Need Story Ideas? 20 Free Online Tools to Fire Up Your Brain

Find Story Ideas With These 20 Online Tools. Makealivingwriting.comIf you want to write for magazines, story ideas are your bread and butter.

The days when big editorial staffs thought up most of the ideas and simply assigned them out to freelance writers are over. Instead, these days overworked editors are looking to their writers to tell them what’s fresh and interesting out there.

You want to be the writer with a million story ideas, to earn well.

Despite this, I often hear from writers that they’re stymied because they have no ideas.

Let’s fix this! Once you know how to troll for ideas, it becomes a fun hobby. Get out your favorite tracking software, whether it’s an app like Pocket, an Excel spreadsheet, or (like me) just a plain ol’ Word doc, and start developing your idea-finding skills.

These days, you don’t even have to leave the house to come up with a lot of great ideas, because so many online tools can help stimulate your brain.

Ready to fire up your computer and find some great ideas? Here’s my list of creative idea-finding tools (in alphabetical order):

1. BuzzSumo

This is a fun site for spying on competitors, and seeing what’s getting the most traffic on a particular topic. Just pop a site name or keyword into BuzzSumo‘s big search-engine box, and see what you get. The free level will get you a dozen results on a topic.screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-4-11-25-pm

2. Digg

Using a site such as Digg, that’s curating what’s hot online, can really be a timesaver. Once you sign up, you can customize what Digg will email you about, or use Digg Deeper to get notices about the most-shared stories from your own Twitter timeline to help you quickly zoom in on interesting topics.

3. Diggbot

Don’t have time to poke around on Digg? Me neither. But you don’t have to visit this content-curation site yourself to learn what’s hot.

I use Slack to communicate with my team, and discovered there’s a Diggbot that will pop a digest of hot headlines onto your Slack thread each morning. You can also add the Diggbot to Amazon Alexa or to Facebook messaging.

Here’s a look at the little digest it delivers to my Slack each day:

diggbot

Click into one of those entries, and you get Digg’s daily Morning Edition, full of tasty popular stories:

digg-morning-edition

4. E-newsletters

You subscribe to these — you know you do. At one point, I had a cache of more than 100 of these babies, sitting in my email inbox waiting to be read!

There are many ways to troll your e-news for ideas, including simply scanning all the subject lines you get. If you read through those emails, ask yourself about how the topic of that e-newsletter could be developed into a feature story, a guest blog post, or some other format.

5. Facebook Groups

Facebook Groups are a great place to ask questions, gather facts, find sources, and watch trends on any topic you’re looking to write about. For instance, hanging out in a self-publisher’s Facebook group helped me identify several good topics for posts on the challenges of self-publishing and making sales on Amazon, including this one.

6. Google+

If you’re like me, you haven’t been spending a lot of time on here lately to leave posts or share things. But Google+ is definitely still a great place to brainstorm ideas. Click on ‘Collections’ to get some quick topics you can browse, join Communities to eavesdrop on topic-focused conversations, or Search for ‘What’s hot and recommended’ for more.screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-4-12-49-pm

7. Google Alerts

This was my bread and butter anytime I was doing business blogging for several different clients at once. Just set up a Google alert on each niche topic, get an email a day, and you’re set to write newsy posts about what’s going on in that industry.

8. The Latest

This automatically-generated list of what’s hot on Twitter can be a fun place to shake up your idea-finding habits. My recent visit to The Latest brought me links to stories on everything from iPhone addiction to problems with Uber’s drones. You can sign up to get notifications — or just follow The Latest on Twitter, where it posts all its picks.screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-3-58-28-pm

9. LinkedIn Pulse

Many freelance writers are posting (or re-posting) content on Pulse for the exposure — but have you thought about mining it for new article ideas? There’s a ton of great content on here, which when you’re logged into your profile is curated by what your connections are posting. You can also go to the Pulse homepage to see Pulse ‘Editor’s Picks,’ see what’s trending on Pulse that was posted by major magazines, and more.

10. LinkedIn Groups

Join LinkedIn groups that focus on the industries you cover, and you’re privy to the top questions that industry confronts. Just take a look at which questions get the most response each week, and you have an instant list of the hot topics you might explore for stories.

11. List.ly

Do you like to create list posts? One of the best idea-joggers for that is List.ly, a site where people post lists. I first learned about this site when the List.ly was a conference sponsor at an event I went to, and it’s a fun place to browse around.

Visiting List.ly while writing this post, for instance, I discovered a list of the best songs to test headphones with, a list of 22 iPad apps for making classroom videos, and the top 10 best cities to visit to see fall color. Great fodder, no matter what sort of topic you’re looking to develop ideas on. You can search for topics you want, or click on the trending topic tags at the top.screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-4-14-48-pm

12. Medium

Many freelance writers are experimenting with posting content on Medium for exposure — but don’t overlook its potential as an idea-generation site. You can search on topics you like, browse editors’ picks, top stories, or save authors you want to track.

13. Panda

This handy app can be a great way to browse for ideas while you’re waiting in line at the bank. Panda has a focus on all things tech and design, but ‘copywriting’ is also a category topic. It’s currently in beta, so watch for more developments here.

