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.
So...how does one take a theme and turn it into a saleable
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.
to the Magazine
To help narrow the theme down, go to the magazine, itself.
Read several issues.
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.
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.
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.
article topics on a scale of 1 to 10, with "narrowest" on
one end and "broadest" on the other.
Do you see a pattern?
"fresh" and "unusual"
Within each theme, editors usually aim for a balance between:
1) Basic information - to give readers a core knowledge base on
Spice - unusual aspects of the subject that are fun, cool to
know, or surprising.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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
She is constantly in
search of the "Aha!", clever puns, and her coffee.
This article first appeared on kidmagwriters.com, October 2005.