Here’s a situation that is the terror of every magazine writer:
You send a query letter to an editor.
She doesn’t want your story idea — “We’ve already got a similar topic in the works,” she tells you — but your query showed you can write and that you understand the publication.
They’d like to work with you.
“Can you please pitch me some more ideas?” the editor asks.
And your heart sinks to the floor.
Because you don’t have any more appropriate ideas for this magazine handy. That one was it.
By the time you come up with a few more ideas that would fit that particular magazine, months have rolled by.
Now, you’re embarrassed at how long it took you to find more ideas. You wonder if the editor will even remember extending this offer.
You feel awkward.
So you don’t send them in. You never contact that editor again.
You’ve frittered away a great opportunity to break in at a new publication because you don’t have story ideas.
The heartbreak of the dry story-idea well
I have probably heard this story a dozen times, from a dozen different writers.
It’s really sad to see a big break slip away like that.
This is not helping you earn more, when you blow big chances to move your career forward.
The good news: I have the opposite problem — too many story ideas. So I can help you out with curing your idea drought.
In my years as a beat reporter, I learned to cultivate the habit of developing many ideas.
When I became a freelancer, I discovered that story-idea habit was golden here, too.
Do you know what the currency is around here?
Story ideas are the coin of the realm
That’s right, story ideas are the ATM of freelance writing. Story ideas can make the gates of your dream magazine swing open to you.
It is your responsibility to develop many ideas on many topics, so that you are ready to hop on opportunities.
That idea pile allows you to be the hero when your editor calls and says, “Ugh, I need three stories about taxes for the April issue…do you have any ideas?” And you do.
If you’re not developing ideas, you’re not serious about earning well as an article writer. Just being frank here.
How can you find a lot of story ideas? Here are two simple habits to cultivate that will have you swimming in ideas:
1) Read widely
Any time I meet a writer who’s baffled on how to develop story ideas, I ask them what they’re reading. I usually get a blank look.
I read — or I should say quickly skim and analyze — dozens and dozens of sources every week, from daily papers and monthly magazines to online blogs and e-newsletters.
I currently have a backlog of more than 200 emails of reading material waiting for a free moment.
The trick is not just reading, but questioning what you read. As you skim along, ask questions like:
- What is likely to happen next in this issue or trend?
- Why is this happening? What underlying trends are newsworthy?
- How will this affect various industries, or types of people — retirees, college students, etc.?
- What question did this story fail to answer?
- Where else is this happening?
- What other publications have readers who need to know about this?
- What else do I know about this topic that might shed new light on this issue?
These questions may give rise to tangential, new stories, or suggest new types of publications that might want the topic for their readers.
As ideas come to you, jot them down right away. Don’t worry about whether they are fully grown or just little seeds of future ideas.
Don’t censor yourself. Write it down. Save links or tear out stories and file them, so you can reread the story later.
Once you have many thoughts in your story file, you can begin to connect some dots.
You might see that two of your ideas go together and become one fresh idea when considered together.
Or maybe you spin an already released piece of data a new way. That’s what I did recently for my Forbes blog, when I saw a fresh report on the 100 largest fast-food chains and spotted an unreported story buried in the numbers — many of the chain leaders were still closing restaurants, 4 years into the recession.
Take an existing story and give it a half-twist, and you often have a fascinating new one.
2) Talk to people
Want to get ahead of the news cycle and come up with a really fresh idea? Start talking to people.
One of the easiest ways to crank up the idea machine is to schmooze an interview source at the end of your chat for one article. Ask them:
- What was the hot topic in your industry at the latest conference?
- What didn’t I ask you about on this subject that you’d like to discuss?
- What are the important trends you see coming in the next year?
- What are you doing next?
- What key issues do you think the media are overlooking in your field?
Often, sources are happy to talk for publication on any topic — but they have their own pet topics and projects. Pick their brain a little, and you’ll rarely leave the interview without at least one new idea.
Short of that, put up your antennae and start eavesdropping. Listen to what people are upset about, excited about, what’s worrying them.
It could be your parents, or your kids, or your neighbors, the ladies you play cards with or the conversation in the men’s locker room. Put your ear to the ground and find out what’s going on.
Then, add it to your idea files and see where it fits.
Increase, reuse, recycle
Final tip: I’ve talked to loads of writers who think if they’ve seen an idea in one publication, it’s dead and can no longer be used. Not true.
Often, you’ll see a hot idea appear just about everywhere — every major magazine and TV station will cover it. It just needs a slightly new angle, a new audience, a news update, one new study or fact to turn it into a new idea again.
If the publication you have in mind doesn’t compete directly with the one where you saw it, pitch away.
Where do you get story ideas? Leave a comment and share your tips.