Chris Higgins on how to trade up great story ideas

higginsOnce you’ve broken into a magazine or website and produced a steady flow of articles, where do you go from there? How can you capitalize on a killer idea beyond selling it to a magazine? These are questions many mid-career journalists ponder. Chris Higgins, a contributor to publications including Mental Floss and The Atlantic, offers a formula for “trading up” in his new Kindle book The Blogger Abides. The Portland, Ore.-based freelancer points to writers like Joshuah Bearman, whose 2007 article for Wired inspired the movie Argo, as examples of successful “trade ups” from print to other mediums where the writer gets paid at each step (assuming they haven’t signed away their rights).

In Higgins’ own case, he parlayed an article on neuroscience into a story about an obscure medical condition for This American Life and sold movie options to a fictionalized version of the radio story. Ebyline recently chatted with Higgins about how other freelance journalists can “trade up” their own stories. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us about the genesis of your story for This American Life.

My editor at Mental Floss Magazine asked me to write a one-pager about what happens to the brain when you experience happiness, so I asked around and got the number of a researcher. I called him up with my 20 questions about the neuroscience of the brain. Like, what’s up with dopamine and how do drugs work?

He interrupted me and said, “the most interesting thing I’ve ever come across is a condition called narcolepsy with cataplexy where the brain goes into REM sleep and you collapse. The primary trigger of this is strong positive emotions like happiness or love.” I asked it he’d ever encountered a patient with that condition and it turns out, he had one of the worst cases in the world. “My trigger is happiness,” he told me, “so I’ve learned to avoid all positive emotion in my life.”

I thought it was going to be perfect for This American Life so I asked around and it turned out I knew people who knew people who got me in the door. I talked to Josh Bearman, who is doing really well right now because he wrote the Wired article that Argo was based on. Josh is probably five or ten years ahead of me on the career track and he told me how he writes a story in one medium and then sells the movie rights to make a living.

When do you know it’s time to “trade up” as you call it?

In the moment I’ve seen a story I’ve just had this gut feeling that if I am interested and excited by a topic, I know that other people will be interested in it, too. Writers should really trust that feeling. As soon as I called up the interview subject, I just knew. He had such a challenging life story and such an interesting perspective on life and love. This is the kind of thing we see in movies, the kind of thing we talk about.

The criteria for moving to other mediums is that the story has to be emotional and it has to be surprising. I tend to go for the stuff that is a little bit tear-jerky because I think that’s really universally relatable and people care about it. The topics here were sleep and love, which are universal human things. It’s not a guy doing exotic basket weaving in Tanzania. He was a man trying to live a life with his wife and navigate the waters of sleeping properly and being in love, and that’s so universal.

Another example of “trading up” you mentioned in the book is when you wrote a three-part series on your own sleep apnea instead of writing a single post about it. Do you think that part of the successful trade-up formula is having an editor who gives you the freedom to do that?

I think the editor relationship is really crucial. It’s been different with every editor, and at Mental Floss my relationship with Jason English, the web editor is that he gives me the freedom to experiment. Believe me, I’ve flopped a lot, but it averages out. I’m working on a big magazine story about my sleep apnea now. [Ed. note: Higgins also researched a book proposal but decided after reading other books on sleep that he didn't have many new insights to add.] Having a trust relationship with your editor is crucial, and frankly the best editor relationships I’ve had have been things where I show up, I do good work and they begin to trust me because I did good work. Then other editors at the publication trust me because the first one did.

You’ve written about some obscure topics. How detailed is your research before you actually pitch the story?

It varies pretty widely, but the thing I want to know before I pitch something is what is the possible story here. Are they willing to talk to me? Is there something there? And then, I typically try to sell the story, but I don’t want to spin too many wheels in the process.

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.