An American Editor

January 16, 2023

On the Basics: Dealing with idea “theft”

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

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Freelance writers often worry about having their story ideas stolen. It’s rare, but sometimes it does happen. On the other hand, what appears to be idea theft might be something innocent. Here’s a recent example — and some tips for idea theft prevention.

A colleague in a social media group pitched a story to an alumni magazine. After asking whether they took alumni profiles, the writer had some seemingly positive e-mail exchanges with the editor via LinkedIn. Then the writer received this message and asked the group how to respond, if at all, to what felt as if the editor stole their story idea:

< Thank you so much for sending this idea our way. Dr. //// sounds like they are doing some wonderful work! … we might consider this story for a Q&A in the Class Notes section, but not for a feature at this time. We generally cover Q&As with our in-house staff and as such do not hire freelancers to conduct those interviews which are generally a few email exchanges.

< Thank you for being in touch and for sharing information about Dr. /// with us. >

As I responded in the group conversation, I sympathize (the only thing worse is being told that they’ve assigned your idea to an intern). Keep in mind that we can’t protect or copyright ideas — only the actual written expression of an idea can be copyrighted. This editor did take the writer’s idea, which would have upset me as much as it did the colleague, but the writer might have been able to protect that idea with a slightly different query approach.

When I suggested not naming the subject of a pitch, the colleague said that editor asked for the person’s name, which I said would be tricky. I probably would have responded with something like, “I’d rather not reveal the person’s name until I have a contract or agreement to write the story, as either a Q&A or narrative profile.” Again, that could result in the editor deciding not to assign the story to you, in part because it could imply a lack of trust, but it does give you some protection against your pitch being hijacked.

A response to the final decision in such a situation could be something like, “I’m not comfortable with having my pitch adopted as an in-house project. This feels like theft.” Doing that is likely to mean never working with that editor/publication, but it can be satisfying. Maybe write the message and then delete it unsent …

Another option could have been: “I appreciate the explanation and understand your process now, but would like to receive recognition for providing this idea. Do you pay for ideas that you assign in-house?” The answer probably would be no, but the question could generate a small fee, or at least plant a seed in the editor’s mind about a fair way to handle such situations in the future.

Fellow writers with similar story ideas might consider describing the person you’d like to profile without revealing the subject’s actual name: “An alum who …” Although even that doesn’t always work: I did something along those lines several years ago and the editor both immediately guessed who I was talking about and gave the profile to a staffer. The pitch was about a prominent local person, so maybe not all that surprising that my description could have given away their identity, but I’m still annoyed several years later!

If the subject of your pitch is someone you know who might sympathize with your quest to write about them, you could ask them to tell editors that they will only work with you — but that could backfire as well. Some editors might react by banning you from their pages forever.

In the online conversation, a group member suggested responding to the editor with something along the lines of “Thank you for letting me know. Please keep me in mind for paying feature assignments.” That shows grace and keeps the communication lines open for the future. Then keep looking for other outlets for that idea!

When you have a story idea in the future, look at several recent issues of a publication you plan to query to see which types of articles are labeled as staff-written or have no bylines. Those are often handled in-house, so craft your query to fit a different type of article.

Most publications nowadays publish their editorial calendars — planned themes and topics for the year’s issues — at their websites. Before querying, go there to check whether your idea, or a version of it, is already scheduled. You might even be able to see that it’s already been assigned. If your idea fits a given issue or theme, craft your query to make your idea stand out from whatever is already planned.

If you have a profile in mind, maybe pitch the person’s professional association(s) instead of their university alumni association publication. Other potential markets would be the person’s hometown publication, current local publication, even high school alumni association instead of college (although high school ones are less likely to pay), etc.

Writer’s Market remains a useful guide to what many publications seek from freelance writers, and Writer’s Digest magazine is still a good resource for information about new publications and the writing field in general.

Pitching a story idea is always iffy. Most editors are honest and won’t steal your ideas, but it can happen. The best way to protect your unprotectable ideas is to craft queries that are as detailed as possible without giving away what’s needed to write piece, and showing why you’re the ideal writer for that piece. And don’t write an entire article without a formal assignment or contract — on speculation (spec) — because that’s asking for your work to be used without compensation.

How do you craft your queries to protect your ideas from being hijacked? If you’ve had an article idea stolen, how did you handle it?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or


April 24, 2017

The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap X

In The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap IX, I discussed the Enhanced Search, Count, and Replace (SCR) macro and how I use it while editing manuscript. This essay deals with inserting queries/comments into the manuscript during editing.

When I first began freelancing, a client (an in-house production editor) told me that as important as good editing skills are, even more important is how authors are queried. The reason, the editor said, is that when I speak to the author, I am speaking on behalf of the client. Of course, that got me thinking about comments and led me to the realization that comments are not only important as alerts to clients and authors about potential problems, but as a marketing tool for me. I wish I could say that I never let frustration with a manuscript or a client appear in comments I have inserted, but I can say that when the frustration appeared, I had made a conscious decision to let it appear.

