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Miles Kington

Miles Kington Remembered: Stuck for an idea? Then why not recycle some old ones?

23 August 1999

Many students who fail to get into university will be tempted to opt for freelance journalism instead, and today's piece gives you specific advice on how to forge ahead in that field. It's quite easy, really. All you have to know is what subjects editors most like articles about. And all you have to do to find that out, is go back over the past 40 years of general interest magazines and newspaper feature pages, seeing which the most common articles are. Luckily for you, I have already done that, so here is a complete list of the Top Feature Ideas in British Journalism of all time. Please cut it out and use it as often as possible.

1. The Things that Live on Our Bodies: We all know this article. It is decorated by photographs of things that look like giant prawns going through a thicket of toothpicks, but which turn out to be tiny organisms in our hair. The writer says that under the microscope our scalp, body hair, eyebrows, and bed clothes contain enough moving objects to invade Afghanistan. The word "mites" crops up quite often, and so does "jungle".

2. Look at the Back of Your Wardrobe – That Little Black Dress may be Back in Fashion! Self-explanatory: one of of a family of articles, all with titles like "The Fortune in Your Attic", or "It Might be an Old 78 to You, but to Someone Else it's a Collector's Item!"

3. Go On – You can Do It Yourself! Readers love to be urged to do things for themselves. They love the idea that some commercial process can actually be done in their own home for half the price, twice the effect and four times the effort. They love to be told that it is quite possible to make their own bread, smoke their own food, make their own pasta, make their own jam, make their own Christmas presents, and so on – and they even cut these articles out and keep them. What they never do is go ahead and do it themselves – they just like to cut the article out and keep it. (I myself once cut out an article on how to make my own sloe gin, and I actually went ahead and made sloe gin! I've had it sitting in a decanter for two years now. I really must try it.)

4. I Came Through the Hell of Exams: By its very nature, this is an article that only a young person can write - indeed, I believe many people actually get into journalism by selling a paper their harrowing account of the nightmare of A-levels, and that some are even tempted, on selling this first piece, to give up their university place and stick with journalism. Don't be silly. You may never have read a piece called "How I Entered the Hell of Journalism", but that's only because papers don't print pieces like that.

5. Put the Romance Back into Your Relationship! I can't bear to spell out the grim details of this, but the words "candle-lit", "personal rediscovery" and "a deux" should figure strongly.

6. She was Born Diana Fluck: This used to be one of the commonest of all articles, the one that revealed what film stars were really called, and what modest beginnings they all had. Some of them, like Tony Curtis, not only had modest beginnings but unpronounceable original names. It was from one of these articles that I first learnt that Stewart Granger's real name was actually James Stewart, a name he couldn't use because James Stewart was already using it. Nowadays film stars have a distressing habit of not changing their name – can you imagine a pre-war star called Arnold Schwarzenegger? – so it may be too late for this idea to figure. But there are always singers, of course – such as Cliff Richard (Herry Webb) and Elton John (Reg Dwight).

7. There's Still Time to Get Ready for Summer! The real name for this article should be "Get Rid of that Horrible Flab before You Dare to Disrobe on the Beach": but it comes to the same thing. There is a sister piece called "Countdown till Christmas", which does not, oddly enough, advise you to put all that weight back on again as a protection against winter cold, only how to make punch and organise turkey cooking.

8. Great Mouthwatering Picnic Ideas! These pieces are lovely to read, even if nobody ever attempts the grand recipes in them, being daunted by the glamourous photos that go with them. Even if you know nothing about picnics, you can always get the ideas from other pieces on picnics. Where do you think cookery writers get their ideas from, for heaven's sake?