You have an idea! That’s great. It’s the start of a beautiful journey where you research and write your way to an expert level of awesomeness.
You jot down some notes, think about people you want to interview, and maybe even make an outline.
And then you open up your favorite newspaper, blog, or magazine: Right there, in shining block letters, is your awesome idea in print.
We’ve all experienced this feeling of despair, seeing someone else write about our idea. Especially if you were so sure that your idea was original. You might feel like you can’t ever write about that idea because someone else got to it first.
I know it sucks when you see someone else write about your great idea before you get a chance, but it happens. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun; this is, after all, a universe with 157 reboots of Spider-Man.
So what do you do when someone else gets to your idea first? Let’s talk about a few strategies that you can use to keep your idea in play — or maybe even come up with a better idea.
All of this advice starts with one important process: Take a step back. Take a deep breath. Recognize that the universe does not hate you.
It feels like that sometimes, I know. It seems like a lot of emphasis is placed on writers having super creative — but also super original — ideas, especially if you’re writing online.
We’re all under a lot of pressure to create original ideas for our writing. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t want it to look like you plagiarized. If you’re writing copy, you don’t want to put up the same tagline as another product. If you’re writing a blog, you want to be recognized by your readers and Google alike as putting out the best, most original articles.
But it’s more than just needing to not copy what’s already out there. We also get attached to our ideas — they’re more than our personal intellectual property, they’re bits of our heart and soul put into words. So when you see someone else write about that same idea, it feels like a missed opportunity or a failure on your part.
When someone else writes about your idea, there are a few things you should do. First, think of it like this: You have proof your idea was good because someone else came up with it, too. And someone published it. So, yay for you, you good idea-haver!
Second, try to stop thinking of it as someone “taking” your idea. Great minds really do think alike, and it’s possible for two people on different sides of the country (or city, for that matter) to have what amounts to the same idea. (I’m sure there’s something in quantum mechanics that can explain the phenomenon.)
Third, be flexible. Good advice for writing, Twister, and life in general. Just because someone else wrote about the thing you wanted to write about doesn’t mean you can’t also write about it. You might choose to forge ahead and write about your idea as you had envisioned or you might try a few strategies to tweak your idea.
Once you’ve gotten your chill back and you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to pull your idea apart. Look at the different components of the idea with an eye to how you might repurpose the idea. Ask yourself these questions:
Once you break down your idea, you can choose a strategy on how to proceed.
One strategy when someone else writes about your idea first is to keep going — but do it better.
“Better” is a subjective word, so when you decide to make your article better, also decide what that specifically means to you. Is it more organized? Does it give more tangible information or advice? Is it longer, shorter, written entirely in iambic pentameter?
There are lots of examples of similar ideas hitting the market at the same time, and the first idea out there isn’t always the best or the most successful one. If you look at the world of technology, the first product to market isn’t always the idea that survives. Remember Betamax? Netscape? PalmPilots?
It’s the same when it comes to writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Movies are a great example. Every year, it seems that there are two blockbuster movies that have roughly the same premise or setting, and everyone wonders how two different studios came up with basically the same idea.
One of those movies probably did better than the other. One of those movies probably was better than the other. (They’re not always the same movie.)
One of my favorite examples is the summer movie showdown between a movie in which an asteroid is headed for the Earth and a movie in which a comet is headed for the Earth. In both, an intrepid band of astronauts has to launch on space shuttles to save the world. Both have civilians with some expertise thrown into the story. And both have a love story embedded.
So, want to know how to do the same idea but better? It takes a little research and thought.
Take the other piece of work, and give it a critical look. Does it miss anything? Only cover points A and B? Is it too short, too long, too verbose?
What can you do better? Can you write something more comprehensive, or something that’s crisper and cleaner? Is there other research you can include, or another point that you can make?
Once you analyze the other piece of writing, decide what you can do to improve on that work, and then get going.
Babylon 5 versus Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Timeless versus Time After Time. CSI versus NCIS. NCIS: Los Angeles versus NCIS: New Orleans.
Every subject has multiple lenses by which it can be viewed. Going back to Hollywood, we see it every new TV season: multiple shows using the same basic concept, but with a different spin. Some of those concepts work, and some don’t, because not every perspective resonates with every audience.
Not every reader is going to agree with the perspective of the person who wrote about your idea first (just like not every reader is going to agree with your perspective).
Speak to the readers who might not like or agree with the first perspective. Find the different spin.
How do you figure out the alternate perspective? Go back to thinking about your original idea. What did you like about it, and how did the idea make you feel? Look at your answers and figure out how you can turn your perspective upside down.
