Distinguishing Between a Story and an Idea
It's a fine point to make, but what, exactly, does it mean? At first glance, this seems to be one of those distinctions that you can't exactly define, but you know it when you see it. However, that helps little when such a comment hits your inbox and you're absolutely convinced that anyone would wait in line to read your opus. A little analytic thought can come in handy at such times:
- There's a difference between something interesting and a story. The latter must encompass the former, certainly; if it's not interesting, who would bother to read it, and what editor would make an assignment?
- Think from the audience viewpoint, not your own. You want to write about things that you find interesting - nothing wrong with that. But unless the topic is interesting to enough people, there is no story that others will read. When considering your idea, ask yourself if you find it interesting because of a personal experience, and then ask how many other people might have had that experience. The question becomes crucial when considering a profile. When relatively few could have the same experience with the subject, then either a) the person must be well enough known to attract curiosity, or b) what you have could only be a personal essay. Yes, you can think of some counter examples, but their number is like unto zero when considering the enormous number of profile pitches that have no relevance to anyone other than the writer.
- A story is compelling. I might be stating the obvious, but a story much have the ability to force the reader - and, by extension, the editor - to care. That means the audience must have either the basic information, the insight, or the emotional experience. A good news story falls completely into the information nook; a tear-jerker narrative is definite an emotional ride. A good philosophical essay must offer the insight, but might bring in an emotional connection. Having at least one factor is a must, and more would be better. People have to give a damn about the read.
- Be specific. Many pitches fail not for lack of a good concept, but because of generality. What is more interesting, noting that children can feel disaffected from step parents, or Hansel and Gretel trying to follow a breadcrumb trail back to the cottage only to find that birds ate their market?
- Have a beginning, middle, and end. No editor worth a drop of ink (or byte of pixels) wants shapeless writing showing up. That means a story must come from one place and have another as its destination, with a clear path leading from A to Z. That's clearly true in a narrative, as tales that go "Someone wandered around and then eventually wandered more" have limited attraction. But there are equivalents for any type of story. Even if you're writing a service piece, with lots of bulleted advice, the writing has to move from a problem, though approaches to solve it, to at least the promise of resolution and aid. Your query should show (not tell) that you address the stages.