Where Do You Get Your Ideas...? (Part II)

by Michael A. Banks
The Internet Writing Journal, April 1998

Developing Ideas

As you may have inferred from my discussion of idea sources last month, recognizing an idea is actually part of developing it. The next step is shaping the idea to make it marketable.

Yes, you must think about marketing a piece before you begin to write it. Why? Because we write for our readers. Anyone who says they write without concern for the reader is either lying for affectatous reasons, or simply deluded. From idea through development, through writing and submitting your work, you build toward the final encounter of the reader with writing, at which point your work is culminated, vindicated, and justified.

The reader is your ultimate market, represented by the magazine or book publisher to which you submit your work.

Identifying the Reader

Obviously, you must identify your reader. There are two ways to go about this. One is to study your market -- the magazine or book publisher -- to find out who their target readership is. It's often easy to identify or develop ideas by thinking about magazine categories. Say you are writing on the topic of divorce. For a men's magazine -- whose readers are men who, if divorced, probably don't have custody of their children -- you might write an article on custody or visitation issues. For a family magazine you could write about the effects of divorce on children. As you can see, appropriate ideas are sometimes implicit in specific categories or magazines.

This technique works well enough in many instances. But sometimes it's limited; magazines don't always suggest themselves. The other way to identify your reader is to consider just who is interested in your topic -- and why. This will not only help shape your work to suit the reader, but also determine, in part, the markets to which you should submit your work.

This may seem obvious, but the readers for a given topic often are not obvious. Which means you can write an article and miss a great market for it -- or perhaps the only market. For example, an article on how divorce affects people involved with the splitting couple would seem a natural for people concerned with children. Teachers or day-care providers, perhaps. So, you write the article for that market -- and entirely miss two other great markets. What are those? Parents of divorced couples, and employers of divorced people.

Or, maybe you targeted your article for parents (who are also grandparents of children of divorced parents), and missed the other markets. Either way, you can lose a sale, or miss additional sales if you don't completely explore the readership for an idea.

Exploring the Appeal: Who's Affected and Who's involved?

Okay. Let's take a look at how you can find out exactly who is interested in your topic. The first step in is to expand your topic's range. You can do this by taking into consideration who or what is affected, or touched, by various aspects of the topic.

Try this with the divorce topic; if you think about everyone who is affected by a divorce, all sorts of directions suggest themselves. For instance, the divorcing couple's respective parents. What about the couple's employers? There are also issues having to do with mutual friends.

Already, we've developed the topic of how divorce affects people other than the divorcing couple into three different and distinct topics. Which means three articles for three different kinds of readers, or markets. There's one article about dealing with the divorce of an adult child, and how one might continue grandparenting in what could be an uncomfortable situation. There's another article on how employers can help employees cope with their divorces, and remain useful employees. Finally, an article on how to deal with a divorce when you're friends with both parties suggests itself. In each instance, it's easy enough to find appropriate markets; I'm sure a few occurred to you as you read this paragraph.

Another approach is to think about who is involved in the topic -- and how. Say you're writing about an international championship motorcycle race. The obvious readers are motorcycle racers and owners, and racing fans. Now, expand the topic beyond the obvious, to more esoteric elements -- consider who else is involved in motorcycle racing, directly or indirectly. People who work in the hospitality industry are involved in any large event -- they provide lodging and food for the crowds an event draws. A trade journal for that field is an ideal market. Another less-obvious element can be found in the advertising and endorsements that accompany such an event. The "involved group" here might be advertising executives -- with, again, a trade journal as a market.

And so on. Almost any topic will have an effect on or involve several categories of people. Taking this "people-oriented" approach to developing your article ideas generates markets almost automatically.

Slanting for the Readership

Whether you develop your ideas based on the perceived dictates of a specific publisher, or on your topic's appeal to certain groups, you must direct your work toward your readers as you write. This aspect of developing an idea is called slanting your work for the readership. Slanting involves two basic elements: content and style. That is, what you say, and how you say it.

Slanting with Content

Different readerships will find different aspects of a topic of interest. This means you must include and exclude information or background on your topic as appropriate to the intended readership.

For example, the article on how divorce affects a divorcing couple's parents will emphasize grandparent-grandchild relationships if it is written for grandparents and published in a family magazine. Which means you aren't going to be including much information on the relationship between the divorced couple themselves. Similarly, if you write about the effect of divorce on the couple's friends, you will probably leave out information relating to the children. You might also include more information on the former couple's relationship with another, directly and through their friends.

Or, consider a novel or short story about a comet striking Earth. If your audience is hardcore science fiction readers, you'll be including lots of information about physics and the motion of heavenly bodies. This is because that readership normally likes a lot of technical background. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you would omit most of the technical data. (It is interesting to note here that markets would dictate your slant on this topic in the same way. Written for Analog Science Fiction Magazine, a comet-strikes-Earth tale would have lots of technical background. Written for Esquire, it would have almost no technical background. Obviously, there's an interesting synergy between developing your ideas based on appeal to readers and developing them based on the market.)

Slanting with Style

Your target audience will to some extent determine your style. If your piece on divorce written for an audience who are mature and well-educated, you would probably use a more complex style and sophisticated grammar than you would in an article written for people who are not well-educated, and perhaps at the low end of the economic spectrum.

By the same token, if your article on divorce and work performance is published in, say, The Business & Professional Woman, it is probably safe to assume that you could use a more complex writing style -- and a more elaborate grammar -- than you would use for the same article in a confession magazine.

Don't count on this, though. As reading levels fluctuate, I begin to wonder about the validity of assuming a given audience has this or that reading level. My advice is, when writing for a magazine, you follow the level of writing in the publication. When writing a book, you can write more to the level of literacy you perceive in your audience.

Photo of Michael Banks **Michael A. Banks is the author of some 2,000 magazine articles and short stories, and more than 30 published books, among the more recent of which is Web Psychos, Stalkers, and Pranksters: How to Protect Yourself in Cyberspace (The Coriolis Group). You will find a number of his how-to articles on writing at http://w3.one.net/~banks/. In addition to writing, Banks' interests include travel, geneaology, classic cars, R&B music, and the technological history of stage magic. Before turning to writing full-time in 1983, Banks spent 8 years in a job that required him to visit several bars each day.


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