Getting from Theme to Article: Advice from a Theme Junkie
by Fiona Bayrock     Copyright 2005

I love themes. They're responsible for many interesting bulges in my clip file.  Themes tell me what subjects editors are looking for, when they're looking for them, when my articles will be published, and when I'll be paid for them---all things that get this magazine writer rubbing her hands together in glee.  However, a theme does not a query make. does one take a theme and turn it into a saleable article idea?

Get a Handle on the Subject
Coming up with an article idea within a theme is much easier if you have a good understanding of what the theme entails.  One of the best ways I've found to get a quick "big picture" view of a subject area, is to browse through children's books on the topic. They're designed to serve as a first introduction using a limited word count, so you get a good thumbnail sketch of the basics without having to wade through a lot of text. You can find nuggets of ideas this way, too, often buried in sidebars, charts, or asides.  With additional research (from adult sources, of course!), such incidental information can be fleshed out to make great magazine articles.

Look to the Magazine
To help narrow the theme down, go to the magazine, itself.  Read several issues. 

  • Consider the type of magazine, and zero in on the same focus.  For example, since Calliope is a world history magazine, Faces is about culture, and Odyssey covers science, a "music" theme for each should get you thinking in very different directions.  

  • Sometimes a little blurb in the published theme list gives insight into where the editor is going with the theme.  It's helpful, but I know I'm not the only author seeing these blurbs, so I use them as guidelines only.  I rarely go with something that's listed.  Instead, I tend to choose a narrower aspect of the suggested topics, or something closely related.

  • Notice how the themes play out in the magazine.  How much of each issue is historical, scientific, contemporary, biographical, activity-based?  If you never come across a biography article, for example, it's probably not a good type of article to query for that magazine.  

  • Rate article topics on a scale of 1 to 10, with "narrowest" on one end and "broadest" on the other.  Do you see a pattern? 

Think "fresh" and "unusual" 
Within each theme, editors usually aim for a balance between:

     1) Basic information - to give readers a core knowledge base on the subject. 
     2) Spice - unusual aspects of the subject that are fun, cool to know, or surprising.   

Since every editor strives to publish material readers have never seen before, when you query on something basic, look for ways to make it fresh.  Come at the topic from a new angle, or handle the 'same old same old' with a twist.  Generally, though, I avoid the basics.  I figure editors are more likely to receive multiple queries on the core knowledge topics, so I focus my queries on the unusual side.  I try to come up with a narrow slice of theme that capitalizes on the "Cool!" or "Ew!" aspects of the subject---something that I hope will make the editor say, "Wow!  That's amazing. We've got to include that."  Reading online press releases or plunking key phrases into Google often results in unusual tidbits that haven't made it widely into books or print media yet. 

Ask Questions
In looking for a good idea, I often ponder the theme while driving, waiting for kids or appointments, or dropping off to sleep. What do I find interesting?  What about the theme tickles my fancy?  What questions do I have?  What would *I* love to know about this subject?  Simply following my own curiosity often leads to interesting article ideas.  A writer's enthusiasm is catching.  Passion shows in the writing.  Put it to work for you as often as possible.

The Evening News
The news is a great source of ideas.  Write up a list of themes you want to write about and for which magazines.  Read it often to keep the themes in your head.  Then as ideas cross your path, you'll be able to pluck the ones that fit the themes.  When Odyssey was looking for queries for its "fragile frogs" issue, my local evening news was abuzz about alien bullfrogs invading local ponds and wetlands.  Frogs are declining the world over for lots of reasons; frogs eating frogs is a small contributor to that---a perfect slice of theme. The advantage of plucking an idea from the news is that usually little has been written about it in popular magazines, and editors love new material that hasn't been done to death. 

Editors love activities, but they never get enough of them.  This is a great type of article to pitch to theme, particularly if the theme leans toward the theoretical (engineering design), or is about something far removed from most kids' day-to-day life (another planet or a time period long past).  What can you build out of household stuff that will demonstrate some facet of the theme?  Get kids simulating, experimenting, and trying things for themselves.  Designing an original activity is best, but you can also find one---the more uncommon, the better---and make it your own by changing some of the materials and writing new instructions. 

The "Info" Files
I collect information that interests me---newspaper/magazine clippings, press releases, odd facts, etc.  I have files full of quirky stuff.  If I'm stuck for an article idea, I go through my info files to see if anything related to the theme surfaces.  It often does.   

So, get hooked on themes and watch your clip file bulge.  A little detective work, some creative thinking, and a dash of curiosity will get you from theme to article in no time.  Now...where's that theme list?

Fiona Bayrock is the author of BUBBLE HOMES AND FISH FARTS (Charlesbridge) and several other quirky science books for kids. Her news items, activities, and feature articles have appeared regularly in YES Mag, Odyssey, WILD, Highlights for Children and several educational databases.  She is constantly in search of the "Aha!", clever puns, and her coffee. This article first appeared on, October 2005.


2005 Fiona Bayrock  Art 2005 Ruth McNally Barshaw
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