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5 Tips to Finding Story Ideas That Sell

September 11, 2017

This blog post was previously published on the now defunct Renegade Writer blog. It's an oldie but goodie, still relevant today. I've made a couple minor edits, but otherwise here it is in all its previous glory. Enjoy!


Like many freelancers, you probably want to sell more stories this year, and one key element to meeting this goal is having stories to tell. And like many freelancers right about now, you're probably scratching your head wondering how the heck to find these stories. Maybe everything you're coming up with feels tired and old ... done to death. Boring and uninteresting. Or worst of all, you're coming up with nothing. Zip. Zilch. And if you keep going at this rate, that's exactly what you'll have in your checking account come March or April.


Last year I gave a talk to freelancers called "Five Tips to Finding Story Ideas That Sell" and it seemed to strike a chord with them. Here are the tips in a nutshell.


1. Memorize the phrase "That would make a great story." Whenever I'm talking to my friends, mother, kid's pediatrician, or a person buying bread ahead of me in line, chances are good I'm weighing the conversation in my mind and wondering if there's some kind of story I could sell to an editor. It's sick, I know! If my friend is poring her heart out to me about her cheating under-employed husband who just cleaned out her checking account, of course I'm there to comfort her and give her advice as a friend, but the writer in me is thinking, "Wow, I can't believe my smart, well-educated friend ended up with such a loser. This is the third time this week I've heard about smart women ending up with dud husbands. I wonder if a women's magazine would be interested in a piece about smart women marrying down. Is this a trend?" I'll be frank: much of the time, the ideas I come up with this way I don't use, because they'd violate a confidence or aren't that interesting to me as a writer. The real takeaway here is that I've trained myself to be present as a writer and not just a friend/mother/stranger in the supermarket during the day. It's a skill you can develop, too.


2. Focus on what what will be hot a year from now. Right now, a lot of freelancers are pitching stories about frugality, downsizing, and simple living. But I think forward-thinking writers have moved post-recession and are pitching stories that are a step ahead of the crowd. No, I'm not necessarily suggesting pieces on how to buy a share on a corporate jet or how to live large like Richard Branson. For example, we've been reading stories about "staycations" and cheap domestic travel, but I think international travel is coming back; if you write about travel, now might be the time to start looking for stories over the border. As a food writer, I would have been laughed at for pitching a story on caviar a few years ago, but right now, it might be a good topic. I could do a little digging and find out that maybe caviar consumption is up around the world. Are caviar producers feeling optimistic again? Is this some kind of economic indicator we should pay attention to? Right now there are "happiness" and "simplicity"" trends in literature; before this we were looking for our souls, gratitude, and "The Secret." Look into your crystal ball, or better yet, look around you: What are we humans looking for next? Super intelligence? Multi-lingualism? Peace, whether global or within?


3. Put the expected in the unexpected. I don't do celebrity profiles, but a few months ago a closed circulation mag asked me if I could come up with some stories about celebrities with a Boston connection. They'd already covered Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg, John Kraczinski ... as I told a writer friend, they'd taken all the hot Bostonians and left me to sift through their dregs. So thought, "What if I could interview any celebrity I wanted, no matter where he or she was from?" I came up with a list of ten celebs and then began to research any links they might have with Boston. Did they grow up here? Go to school here? Were they filming a movie in Beantown over the next year? Within an hour I hit paydirt with one of the celebs who was working on a non-movie-related project nearby that very few people knew about. It took me 15 minutes to write up my pitch, and within a week I had an assignment.


4. Read your local newspapers. If your local paper is The New York Times, the LA Times, or, like mine, the Boston Globe, of course you should read them, but the story ideas you can sell to magazines tend to come from small newspapers in off-the-beaten-track communities. Why? Because magazine editors aren't seeing them! This is where living far from the media world can pay off. Small local papers often have stories about people doing amazing things. One time my stepmother, who lives in a rural community, sent me a clipping from her local paper about a woman who was graduating from a community college and heading off to my alma mater. A single line in the story indicated the woman had done some prison time. I contacted the community college, they put me in touch with the woman, and I took her story to several women's magazines. (Unfortunately, it didn't sell because the source decided to pitch her story to a woman's magazine beginning with "O" and when that happened, the women's mags I was talking to backed out. Grrr.)


In another example, I started noticing our smaller local papers were reporting on drug arrests that were occurring in and around daycare centers. It made me wonder, "Geez, how do you know who's taking care of your kids?" The light went on over my head and I wrote up a pitch to Parenting magazine called "Who's Taking Care of Your Children?" The idea sold for $3000 and the story was later picked up by


5. Borrow ideas. No, I'm not advocating stealing or plagiarizing. If Saveur does a story on the pleasures of tri-tip roasts, you're going to look like a big dope if you pitch a similar piece to Food & Wine or The New York Times dining section. The editors at these places know what was in the most recent issue of Saveur and want to publish stories that haven't been covered by their competition. However, there's no law that says you can't use that well-written article on tri-tip roasts to spin some new ideas. You could develop an idea on the three most popular cuts of beef, pork, and lamb for roasting. You could suggest a story where you'll interview some of the nation's top butchers and ask them what their favorite, but little-known, cuts of meat are. Read articles and ask yourself, "What did the author leave out?" Often it's a germ of an idea you can develop into a full-fledged story. Like the structure or architecture of a story? Borrow it for your own idea. For example, I did a piece a few years ago for Parenting magazine that used the structure of a "field guide" to identify a child's cries. A year later, I read an article in a competing magazine and saw that another writer applied the field guide structure to a piece on feeding young children. I don't know if she got the idea from reading my piece, but if she did, kudos to her.


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