2 Simple Ways to Become That Writer With a Million Story Ideas

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.

 

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30 comments on “2 Simple Ways to Become That Writer With a Million Story Ideas
  1. daniel says:

    Huh Boy!!!

    This post really kicked me in and I really gained some insights on how to find topic Ideas for my Freelance Blog.

    Thanks so much for this inspirational post.
    Daniel

  2. Anita says:

    Great post, Carol! The trend known as “newsjacking” is similar to this, but I like your take on things even better.

    Thanks!

    Anita

  3. Ruchira says:

    wow! Thank you, very useful blog.
    Funny, but true these days I get my ideas from facebook.
    what more than one person has shared concern about in the society, about life, on politics or sports is the material you wanna develop and send as a pitch. :)) hahaha :)

  4. I haven no shortage of ideas—my problem is finding the right angle to pitch them from. Right now I’ve been stewing over the same idea for a week or so, trying to find a good angle to pitch a magazine that responded to my LOI. I know there’s a match up there (creative topic for a creative mag) but just can’t seem to hit on the right angle.

    Advice?
    Melissa Breau recently posted..Creating Characters from Scratch

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ask for help from the Den community, I say! That’s what the forums are for.

      Usually if I read the pub, I can see what they haven’t covered yet where my idea would fill a gap.

  5. Reading more and more articles daily makes me a better freelance writer and it is very interesting that you find it as a way to get story ideas..When I read more articles I understand how to write on different topics and how I can become a better writer writing on various different subjects……

    Another way which you have mentioned is talking with people to get better ideas. Yes, I do talk with many people daily and I get to learn different things from all of them….

    Carol I am learning many things from you too but I have still not got a chance to interact with you…Will be hoping to see your mail soon….
    Techboy Rocky recently posted..Tablets which you can buy within Rs8000

  6. Amandah says:

    I get my story ideas from my family, local news, TV, magazines, books, shoppers, etc. My family’s been the BIGGEST story generator for me. Since I’ve moved back to my home state, I developed a screenplay based on my sister’s work experience (I can’t say what it is). I’m developing another screenplay based on my family’s situation (half-hour TV comedy). I have a ton of parenting articles I can pitch, especially for parents parenting teenagers. I have a ton of parenting articles. The list goes on and on. Moving back to my home state has proven to be a HOT BED of story ideas.
    Amandah recently posted..Exhausted? How to Grow Your Blog without SEO and Social Media

  7. Dave says:

    Hi Carol,

    I got a lot from this post,your list of questions to ask while reading went straight into my notebook.

    So useful, thanks.
    Dave recently posted..a brief history of trees

    • Carol Tice says:

      Cool! It’s like a switch that flips, when you go from being a passive reader to one using reading material to troll for ideas. Once you get in the habit, it just happens naturally. You think, but, what about the elections? How will that affect this trend? And wheels start to spin…

  8. Good ideas here. Thanks for posting.

    My problem isn’t usually a shortage of ideas. My problem is not being able to find enough time to sit and write down all the ideas I have!
    Mishael Austin Witty recently posted..One Amazing Free Book Promotion Tool

  9. Carol,

    I look for ideas in everything I read, TV/movies. news and even overheard conversations in coffee shops and restaurants.

    Recently I accepted a friend’s invitation to attend an astronomy lecture on the dark matter universe. Even though the content was over my head and definitely outside my area of expertise, it stretched my mind to try to grasp the points and research the speaker shared. Fortunately he was a lively and humorous presenter. I know that this lecture is going to trigger ideas and analogies I can use in future articles.

    I especially like your tip of looking for unreported stories hidden among numbers or other information. Those are treasures just waiting for the picking.

    Thank you.
    Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. recently posted..Are You a Lunatic to Think Your Headlines Should Be Tweet-Worthy?

  10. Pinar Tarhan says:

    Even though I usually consider myself the queen of brainstorming, I occasionally get stuck. And while I study the articles on a lot of magazines for ideas, I’m ashamed to admit I forget to ask half of the questions on the “read widely” list. As for talking to people, I definitely need to do more of that.