Querying the author or the in-house editor or the compositor is usually done in one of two ways: (a) inserting the comment inline in the text or (b) inserting the comment as balloon text such as is done using Word’s Comment feature. Because time is money in my editorial business, I rely on EditTools’ Insert Query and Comment Editor macros to insert queries. (For this essay, “queries” and “comments” are used interchangeably and the one includes the other. The oft-stated distinction between the two terms is that a query asks a question whereas a comment makes a statement [e.g., “AQ: Is it OK/correct that I changed 1 to 2 to conform with the previous quantity?” is a query, whereas “Ed/COMP: This needs to be set in sans serif.” is a comment].) Insert Query lets you choose between inserting the comment as a Word comment (balloon text) or inline, as shown here (you can make an image in this essay larger by clicking on the image):

Choose method for inserting a query

I have repeatedly said that time is money when editing. My goal is to minimize the time I need to spend doing “routine” tasks and maximize the time I have available for actual editing. Prior to Insert Query, I had to keyboard every query, even if it was the same query, perhaps with some modification, as inserted a dozen times before in the manuscript. Keyboarding slowed me down considerably. Although I have become a fairly decent typist over the years, I still am neither a fast typist nor one with 100% accuracy. So, keyboarding a query longer than a few words took (takes) time — time for the original keyboarding and time to review that keyboarding and time to correct the errors in my keyboarding.

Using keyboard shortcuts sped up the process but was limited for many reasons. After a while it became difficult to remember all of my keyboard shortcuts — I had them for everything, not just for queries — and there was a limit to how many quickly accessible keyboard shortcuts I could create. I eventually kept a list of my keyboard shortcuts, but that wasn’t a panacea because as the list grew, I had to take the time to look up the shortcut. Also complicating the situation was when I needed to modify a query: the original query was written for Jones on Capitalistic Medicine and now needs to be modified for Smith on Mercy Medicine. These and other limitations and problems led to the Insert Query macro.

As the image below shows, using Insert Query I am able to store a large number of “standard” queries (#A in image; the count shows the number of saved queries for the Reference Queries tab [#1] only) and access them as I need them. To make it easier and quicker to access a query, I separate the queries into categories (#2) that I create. After selecting the category, I select the query (#3) I want to insert. The selected query appears in the “insert” windows (#4), where I can modify the query if necessary. In this example, there are three underscores that need to be replaced with the relevant information. It is in this field (#4) that I make the change, after which I click Insert to have the query inserted in the text as a balloon comment.

Selecting, modifying, & inserting a query

One of the tabs is a project-specific tab (#5 in the image below; all of the tabs work the same, so you can not only rename any of the tabs, but you can have multiple project-specific tabs). As is shown at #B, this tab has 104 available project-specific queries from which I can choose. What I do is copy a query that I need for a project from one of the other tabs and add it (clicking Add to add it to the dataset rather than Insert to add it to the document) to the project-specific dataset. When I am done with a project, I copy those queries that I specially created for the project and that did not come from another tab that I think will be usable for other projects to one of the other tabs.

Project-specific queries

Take a look at the query shown in the above image (#6). How many times would you like to type it? Once was enough for me. Yet look at the query. The query packs a lot of information and shows that I did my job. It tells both the client and the author that I am competent and knowledgeable. Most importantly, as several clients have commented on seeing this and similar queries, it tells the author that the client has selected a professional editor and that the client cares about the author’s book; it gives the author confidence in the quality of the editing and competency of the editor; and it confirms to the client that a wise choice was made when I was selected to edit the book. In other words, it acts as a marketing tool.

It is easy to “perfect” a query when you only have to think of it once and only have to keyboard it once. In addition, it is easy, with a tool like Insert Query, to maintain a library of queries. Because I can create as many categories as I want (#7), I can organize the queries into logical groups that make finding the right query quick.

I use Insert Query to insert every comment that gets inserted in a manuscript. Even if I do not have the exact query I want in a dataset, I have found that using Insert Query to modify an existing comment or to create a new comment works best for me. Using Insert Query gives me the opportunity to add the revised or new query to my dataset without having to enter it twice.

Remember that the idea is to create the wheel once and reuse it, not recreate it each time. Comments can be time-consuming. Insert Query saves me time, thus making me more profitable; even a savings of just a few seconds per query can add up over time to a significant increase in profit. Additionally, Insert Query reduces the number of embarrassing typing mistakes that are made, thereby making me look more professional.

Sometimes a comment needs to be modified, deleted, or reviewed. The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap XI discusses how I use Comment Editor when I need to access an already inserted comment.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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