Guest Article: Double Your Query Power

by Susan Johnston — There is no right or wrong way to brainstorm for story ideas, but there are a few ways to maximize your output. Many writers start with a story idea, then shop around for the right publication. Here’s a little trick I use for finding off-beat ideas: I scan my alumni newsletter and student newspaper to find students or alums who are doing interesting things that haven’t quite hit the mainstream media.

Maybe a student already has his own fashion line or spent her summer touring Europe with an Abba cover band and just got offered a spot on a reality TV show. Perhaps an alum is doing groundbreaking AIDs research or opening a new restaurant. You won’t feel sketchy contacting someone when you can drop the name of my alma mater and find common ground through that. Let’s say you’re interested in writing about the new restaurant. You would ask yourself questions like these to determine what type of publication to query and what angle to use.

  • Is there a local angle?Yes, the community where the restaurant is located
  • Who would benefit from this information? employees who work in the area, teenagers who are looking for a new hang-out, families who like to go out on Sunday evenings for dinner, or others hoping to launch a restaurant
  • What are the possible social or economic implications? Maybe the restaurant is part of a larger trend like veganism, comfort food, retro diners, or business execs-turned-restaurateurs. Or perhaps it’s part of a neighborhood revival.

Drawing from above, this idea who could be spun many different ways: a feature about the owner for the local business journal, a restaurant review for a local magazine, a newsletter piece for the neighborhood business association, or a trend article about restaurants catering to vegans but making the food accessible to everyone. There now, you have at least four ideas to run with.

Unfortunately, not all ideas fit this neatly into a publication. Since an article is no use if it can’t find its way into a publication, sometimes it’s helpful to take the opposite approach and start with your target media outlet.

I’ve found some unusual magazines and websites by mining other writer’s websites and seeing where they’ve contributed. If the website doesn’t have a direct link, I just google “Texas Parenting Digest” or “Coin Collector Monthly” to see if it’s still in print (unfortunately many will not be). Since we’re on a food kick, we’ll use Cooking Light and find a story by asking

  • Who are its readers?health-conscious adults and families who like to cook
  • What information is useful to them?trends in health, exercise, and nutrition, profiles on how families and chefs are integrating healthy cooking into their lives, tidbits about food, travel, and family
  • What information do I have that the editors might not? a friend who’s a nutritionist and just happens to have written a book about cancer and diet (ok, maybe not, but you probably know someone who’s an expert in their field), a funny story about low-fat cooking gone awry, that hidden gem of a bakery in your hometown that sells gluten-free pastries and fair trade chocolate (remember when you interviewed the budding restauranteur? She exchanged business advice with the bakery owner and she’ll gladly put you two in touch)

Now you have several potential article ideas and if Cooking Light doesn’t bite, you could repackage your query for other food magazines like Food & Wine, Healthy Cooking, and Living Without Magazine (which is geared towards people with food allergies like gluten). You could also try the food section of your local newspaper or a regional publication. Working in both directions, from story to publication and vice versa, gives you twice as many options for story ideas.

Boston-based writer Susan Johnston is a two time National Scholastic Writing Award-winner. Her writing has appeared inYoung Money magazine and Brookline magazine, and at,, and Read more at

Finalist in 2006 Writer’s Digest Best Writer’s Website Contest

Contents © Copyright 2007 Kristen King. All rights reserved.

Contents Copyright © 2006-2014 Kristen King

1 comment… add one
  • May 7, 2007

    Thanks for the plug, Kristen! Your contract template was quite helpful.

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