I love the time between Christmas and New Year’s. Usually (that is, for the past two years) I’ve been away at a silent meditation retreat, which is a kick-ass way to lead up to a new year. We couldn’t go this year due to a family funeral, so I’m spending the time the old-fashioned way: catching up on work and email at a time when a thousand things aren’t going at once. One great way to use some slower time, of course, is to brainstorm article ideas.
When I teach, students often ask, “Where do you get ideas?”, as if there were an idea store they just didn’t know about. Alas, no. Though I find that my problem is generally too many ideas — not because I’m a genius or anything, but because once you start paying enough attention to your thoughts and observations, almost everything reveals its potential as an article. The trick is culling that down and getting them to the right people. But still, sometimes we all need a little inspiration. Here, some ways I’ve found to methodically hunt down story ideas:
1. Page through publications you’d like to write for, and look at articles you’d like to write. Think of similar approaches to different topics. This is how I came up with the idea to pitch Bust on a roundup of lesser-known women in TV history; they’d done the exact same thing on women in music. This worked.
2. Page through publications and think of how subjects covered in one magazine could be interestingly reslanted for a totally different kind of magazine. In other words, you read a piece on women struggling with fertility, and you think, Why don’t men’s magazines cover fertility struggles? Why not pitch one?
3. Troll internet sites for news items and trends. Often they don’t go very deep and leave much to be explored. You could be the person to explore it.
4. Look at old idea lists of yours and see if there’s a new angle you hadn’t thought of before. Is there a less-usual suspect you could reslant it for? Again, maybe this is where you revisit your fertility idea and realize it could be written for a men’s magazine or an older people’s magazine in a way that would be more interesting than your original intended audience, women.
5. Think about stuff you’re dealing with right now, in your own life. Personal lives are great fodder; if you’re going through it, chances are at least a few dozen others are, too.
6. Talk to friends. Same as #5, but with friends’ issues; listen to those conversations you’re having over wine. They’re probably full of trend pieces, relationship pieces, etc. Listen to friends’ stories about people they know, too. They might know interesting folks worthy of a profile.
7. Write all this down! Don’t let thoughts get away. Later, you might look at your list, scrawled as you sipped wine with friends or texted while you walked down the street, and find little of it makes sense. But a few gems will stand out — those are the ones to chase.