This can be a great place to quickly scan multiple streams of information. Featured channels I’d love to keep up on include Mashable, TechCrunch, the Verge, and hey — Medium and Quora are on here, too.

14. Pinterest

I’ll admit as a WORD person, I find Pinterest a little baffling. I mean, I’m happy to pin my own posts on a few relevant boards, but it’s not a place I spend a ton of time.

If you’re into it, though, it’s a great place to troll for ideas! First off, Pinterest serves you up pins based on your past interests.

Bored with that? You can click on a category and browse around to new categories, then click on some pins to see posts of interest:

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-3-15-18-pm

15. Quora

Quora gets over 200 million visitors a month. Set up a profile, and you can enter topics of interest and see questions and answers about them.

P.S. Quora can also be a place to answer questions and build your own authority as an expert — so this can be a doubly useful site. More and more big names are popping up on there answering questions, including President Barack Obama.

16. Slideshare

More and more people are turning presentations they’ve done into Slideshare posts, making this site a gold mine of information, particularly on business topics. This site is owned by LinkedIn, FYI.

Doing a random search for ‘entrepreneurship’ recently, I found several different slideshares about the principles of ‘disciplined entrepreneurship’ — maybe a buzzworthy topic for an article I could develop. Win!screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-4-16-20-pm

17. SmartBriefs

This has been another staple of my idea-finding process for many years. SmartBrief has more than 200 different newsletters on specific industries and topics. Sign up for the ones relevant to your writing career and get a nicely curated daily (or weekly) list of the hottest topics.

18. StumbleUpon

On StumbleUpon, you can set up a profile of your interests, hit the “Stumble” button, and see relevant popular content, from accounting to toys. For instance, on a recent browse, my stated interests in business and entrepreneurship brought up a cache of in-depth white papers on tech topics from one company. If you’re browsing dozens of popular sites in your topic, StumbleUpon could be your one-stop shop instead.

19. Subreddits

Like StumbleUpon, Reddit is a vast article-sharing site where roughly 1 million people a day post and upvote interesting content. If that sounds overwhelming, good news — there are smaller, topic-focused subreddits. Sign up to follow subreddits on topics you’re interested in, and you’ve tapped into a never-ending stream of information about what people are talking about and liking on that subject. Or, click on ‘Rising’ or ‘Controversial’ to just see what’s trending.

20. Twitter lists

I have to admit I’ve slacked off of using my Twitter lists, and I should probably get back to it. You can create your own lists on Twitter as useful places to save resources or contacts, and you can also subscribe to other peoples’ lists. They’ve made it harder to locate your lists these days — but it’s under the ‘More’ tab you see on the right here:

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-9-49-20-am

In fact, a quick browse of my lists prepping this post helped me discover a list of over 40 job-finding sites for writers that may provide fodder for upcoming roundup posts here on the blog. Ding!

Spinning new ideas from old

Once you’ve gathered interesting bits of news you like, how do you spin new story angles out of them? Here are a few of my favorite ways:

  • What’s next? What will happen next with this trend or news event? Often, you can revisit the topic a month or a year later and write a new story.
  • What’s missing? Articles and blog posts often raise new questions you could answer, with some additional interviews, or you can discover an aspect of a popular topic no one has explored. For instance, I recently loved this story’s fresh angle on Donald Trump.
  • Change geographic focus — Find a local angle to a national story for a city magazine. Or do the opposite — see if a local story might also be nationally relevant. The Seattle Times does a great job of localizing national stories like the presidential election — watch your local daily to learn how it’s done.
  • Mix ‘n’ match — Collect news about a topic that interests you, and look for connections between the different news stories. For instance, I saved news releases about new grilled-cheese sandwich restaurants opening up until I could create this story.
  • New audience — Is there another type of publication where the readers would find an existing story interesting? Maybe you could re-slant it. In fact, this post you’re reading was inspired by a post I read for content marketers on how to keep up on SEO developments. I cut all the SEO-specific tools and kept the ones that I like for story-idea development. Presto! A new story for a new audience.

You can never have too many story ideas. I have a 40-page leftover note file of unused ideas from the Forbes blog I wrote for 3 years, for instance.

More ideas mean you have more choices, and you can keep prioritizing what the hottest ideas are on your list, and pitching them.

What online tools do you use to troll for story ideas? Share your faves in the comments.

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25 comments on “Need Story Ideas? 20 Free Online Tools to Fire Up Your Brain
  1. Abir says:

    Hi Carol!
    This idea generating tools seems really effective and interestig to me.Personally I prefer Digg cause there are versatile ideas and stories available there.
    Thank for this informative post.
    with best regards.

