Never Run Out of Story Ideas by Asking This Quick Question

Are good story ideas hard to find?freelance writer has lots of ideas

When you open up your favorite magazines, it can seem like other writers are always beating you to the interesting angles on a piece of news.

However, it’s not really true.

If you know where to look, you can always come up with fresh story ideas that other writers haven’t a clue about.

How do I know this? Because I used to have to come up with several story ideas every single week, as a staff writer. I needed enough good ideas to pitch that my editor would greenlight three of them. Each week.

Over time, I found one easy technique for turning up story ideas that I loved, and still use today. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it consistently yields unique slants that editors love.

Here’s how it works:

1. Talk to live humans

To begin, writers who consistently have a lot of great story ideas, do interviews.

They’re not just Googling around or reading press releases. They are getting fresh viewpoints from real people.

These people might be experts in a particular field. Maybe they’ve got a new book out on a topic that interests you. Or they’re a groundbreaking medical researcher or doctor. They might be business owners. They could be the head of an organization, association, or nonprofit.

Often, you will find yourself interviewing someone like this for an article you’re writing. If this isn’t happening to you, make it happen. Write something that involves experts for your own blog, if need be. But you want to start talking to experts to get good story ideas.

Stop guessing about what the latest trend is, the biggest breakthrough, the most unusual idea. Ask knowledgeable people and find out.

Then you won’t be starting at ground zero again, trying to develop your next article idea. You’ll already have it in your pocket, before you wrap up the article you’re writing now.

Ordinarily, with most articles you wind up interviewing some sort of expert, like the types I’ve just described. At the end of that interview is when you spring the question that will hand you your next idea.

2. Ask a final question

As you’re wrapping up your interview for your current topic, don’t just say, “Thanks, call you if I have any other questions.”

You want to ask one last question before you go.

That question takes many forms, but in essence, here is what you ask:

What’s next for you?

You want to get a little peek at the future from this source. Are they heading off to a conference, for instance? Publishing a book? Embarking on a research project? Meeting with their mastermind group? Headed to Capitol Hill to testify? Going on a round-the-world trip?

You might get a wide variety of answers to this question, and in my experience, they’re all leads to the next great story idea.

After you ask it, listen carefully to the answer. Then, take the next step:

3. Follow where it leads

Don’t just respond to their ‘what’s next’ news with, “Oh, that’s nice.” Instead, pick their brain about what they’re doing and why.

If they’re publishing a book, for instance, what’s it about? How long have they been working on it? Does it have any groundbreaking or explosive findings or news?

If it’s a conference, what are the panels going to be about? What are the hot topics in that industry that will be buzzed about in the hallways? The current controversies?

What’s their mastermind about? Who else is in it?

You get the picture.

Time after time, I’ve had this seemingly innocuous question lead to great new stories — often, more than one out of each conversation. For instance, one expert told me he was about to write a book about a once-in-a-decade update of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ forecasts for which jobs would grow most and pay best in the future, for instance.

Well, since I was covering careers and jobs at the time, getting unique analysis on what jobs would be great to have 10 or 20 years from now (versus trying to wade through BLS database tables myself and figure it out) was a slam-dunk story.

This final-shmooze question might also lead you to think of other markets you might sell a profile piece on this same expert. If your source mentions they’re headed to an alumni event, find out where they went to university — and then, pitch a profile of them to their alumni magazine. Presto, you can get two articles out of the same set of notes.

Often, like that career-forecast gem, the idea you’ll get won’t necessarily be something you can use immediately. That’s why there’s one final step to this idea-finding process:

4. Have an idea calendar

In the old days, we used to keep a physical ‘tickler file’ with a pocket for every day of the month, and we’d drop a note about upcoming ideas into the right day to remind us about it later. These days, you probably have an online tool you’d use to track them.

But save, stash, catalogue, or calendar that idea — and then pull it out to pitch when the time is right to pitch it around.

Ask enough experts that final question, and soon you’ll have a steady stream of interesting ideas filed and ready to go.

How do you find story ideas? Leave a comment and share your tip.

 

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24 comments on “Never Run Out of Story Ideas by Asking This Quick Question
  1. Nadia McDonald says:

    In my opinion good ideas are hard to come by. As writers, it is pertinent to engage readers with thrilling content that can sizzle and impress an audience. The most useful technique is to find a passion or a story that can influence a reader based on experience or testimonial. For example, my passion is creative arts. I founded my creative arts club when I taught in elementary school. Therefore, I want to bring traffic to my blog using social media, and templates to encourage parents, and teachers to promote creativity and originality among students using their talents and abilities.

  2. Willi Morris says:

    Whoops I thought I commented, but I must not have saved it. This is really awesome. Simple and brilliant. I will try and reconnect with old experts. I think they’d appreciate a follow-up.
    Willi Morris recently posted…Stop Feeling Like an Impostor. Just Listen to One.My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hey, that is ANOTHER great story-generating idea…if you liked an expert in the past – ask if you can call and just chat for 5-10 and catch up. Bet there are story ideas buried in those woods. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Mel says:

    Boom! I just thought of an article to pitch in September from a tangent conversation that was part of an interview last week.

    Great tips, Carol!

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s awesome, Mel! Hang onto those tangents.

      If you’re pitching a national magazine, remember to think 6 months ahead of publication — most writers pitch too late for magazines very long lead times for production.

