If you’re a new writer, having a good idea is good, but submitting a good idea may not be good enough.
You don’t need me to tell you that breaking into magazines and newspapers is hard. Attracting an editor’s attention – merely getting a reply to your emails – is tough enough. And there are hundreds of other writers trying to do the same. Oh, they’re finding it tough as well, which is good for you, but they’ve got good ideas too, which is not so good for you – and some of them will have ideas that are better than yours, which is even worse for you, and further increases the likelihood that your idea isn’t good enough.
Ideas are currency in this business, and new writers sometimes underestimate their importance. New writers sometimes focus on the writing. New writers worry about things like “my unique style”. But it’s not really about the writing. Most people can write. Just like most people can sing. Being able to sing is fairly boring these days: witness the talent shows. But having something better-than-good to sing: that’s more interesting.
Ditto in writing. Your ideas, at least in the beginning, need to be better than good, and better than those of writers who are already established.
Why? Because good ideas are everywhere. Established writers are filled with them. And if you were an editor, presented with a good idea from an established writer and a good idea from a new writer, whose would you plump for?
When starting out, the ideas you submit to editors need to be great: great enough for an editor to take a risk on you, great enough to be a better bet than the safe and reliable regular writer and his good-but-not-great idea.
And it’s not that new writers don’t have these great ideas. They do. I see them. But sometimes I sense that they may be nervous of submitting them, perhaps scared of their greatness, or reluctant to introduce themselves to an editor via their best ideas, fearful of being subsequently expected to live up to that standard for ever more, and prove themselves to not be flashes in pans.
So what do they do? I’m not sure. Perhaps set them aside, or push them to the back of their minds, and then submit a good-but-not-great but less scary idea instead.
If that’s you, I think this is the wrong thing to do.
Do not save your great ideas. You need them now, while they’re at their most valuable to you. Besides, your great ideas run the risk of dating, losing their ‘moment’, or being grabbed from the swirling ether of ideas by someone else. Knock the editor out with them, and do it now.
Know what else? It’s a myth you need to live up to this standard. I’m not suggesting you lower your standards – by all means have great ideas until you die – but once you’ve impressed an editor with a great idea, he may well take more time to consider your good ideas, and to roll with a couple of them because, after all, he does use good ideas, but would rather use the good ideas of someone he knows a bit, and trusts a bit – and, after your great idea has been sold and delivered, you will be one of those people.
Eventually you may not even need the good ideas so much. The ideas might come to you from editors. “Knock us up 800 words on diabetes would you?” I was asked once, if not in those exact words. It’s not even an idea, is it, let alone a good one. But it was given to me as I was, I imagine, seen as someone who’d come up with a great idea once, with some good ideas more than once, and followed through with them all. The editor trusted me to deliver something interesting enough to fill the slot he was looking to fill with something relatively standard.
(It took years for that to happen to me, by the way. It hasn’t happened in ages.)
I’m not saying stop coming up with good ideas or discarding your good ideas. But in the beginning, push them to become great ideas. Ask more of them. Will yourself to have more and more good ideas, because some of them will on closer inspection prove to be great ideas, and will stand out from the others. And they’re the ones to take to an editor in the early days, when you’re trying to break in.
Look upon this as preparing to take-off. You need max-throttle and a full tank to get into the sky. Once you’re up there in orbit, editors will see you more easily. There’ll be a bit of cruising, and a bit of gentle turbulence, and perhaps the odd alarming moment where the complementary peanuts get stuck in your throat or you convince yourself you’re about to flush yourself down the loo, but at least you’ll be airborne.
Sending off merely good ideas? You’re sort of just taxi-ing on the side of the runway.
Great post, Alex – thank you. It's hard to know the difference between a good idea and an excellent idea if your confidence is low – and the fact that we aren't privvy to the ideas other writers are pitching at the time we are also pitching doesn't help!
I often see articles in magazines that I think I could have written and that usually gives me the kick I need to pitch other ideas.
Got to be in it to win it!
Thanks Julie. YOu're right: got to keep knocking on those doors…
Very well said. I so often have the same thoughts, as you are bringing up here, Alex. The worst among comes when I decide to hold up my thoughts – could be reasons springing off lack of confidence, but more often because of the innate nature of many of us (I guess, but at least for me) to 'safeguard' our ideas…