Fury at a ‘stolen’ idea (Mistake #36)

It comes to you in the bath – and you know instinctively it’s a good one. You leap out and run dripping to your computer, soap suds still hanging off your ears, to bash it out and submit to an editor. Job done.

A few days later, it’s rejected.

A few months later, you see it in the magazine, with another writer’s byline.

The first thing to say about this is that there’s no copyright in ideas – only in their expression or realisation. Other people have written about idea-pinching before, I am writing about idea-pinching now and other people will write about idea-pinching in the future – and we can all do that thanks to that rule. What we can’t do is pinch each other’s words.

The second thing is that this will happen to you at some point in your writing career – probably more than once. You’ll perhaps be convinced an editor has passed your idea to a favoured contributor, or maybe you’ll wonder whether, after meeting with a bunch of writers or chatting to them online, one of them might have taken your idea or passed it on to a friend or colleague. There may be other scenarios, and your degree of suspicion may vary.

Frustrating, possibly maddening, and not very nice – but by no means the end of the world, and it’s a mistake to react as if it is.

Do not, under any circumstances, accuse your editor of any wrongdoing. Don’t even strike up a conversation about it in an attempt to extract some clues. Don’t track the writer down to ask him from where he got the idea and/or to call him a scumbag plagiarist.

Truth is, your idea probably has not been pinched. Ask yourself whether it is really the idea that you feel is the same as yours – or is it merely the subject?

A dear and well-meaning friend once spotted an article by a well-known writer, published a week after a similarish article of mine had appeared in a weekly. The subject was office parties, and our treatments couldn’t have been more different – but my friend thought an offence had been committed. It had not. Subjects to write about are finite – and they come around again and again, repeating themselves in magazine world for ever. Ideas, or themes, or treatments, or angles or approaches on these subjects – these are infinite. There are enough to go around.

Several people can have the same idea at the same time. Ask any commissioning editor. Ideas come in waves and what’s topical for a short period is bound to trigger a flurry of pitches on that subject for a while. If your idea has been sparked by something you’ve heard or read or seen – chances are someone else, somewhere else, will have thought likewise.

I read several dozen articles a week by students and you’d be amazed how often a/ two students working independently come up with strikingly similar pieces and b/ some of their work bears similarities to work I’ve done, am doing or will be doing, or indeed stuff I’ve read in print, or that I know colleagues of mine are researching. It happens. A lot.

Writers get their ideas from all over the place. I brainstorm. I talk to people. I read a lot and scribble down questions. I get inspired by Italian magazines – you could argue that I ‘pinch’ the ideas and translate them for the UK market. Yes, I probably do. I do likewise with old magazines found in junk shops – the articles in there are ideas just waiting to be brought up to date. I know of writers who take ideas from men’s magazines and write the female version for women’s magazines.

Is this stealing? No, I don’t think it is. By the time you’ve added your own twist, done some fresh research, spoken to some new experts – the original source or spark may be barely visible. This is just what the creative process is.

You know, it’s not about pinching or stealing – it’s about behaving honourably. If a writer confides an idea they’re working on, you don’t take it to an editor – and vice versa. There are very few writers out there who behave this way, so please don’t be paranoid about talking to people…

… or about sending ideas to editors. I’ve known people stop submitting to those they suspect of pinching. But that’s not punishing the editor – that’s punishing yourself. If you’re suspicious, hold something key to your idea back. Don’t give it all away in your outline. And convince the editor that you are the person best placed to write the story.

Easier said than done, I know, but the philosophy I’d recommend you try to cultivate is that if you feel your idea has been pinched… then so what? It’s only an idea. You have others, don’t you? Because you need dozens and dozens and dozens to make a living in this game. Losing one should not hurt or damage. The more ideas you have, the less value you will place on any particular one – so if someone beats you to it, forget it and move on. Or come back to it anew in six months when it’s slipped off the public radar again.

And another thing: if your idea does get pinched, and you’re just starting out in this game, console yourself with the knowledge that it was a good, saleable idea – and that if you’ve had one, you can have another, and another, and another…

Comments 7

  • Yes, I agree! If you feel that your 'idea' has been pinched by a publication, at least it proves that you are thinking like a professional writer – which has to be good news!

    It may be that another writer had the idea earlier, pitched it and got commissioned, before you sent your idea in. Getting similar ideas is good – sending them in earlier, is better!

  • Great post! I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately and loved hearing your take on it.

    One thing I try to remind myself of is that ideas are just ideas, but the execution of the idea is where the gold is. Two writers could take the same concept and run with it but end up with completely different results. My musings on this very subject are here.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  • Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my otherwise-illogical mind, though I do know that an editor is not out to ruin my career by first rejecting my idea, and then publishing an article by someone else based on the same idea, my first reaction is usually in the form of swear words that involve the editor and his/her family. After reading this post, however, I feel much, much better! I completely agree about how not sending any more article ideas to the editor is just punishing yourself. Having read this post, I am wiser, and will be submitting more article ideas to the same editor – this time, though, I will keep the outlines brief and focus more on convincing him about my skills.

    Phew! Thanks again, Alex!

  • @ Simon – yep, send them in early. Flesh them out, make sure they're good – but no dithering!

    @ Gabi – Yes, the uniqueness is interesting. Depending how you look at it, everything you write is unique (because it's gone through you, and you are unique) or nothing is (because as you say there's always an existing context). I'm reminded of a Goethe quote: "Everything has been thought of before, but the difficulty is to think of it again."

    @ Shefali – Great, glad it's made you feel better and rethink! Yes, brief outlines – but make sure they pack a punch nevertheless!

  • Alex, while I agree on the whole, what about this: I sent a query for an article about Regional Poet Laureates (I was one) to a certain writing magazine, which shall be nameless. The editor came back and said he thought it was a good idea, which he'd like his poetry editor to write and would I be prepared to be interviewed? (I said no thank you very much!) I thought it was a good, original idea but obviously I didn't convince him that I was the best person to write it!

  • From the info you've given me, which is all I can go on, I would say the editor possibly didn't want a 'first person' take on the subject – or perhaps he thought you, as an RPL, would write a 'biased' or impartial piece. He wanted it done independently.

    I'm afraid – sorry – that I would've accepted the invitation to be interviewed.

    Had the editor passed on your suggestion to another RPL, then that would be different.

  • Alex, yes, I am sure you are right – I should have accepted the invitation to be interviewed. I think I was still hoping to do something with the article idea but I will take your advise and next time I won't be so quick to say 'no'!! Thanks Helen

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