  4. I can see where that question, and its natural follow-up, would generate a lot of ideas. The trick is to choose which ONE to go with next.
    D Kendra Franceso recently posted…You Donโ€™t Get to Keep the Rights in Writing-For-HireMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Choose? I collect them all! And filter later. I try not to judge or pick a favorite, if I have several. Keep ’em all, because you never know what other factoids those might connect with to form an interesting angle.

      • I guess that I’m an oddball then. If I don’t choose one in a reasonable time (within two weeks), they all seem stale. As in asking myself, “How could I have ever thought that this was an interesting idea?” Or, draw a blank. “Where in the ether did THIS come from?”

        I will admit, however, that I hadn’t thought of putting several discrete ideas together. Ok, back to the old physical files. They’re more “here” than computer programs – and easier to get to.
        D Kendra Francesco recently posted…You Donโ€™t Get to Keep the Rights in Writing-For-HireMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Hooking scraps of ideas together is nearly all I do for my Forbes blog — tons of ideas came that way.

          I consider each lead a piece of string…then I collect until I have a nice thematic yarn ball. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Hey Carol,

    Thanks for such useful content!

    You are right on meeting people one-on-one. We often think that everything has to be done in front of the computer, but we actually also have to be “out there”, networking, meeting people, sharing ideas, doing interviews like you suggest.

    I also appreciate the advice on asking the person we are talking with: “What’s next for you?” This question will surely inspire to say a little more, to get important scoops or to get other valuable information.

    Interacting with the person by asking questions to clarify or give more details shows that you are curious and that you make it all about him/her.

    People love to talk about themselves!

    Personally, I try to often be a better listener, than actually being the person who speaks. I find that I get more inspired by hearing people’s stories or information they are willing to share.

  6. Pankaj says:

    Totally agree with idea calender point, I know we get various ideas throughout the day if we start noting them then we can have good number of ideas to work on and one hardly get out of writing idea.
    Pankaj recently posted…Single Sim Recharge SoftwareMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Any time I have an idea and think, “OOh,…I’ll write this down later,” I forget it! I try to drop everything and jot it down. Sometimes it’ll be months later when I use it, but I’ll have forgotten it if it’s not logged in. For instance, I usually have about two dozen or more ideas waiting to be written for this blog. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      My webmaster told me she’s never worked with a client who has so many! Sure makes life easy when you find you’re short of time and it’s time to write a post. It’s the only way you consistently create quality — have to have lots of ideas to draw from.

  7. Alex Taylor says:

    Great tips covered in this article Carol….
    I can say you already wrote tons of articles to create such a good post. Yaa its true that often times we run out of ideas but it is just temporary. No matter, what you do or think, ideas are free flowing, hence, need not to panic and one way or the other ideas will come to you and you do not need to look for far areas for them. This is just me.
    Thanks for the advice once again.
    Alex Taylor recently posted…Facebookโ€™s Oculus VR Acquires Carbon Design As It Gears Up For The MainstreamMy Profile

  8. Mai Bantog says:

    Thanks for this article, Carol. I haven’t really tried interviewing someone for any article I wrote online. Guess I spent so much time on content mills, haha. But really, I’m quite terrified of the prospect since it’s been so long since I did my last interview for a print publication. Plus, English is my second language, and while I feel comfortable writing using this medium, interviewing someone in fluent speaking English is another matter. I might stutter or embarrass myself, haha.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well…you can keep nervously ‘haha’ing about it…or you can get back to doing interviews. If you’ve done them before, it shouldn’t be hard to get back in the groove.

      You know, when I had my first kid and took time off, I thought I could never write an article again! But all of the big success I’ve had came after that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      It’s a given that at some point as a reporter, you will embarrass yourself. In my most recent Forbes post, for instance, I got a call from the PR people for the association CEO I’d spoken with — I’d somehow manage to meld his last name onto the first name of the PR contact! Had to do a quick correction.

      I can report that I lived to write another day.

  9. paul says:

    Nice Carol… ๐Ÿ™‚
    I think this has been discussed before, excusez-moi, what’s the advice on ‘recording interviews….and any gadgets particularly recommended…

    • Carol Tice says:

      I personally love my Skype Call recorder…I’m sure others have other ideas. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      But in general, I take quick notes (used to be a secretary) or type and don’t record. It doubles your workload if you’ve got to listen to that over again.

  10. Lori says:

    I would love to know what online idea tracker apps people are using. Any suggestions?

  11. Steph Weber says:

    I’ve actually just started using the idea calendar method. Although mine is more like an idea notebook, which I need to organize better ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s very true that the more people you interview, the more ideas that seem to spring from that. Because inevitably, they’ll mention some bit of info that’s not relevant to your current assignment, but would make a sweet angle for another story.

    Or they’ll mention some product or colleague and that might initiate the rumblings of a story.

    My problem now is that I have tons of ideas, but I haven’t taken the time to really drill them down and get them query-ready. I’ve been so busy with assignments (which is good!) that I haven’t taken the time to really hash out some of the top ideas.
    Steph Weber recently posted…Businesses: Please Quit Clowning Around with Content MillsMy Profile

  12. I like number 3 because what it’s really about is being an active listener, a skill which sadly many people need to seriously improve upon.

    I really like the idea of interviewing people to write new blog posts or articles. Not only are you helping your own website by coming up with fresh content, but you are helping them gain exposure too. A while back I wrote an article about my friend Yan Markson who has started his new magic and mentalism act, it was great stuff!

    Plus, your friend will likely help promote your article too!
    Jonathan Holowka recently posted…Blogging for Money: 7 Ways to Get the Most Bang from Your Google Adsense BuckMy Profile

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