  2. Jimmy Wilson says:

    Hey Carol,
    Thanks a lot for this superb list.
    I have got quite a bunch of new websites here. Though I am not a story writer, I take ideas to write articles for my client from Quora and Digg. Both the platforms are really amazing.
    Yeah, I am a member of some freelance FB groups. Didn’t send an eye over there, though. I will surely check out other sources as well.
    Thanks again Carol. You are a gem.
    Regards,
    Jimmy Wilson

  3. erptreein says:

    Awesome content thank you for sharing useful content and great research done.. really appreciated

  4. Drew Drake says:

    My niche is ‘positive lifestyle’ and to come up with ideas I simply think about the problems that people have on a daily basis and how they can fix them. It’s super easy to come up with ideas but as you know, this niche is a very “overdone” market and most of the articles I come across are not original.

    The suggestions you have provided are excellent and I look forward to exploring them right now!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think you’re getting the drift here, Drew — just sitting thinking up ideas out of your own head, without any outside input, results in a lot of stale, seen-it-before type posts. Troll for more data, roll a trend forward and add new info, reach out and do new interviews, and you get something fresh.

  5. Alex Hope says:

    Carol, thanks. These are also the tools I recommend to other writers when it comes to learning about the trends in their respective niche.

  6. Ariel says:

    Hi Carol,
    I am finally starting to try to gather my clips from Pro Bono clients (non profit organizations). I am only in the beginning but I am wondering if you have any tips for this process. Should my initial contact be by phone or email? ( I have been doing emails). Also those that actually are responding to say they need work done are asking for CLIPS and SAMPLES :/ Then I feel stuck. I tell them I don’t have any since there is no way to get past that part. Then I don’t seem to hear from them again. I could use any help you will offer. I don’t know how to respond because I have no clips that show my best writing style.

    Is there any advice you would give because even non profits want to see samples. So how can I get in and get sample assignments? I am interested in learning ow I can overcome the objections the potential clients have to hiring a new writer (even to write for free) that has no samples. Thanks in advance for your time in answering this question.

    • Carol Tice says:

      You sound like you HAVE some pro bono samples — why not use them?

      If you need to get more Pro Bono clips in different niches, you might check out my Step By Step Guide ebook for tips on how to get clips in a variety of types/industries quickly, to use in getting paid gigs.

      • Karen Ingle says:

        What about creating samples for hypothetical clients? If the goal is to demonstrate one’s skills, why not work up some examples of what you CAN do. Just be sure to present them as such, without claiming they have been published.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Two big reasons: 1) Because when they say no, it’s a 100% waste of your time and 2) Self-created samples simply don’t impress clients nearly so much as published clips. It’s a better idea to invest energy in GETTING some real clips from real clients, where you can get testimonials and referrals to build your business. Then, prospects see you have learned how to please an editor or marketing manager. Self-created samples prove nothing, really, about your ability to be a successful freelance writer who works to serve clients.

  7. Karen Ingle says:

    I agree with Carla–another must-save article. This piece was like a steak dinner! Can’t wait to wield these new tools. Thanks!

  8. Carla Beth says:

    Carol, this is one of those round-ups that you save for continued reference. It’s loaded with goodness! Thank you! I’ve started investigating Buzz Sumo and am beginning to use it to plan out my content. Facebook Groups are a particular fave – because they feel a little more ‘personal’ rather than ‘business’ the insights and questions shared seem more honest. Haven’t come across Smart Briefs, so thank you. Will be checking it out today.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ooh, well enjoy SmartBriefs — they are just a GOLDMINE. Not just of story ideas, but sources, possible publications to pitch, names of experts, you name it.

      • Carla Beth says:

        Had a browse yesterday – goldmine is right! I’ve subscribed to my niche areas to begin with – and those alone gave me a stack of ideas. Terrific resource!

  9. Maxine Brink says:

    Make a Living Writing emails are the first I open and this chock full email will get my full attention. Thanks you, again.

    • Carol Tice says:

      It always means a lot to me to hear writers consider me their must-read newsletter — so thanks for letting me know! I try to set the bar high and deliver a TON of highly useful info. We work HARD behind the scenes, at this point it’s me, an editor, and a designer for the graphics, plus all my great guest posters. My vision is this is a magazine for writers, and I want everything to be that quality. 😉

      Enjoy this idea-finder list!

      • Katy says:

        You are ABSOLUTELY my must read email. Over the years, I’ve found a lot of shiny new things to subscribe to, only to have to mass unsubscribe when it gets overwhelming, but yours have never even come close to getting cut!

  10. Wow! What gold mines of information! Thanks so much for sharing these sites with us

  11. Amy Hardison says:

    Carol, you read my mind – again. I’m struggling with idea generation for my blogging client, and this is exactly what I need. Thank you!

  12. Lizzie Davey says:

    I’m a big fan of BuzzSumo and Quora for idea generation. I particularly love Quora because it is full of REAL questions that REAL people are asking. There are a few here I haven’t heard, so I’m off to explore those now – SmartBriefs sounds great for my client work, and I really need to get stuck into subreddits more for building a community around my products!

    Thanks for this, Carol!

    • Carol Tice says:

      My pleasure! I loooove SmartBriefs, and they have them on a zillion different topics.

      Bonus: If you do well with your idea, sometimes you’ll find your post APPEARING in the very SmartBrief that you followed to develop the idea, if you’re writing for any prominent sites. I always found that kind of a thrill. 😉