards for its writers. We need our freelancers to understand that we have a definite style, and they need to be able to adjust their own way of writing to suit our guidelines. For our hard-hitting stories, we need solid, extensive reporting, making sure we cover every angle. For our lighter stories, we want it to be fun, clever, zeitgeisty. We also love a twist or a surprise (for example, our first spread will often pose a question… then the turn will answer it in a way that you don’t expect). Surprise us with your pitch!

“Before you pitch to any magazine, you should grab at least three recent copies, and pay particular attention to what we call the ‘slug’ at the top of the story. That’s the descriptor in the top corner of each feature. Looking at a recent issue, some of our slugs have included: crime report, society, sex lives, challenge, special report. It’s essential to think about where your idea fits, and mention that in the pitch. Doesn’t fit? It’s not right.

“Also ask yourself this: what does this story give the marie claire reader? What will it make her feel? Will it make her laugh, cry, gasp or learn?

“Shorter pitches are better than longer – if the idea is good, it should be immediately obvious. But it’s always advisable to suggest how you intend to structure a piece – what the main body would be, any break-outs, and even how you could imagine it being illustrated. Again, refer to recent copies of the magazine. We do things the way we do things for a reason – and if you can demonstrate that you understand that, and that your story will work in our format, then you’re halfway there.”

What if a writer has a great idea, but little or no experience? How can they convince you to take a chance on them?
 AC: “I’m so glad I can tell you this scenario is possible. Just recently, I was sent a well-written story by a stranger. The story itself was a very old idea, but I kept reading because the reporting and tone were good. Then, in the second-to-last par, I discovered the seed of a very good story. However, I wasn’t 100 per cent convinced I could rely on this woman to give me the story I wanted, as her experience was minimal. So we agonised for a while, and in the end I contacted her and came to an arrangement. I’m going to the write the story based on her idea. She’s going to come on the story with me and provide all the additional reporting, for a small fee and a byline. Then, if that goes well, I’ll commission her properly for more stories in the future.”

When freelance writers are starting out, they’re often worried about protecting their ideas – any advice on how they can ensure that a mag won’t simply take the idea and get a staff writer to do the story?
AC: “Personally, I’ve never worked anywhere where this has happened. We’re real people and we do have ethics! In the case of the woman mentioned in the previous question, I was very torn. I loved her buried idea, but it would involve a costly shoot and I didn’t feel comfortable trusting it to someone I hadn’t worked with. So I was very upfront and came to the arrangement I did, which she was very happy about.

“Sometimes, a magazine is already planning a story when someone pitches the same, or a similar idea. This leads some people to think their idea has been ‘stolen’, when it’s far more likely it was one of those magic ideas floating around in the collective consciousness anyway.

“I advise people not to worry about it too much.”

Is marie claire looking for any particular types of stories right now? And anything you don’t want to see?
AC: “We’re always looking for fun, stunty pieces. We love a relationship challenge. And grown-up sex stories. I do mean grown-up though – no ‘how to give him a blow job’ stuf! Oh, and if I am ever pitched another story about the shocking phenomenon of ‘designer vaginas’, I will gnaw my eyes out.”


So You Want To Be a Writer bookWould you love more writing tips and advice? Check out my book So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.

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  1. Deb @ home life simplified

    Finally got a chance to read this – so helpful and I hope I can make it to the chat on Facebook – i loved the 1st one you had

  2. sweffling

    Fascinating, and helpful, thanks. Guess I just don’t have enough of those great ideas:(

  3. Kellie O'Brien

    Fabulous Q&A. Very helpful, Alex.
    Am looking forward to the Facebook chat on Monday now! 🙂

  4. Alex Carlton

    Thanks all, glad you enjoyed. And thanks to the lovely Al, who can craft a coverline-style tweet like no one I know. Look forward to chatting more on Facebook on Monday. Alex.

  5. Linda @ stuff i like

    The only thing I would add to this fabulous advice is to do your research on who to send your pitch to. Often, it’s the Features Editor or Associate Editors on larger magazines but may be the Editor or Deputy Editor on smaller, niche mags. It just takes a quick phone call or email to ask for the correct details. If you send it off to a busy editor or someone who doesn’t commission you may lose some cred for not doing your research.

  6. Kylie L

    Damn. *cancels appointment for designer vagina*

    (Great otherwise though!)

  7. renrubinstein

    Wow thanks so much – really helpful for those of us just starting out.

  8. Anonymous

    I’ve been freelancing for eight years now, started out with no experience and my first job was a feature for Madison. It was totally based on the idea, and the entire pitch was a short paragraph. Title, section of the mag, why it was a new trend and how I’d structure it (v briefly). And my ideas have never been stolen!

  9. Tasmanian Minimalist

    I very much enjoyed this, very inspiring for neophytes like myself 🙂

  10. Megan Blandford

    Very informative and helpful – thank you Allison and Alex! Looking forward to the Facebook chat 🙂

  11. Donna

    Yet another valuable post that gives we wannabes hope 🙂 I’ve been a fan of Alex’s work for a while, and had lost track of her since Madison and JustB. She is one talented jouranlist, so will be sure to pop by the Fibro on the 20th (if I’m back from Book Club before its all over!)

  12. Leanne

    Now that’s informative! Thanks.
    PS Nice to see you. I haven’t visited for a while due to busy, busy, busy.
    So pleased I did as you never disappoint 🙂

  13. Ms Styling You

    Hello there stranger 😉

  14. Ros

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Very generous of both of you.

  15. Kelly Exeter

    GOLD!! Thank you Alex and Alli!!

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