    Thanks for giving us new exercises to create ideas. Lack of them is one of the most frustrating things ever!!!
    Pinar Tarhan recently posted..Paying to Guest Post vs. Getting Paid for Your Guest Posts

  11. I believe Den is giving you a deeper insight into the common issues faced by newbies, right? And this post reminds me of one of your posts I really keep going back to: 50 can’t-fail techniques to find great blog ideas :)
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..The Ultimate Guide To Skyrocketing Your Freelance Writing Rates

  12. as usual… a masterpiece of an article that is “money in the bank” for anyone reading it that is willing to put it into practice.

  13. Terr says:

    I FINALLY got to read this post. I thought I was the only one with a bizillion back emails to read, lol. I’m an idea machine but as I’m just learning the ropes, I don’t have the contacts for my stories. Heck, I’m just now learning how to write a query letter! However, I have stickies and note cards that I jot my ideas down on. Now, I just need to get the hang of the query letter and find markets for my ideas. Very overwhelming, yet exciting.

    Here’s something I do, and maybe you guys can chime in. I get subscriptions to magazines that are of personal interest to me. When I find an article that resonates with me or that touches me, I mark it with a sticky or colored tab tape. My aim is to create an article based upon the same topic, but produced using my “voice” or spin on the topic. This isn’t plagiarism at all. An book author mentioned that there are many topics out there that are “evergreen”. How often do we read weight loss articles at the beginning of the year? Tax articles after that? So on and so forth. Some topics will simply never go out of style.

    Or, I look at things like selling Coca Cola and Pepsi. They are both carbonated cola drinks, but they appeal to VERY DIFFERENT consumers and fans. There are over 6 billion people in the world, which means that there will always be room for someone’s unique take on similar topics.

  14. Amanda says:

    Thanks for your ideas. Playing off of your “read widely,” I’m very inspired by what I would call “experience widely.” Actually an idea I’m developing into an article! I try to participate in activities that aren’t on the common to-do list (having teenagers helps accomplish this). For instance, attending a Mumford and Sons camping stopover concert this summer (at my daughter’s request) provided the idea for a blog post called “5 Things This Folk Rock Band Has that Your Business Should Have” as well as a paid article for the online magazine Think Christian about our mother/daughter inter-generational concert experience. Engaging in new activities not only provides ideas, it stimulates the part of you that gets caught in the rut of the “normal.”

  15. Terri H says:

    Bouncing of your talking to people idea, I’d add joining online forums. I am a member of several online forums filled with people I consider my target audience or my publication’s of choice “target audience.” By paying attention to the threads that they post and what people comment on, I get an idea of what really makes that specific group tick. Next thing I know, I’m churning out another pitch!
    Terri H recently posted..What You Can Learn from Your 6-year old Self

  16. Rich says:

    I get story ideas by simply looking around everywhere I go. There’s details in everything. Each brick in a building has its own creation.

  17. Great information. I have always enjoyed the articles you share.
    wendy mccance recently posted..Incredible Amount of Useful Information

  18. Anne says:

    I try to go through my magazine and newspaper pile each week for ideas, and even if I can’t get to them by the end of the week, I always have a conversation with someone who stirs up a new worthy topic.

  19. Anne says:

    I go through my magazine and newspaper pile each week for ideas, and even if I don’t use the stories for a potential article, I always have a conversation with someone who stirs up a news worthy topic.

  20. If I don’t use my past experiences, I normally take two opposite concepts and try to make a post out of that. For example, how does walking your dog help you with backpacking around the world? or something to that effect.
    Sarah Li Cain recently posted..Does It Really Take 21 Days to Form a Habit?

  21. Hi Carol. This is my first time on your blog and this post was dead on. I feel like I am in the same boat as you though when it comes to idea-creation; I seem to have too many. Sometimes they flood my mind so much that I can’t seem to remember them all.

    In a blog post I wrote recently I mentioned to my readers that “people watching” is one of my golden ways to come up with ideas. People can provide a lot of humor or mystery if you just watch them and talk to them.

    Another way I love to come up with ideas is by playing the “what-if” game. This doesn’t work for all forms of writing but for novelists, this technique is able to break through some of the toughest writer’s blocks.

    Thanks for the post and for adding a couple more tactics to my arsenal of idea creation.

    Best of luck on your writing.
    Jason McColly recently posted..How to Come Up With Story Ideas

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