When people find out I work as a freelance writer they inevitable ask, where do you get your story ideas?
It’s a simple question, but not a simple answer. The fact is, I get ideas for stories everywhere, too many places to explain in a quick soundbite for a new acquaintance.
During any given week, I’ll find ideas for stories in the local newspaper, talking to a friend or in a trade magazine. I’ve added a few resources to my idea bag of tricks over the years, thanks mainly to the Internet. And I’m happy to share.
Here, in no particular order, and my 10 favorite sources of story ideas:
Covering breaking news - This is a daily reporter’s bread and butter. Not so much for magazine feature writers. But even feature writers are called upon occasionally to attend town meetings, trials, games, press conferences or other impromptu or staged public or private gatherings to do interviews, witness something first hand or gather color for a piece they’re working on. Breaking news can be a good source of follow-up stories too.
Interviews – You’re scheduled to do an interview for story A. Don’t pass up the chance to tack on a couple miscellaneous questions at the end that could serve as a start for story B. If you get good material, you can use it in a query letter on the subject, and if you get a bite, in the story too.
Conversations with acquaintances – I don’t write about family and friends. But I do listen carefully when they talk about what’s going on in their personal or work lives because you never know when you might hear something that clicks. This happened to me not long ago when a friend told me that her company had curtailed flying to meetings and was having people do more videoconferencing. I used that tidbit along with a couple other examples to successfully pitch a story on the growth of videoconferencing in the wake of climbing costs for fuel and air travel.
Message boards – Online message boards are the 21st century equivalent of the man-on-the-street interviews I used to do as a newspaper reporter, where I’d hang out in a public place and listen to what people were saying, or go up to people and pose a question I needed answered for the story I was working on. Now I scan message boards devoted to particular topics that tie into the story I’m working on.
The local newspaper – Yes, I blog, keep up with news through my RSS feeds and spend most of my working hours in front of a screen. But I’m still an avid dead-tree newspaper reader. I parse the local paper every morning. Stories on the business page can introduce me to companies or people that could fit into a national trend piece. I’ve gotten assignments for business stories from ideas I pitched about personalities from the sports pages. And you never know what gems are hidden in pages of the local news.
Academic journals – I don’t write about health, nutrition or science, but I know writers who do and they routinely read the academic journals in their area of interest for new studies and other research they can use as the basis of stories for general-interest publications.
Trade and industry magazines – “The trades” are equivalent of academic journals for business and technology writers like me, in that they are often the first places to cover new products, services or trends. An astute writer can take stories written for a trade audience and recast them into articles that appeal to a broader audience of lay readers.
Trade shows and conventions – Back in the day, I went to the Comdex computer trade show, Consumer Electronics Show and Internet World every year. Each one was three or four days of intense information collection and I’d come back exhausted. But by sitting in on lectures and panel discussions, visiting exhibitors’ booths, collecting product literature and schmoozing at breakfast buffets and cocktail parties I had a stockpile of information to sift through back in my office for possible trend pieces, profiles and other stories.
Numbers – I love digging into a good 10K or 10Q. Spreadsheets make me swoon. It’s not that I love numbers, it’s that I love figuring out what they mean, and then building stories around them. And as Mary Chapin Carpenter sang, “…the stars might lie, but the numbers never do.”
Press releases and PR pitches – The stories I glean from press releases aren’t necessarily the ones the agencies are selling. But the company or product being pitched might fit into a completely different trend I’m writing about. Or if it includes a source who sounds like someone I might want to use in the future, I’ll keep tabs on them by I’ll inviting them to join my LinkedIn connections.