Some questions you can ask to help you find a different perspective are:
Finding another perspective isn’t always about creating a debate, either. You can write about another perspective without tearing down the first one, or even without disagreeing at all.
You can keep the integrity of your original idea but do it justice by writing about it from a different perspective.
We’re all in this together, people. There are a hundred different ways to look at a subject. Find one of them, and go for it.
No matter how good your original idea was, if someone else writes about it, you don’t want to write the exact same thing, even if you change every “happy” to “glad.”
So take a critical look at your original idea, and then look for the idea right next to it.
If your original idea was how the school lunch policy in your city is affecting test scores, look at the same thing in another city. Or look at it county-wide. Or look at whether or not the school has a similar policy for breakfast and how that affects test scores.
In concept, looking at the adjacent idea is similar to finding a different perspective, but really, it’s about taking one big step outside the circle of your original idea instead of turning your idea upside down and shaking it around.
Think of it as a Venn diagram. Your idea is one of the circles, so what’s the other one? What shows up in the overlapping middle?
One advantage of using the adjacent idea is that some of your original research and outline may still work. You’re not drastically changing your idea, just shifting the neighborhood.
Sometimes, shifting neighborhoods won’t be enough, and you’ll need to use the original idea as a jumping-off point for a new destination altogether.
Part of the world of fan fiction is building on someone else’s idea. Actually, that’s pretty much the definition of fan fiction — take someone else’s world and build on it.
I’ve seen missing scenes, what should have happened, alternate universe scenarios, same plot but with a new original character … all of these stories are written because the author used the original idea as a springboard.
So, if someone writes about the thing you were thinking of, how can you use that as inspiration?
I’ve written about my love of the “below decks” trope before, but it works here, too. If your idea was to tell a story about a main character (the ship’s captain), then find someone else to be the main character (the night janitor).
In recent movies and TV series, the inspiration for telling the same story in a different way has come from gender-swapping. Sometimes it works (Starbuck, in Battlestar Galactica), sometimes it doesn’t (Ghostbusters, and yeah, it kills me to say that).
But the idea holds for more than just gender-swapping. Set it in another city or another century. Introduce another character or take one away. Instead of turning your idea upside down, like you would to change perspectives, finding new inspiration out of your original idea is more like using it as a trampoline. Bounce that idea around, and let it propel you up and out to a new idea.
If you’re writing something factual, you might not have as much flexibility to add “characters” or set your article in an alternate universe, but you can use the original article as a jumping-off point. Did that article make you ask questions? If so, that’s your new starting point.
For example, if your original idea was to look at why some farms don’t pursue organic labeling for their crops, write as if the crops themselves were explaining why it’s better that way.
As Kenny Rogers said, “You got to know when to fold ‘em.” Sometimes, you have to give up on an idea.
You’re not going to write about every idea you have. If Time-Turners were real, maybe, but we can’t all be wizards with a magical talisman that lets us manage time travel.
And, yes, from time to time, someone is going to write about your idea better than you could.
One way to think of it is that you have a twin out there, someone who thinks and writes like you do, and if you ever meet, you’re probably going to get along great. Or you’re going to be matter and antimatter, and your meeting will destroy the universe. Either way, it’ll be good fun.
But giving up now doesn’t mean you have to give up permanently. Keep an idea file. You might use Google Docs to start a new document for each idea, or you might create a card on Trello to categorize and track them.
Come back to those ideas occasionally. What’s changed, and how do you think about the topic now?
You can even write that into a strategic plan of sorts. If you know the topic you want to write about is in a changing field (which seems like most everything these days), take some time to brainstorm what someone might write about on that topic six months from now. Then set an alarm to write about it five months from now.
Remember, writing topics are a little like clothing fashions: Everything old is new again at some point. If bell bottoms and fringe can make a comeback, the idea that you give up on now could be a great one a few years down the road.
Do you mention the other article with your original idea? The answer is a definitive “maybe.”
It depends on if it helps or adds to whatever you’re writing. Like anything you write online, you may want to link to another article to help illustrate a concept, build a connection with another author or website, or add evidence to your argument.
So think before you link. If your goal is to try to convince readers that you had the idea first, don’t add that link, please; if your writing is strong enough to stand on its own, then you don’t need to convince anyone of anything.
There may not be an infinite number of ideas out there, but there are an infinite number of ways to combine them, ways to think about them, or conclusions to draw from them. If someone writes about the same idea you had, don’t despair.
Instead of completely tossing your idea, take a deep breath and a step back. Then:
Then figure out a way to put your idea back together and go for it.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.