Slam Dunk Assignments: The Easy Method That Sells More Story Ideas

Carol Tice

Sell More Story Ideas – It’s a Slam Dunk. In this post from the past, you’ll learn about one easy method to come up with story ideas that never gets old.
Enjoy! —Carol.

Are you short on story ideas to pitch magazine editors?

A lot of writers make it a lot harder than it needs to be to come up with story ideas to land an assignment.

You try and be ultra clever. You spend countless hours doing research looking for a nugget of information…and then another. Or you second guess every single one of the story ideas you come up with. Sound familiar?

Some story ideas deserve that kind of attention. But if you’re hustling to land more work and make more money, you need to pitch story ideas that sell.

And there’s one angle that few writers take the time to craft, but that often results in an easy sale.

What is this slam-dunk idea? Let me show you how it’s done:

Spin story ideas into the future

When you come up with a story idea for a publication, dissect it in as many ways as possible. Come up with fresh angle for a different market, interview new sources, and turn that one story idea into many story ideas and assignments.

But what if the pub you really want to pitch has already published a piece similar to your story idea? Don’t give up. There’s at least one more great way to spin a story– and that’s into the future.

The magic of follow-up

The one story that’s never written enough is the follow story. A big news story happens and the media is all over it. Then, it fades from view.

But a story is never just one point in time. It continues to unfold.

And often, nobody comes back to find out how it all worked out. Often, things don’t go as forecast, and there’s a nice, juicy story there just waiting to be told.

Start looking forward

When I was a staff reporter, I used to keep what journalists call a “future” file. It’s a big tickler file with future dates on all the pockets. You could just as easily use the calendar in your phone or on your computer.

When something happened — for example, when a promise was made by a politician or business leader — I’d drop a note in my file for the anniversary of that event or promise.

I’d drop one in for a year after an earthquake. Or the month that government agency’s five-year plan was supposed to be achieved. A year after a company’s bankruptcy or merger.

Then, when that time rolled around, I’d be back to write another story that updated the news.

Follow-up stories are great for nearly every type of article topic. Examples:

  • Celebrity: A year after the divorce, the career-making Oscar, the movie blockbuster or dud
  • Business: Did growth targets announced previously get met? Did the merger really save overhead?
  • Government: Did that aid program meet its goals? Where did the money really go?
  • Arts: Did that new museum open on time? If not, what’s the holdup? If a local director went off to Broadway — how’d they do their first season?

All too often in our short attention-span world, stories fade and we never find out what the outcome was of a drama that once captivated us. But we’d love to know.

One editor of mine loved a variant of these called “Where are they now?” stories.

If a prominent figure has faded from view, and you’ve found out what they’re doing today, it’s always a great story.

Follow the money

Yes, it’s an old saw — but one that leads to a lot of great story ideas editors love. Anytime big dollar amounts are being tossed around, pay attention. There are always good stories lurking.

  • For instance, once I discovered there was a public database where you could see who got the federal stimulus money. That allowed me to get an assignment from Seattle Business magazine following up on what happened to all the stimulus grants won by organizations and agencies in my state.

Having a future file allows you to get ahead of story ideas that can be fat packages too, such as the opening of a big new institution or a big corporate anniversary.

Sell more story ideas the easy way

Hitting an anniversary early enough to get it assigned and published at the right moment takes planning — it takes a futures file.

Anytime you hear of something that’s supposed to happen in the future, make note. That’s the seed of a great story just waiting for you to pitch.

What story ideas can you spin into the future right now? Let’s discuss on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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  1. Jennifer Gregory

    Great idea! I have always loved the VHS 1 shows (Where are they now) about the one hit wonders. I guess I am dating myself though :>)

    I would also add after disasters as well. I have had luck with this as well. I wrote a front page feature for our local paper 6 months after a big tornado. Or even tragedies, such as how is the Arizona fire station faring a year from now after losing all those firefighters. I know that a lot of trade publications wrote about how their industry fared after Sandy as well as preparedness tips. I bet that you could do follow ups on the businesses featured for countless trade publications. As far as businesses go, I think always wonder after big Scandals what happens to a company, so that would be another angle.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on.

      When you’re talking to sources, one of your final questions should always be, “What will happen next?” Often, that’s another nice story waiting to be told.

      At one point, I covered the bankruptcy of Eddie Bauer’s parent company. One of the best stories I did was on the state of the company 1 year after they filed. I love follow-up stories! Often they end up as interesting scoops because nobody else bothers to keep on the story…and so often, much has gone wrong or not been fulfilled as promised.

  2. Heather Villa (

    I assumed the Bald Eagle was still on the endangered species list. But I didn’t stop at my assumption. When I did a bit of research, I realized that the answer I found would make an amazing story. My article,”Meet the Eagle Man,” published in Living Green ended up being a follow up to a story first published in The New Yorker in 1954. The article is also a follow up to an environmental issue that is now resolved.

    Thank you for your post.

    Heather Villa

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing your great follow-up story example, Heather!

      Look at the time span on that one. Sometimes 20 years or 30 or 50 years later makes a great follow-up point.

  3. Janeen Johnson

    Awesome! My first published story was an art piece about the 5 year anniversary of a controversial statue. I never really gave this much thought about follow ups but you are so right. Brilliant post as usual Carol. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks Janeen – and thanks for sharing your follow-up win.

      When you have to come up with 3-4 stories every week as a staff writer, follow-ups become a staple of your pitch list. And the thing is, they’re often so interesting! I love it when politicians or business leaders promise something, because I can put a pin in their forecast date and come back and bust them for being liars. 😉

  4. Joel

    This is a great idea that I will definitely put to good use.

    Was hoping to share this, but I notice you don’t have a Twitter button for each article. Is this intentional? I’ve noticed this on a few other well known sites, now I’m wondering if I should ditch the share buttons.

    • Carol Tice

      Joel, I surely do have retweet and everything else, in Sharebar over on the left…try opening your window wider.

      Also, Sharebar only shows when you click INTO that post, BTW, not when you’re looking at the home. It figures if you’re not in the post, you’re not interested enough to share it yet. 😉

  5. Jevonnah

    Excellent article! Great tips and ideas. Thank you.

  6. Angie

    I love this idea! From a reader standpoint, there have been many times I’ve read an article and wondered, “Yes, but how’s that going to look a year from now?” Definitely will consider taking the time to find out now. 😉

  7. Mary

    I think it would be great if programs such as Evernote would have a calendar for reasons such as this. Are there any that do?

    • Joseph Rooks

      I believe Evernote recently added a bunch of “Reminder” features in the latest update – See if you can find anything on their website about that to figure out if it’ll be useful for you. 🙂

      • Carol Tice

        I’m very low-tech myself and tend to just keep a word doc with dates pegged in. Doesn’t matter how you do it, but every writer who wants to pitch publications should have a futures file of their own!

  8. Peter D. Mallett

    This is a great advice. Most people are looking to write about the newest thing, but it is also good to look back, and then write what’s happened since then.

    You mentioned careful planning. Since most magazines work 6 to 8 months ahead I’d assume you have to pitch a story well ahead of the actual aniversary.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s correct — I’d put it in the futures file for when I’d need to pitch that anniversary or follow-up.

  9. Rhonda

    This is a great idea. And so obvious once it’s pointed out:)
    I regularly wonder about the result of a story I heard in the past. Time to go back and review some of those.
    Thanks for pointing out the importance of planning. I’m working on a submission calendar for myself. It would be easy to adapt the detailed short-term calendar into a less detailed long-term calendar.

  10. David Gillaspie

    Talk about a learning moment. I’d like to see more post-event stories and articles that follow the money and reveal the winners and losers.

    The context of results later on seem so much more reality-based than what happens during events when hype rules.

    Thanks Carol

    • Carol Tice

      As a business reporter, I became increasingly jaded about what companies said in press releases, and fell in love with circling back to see if their projections came true, and if not why not. Made for a lot of great stories!

      Readers deserve to know how things turned out. It’s the responsibility of journalists to not let important stories drop and to follow them through time.

  11. Francesca Nicasio

    Brilliant. It’s sounds obvious now that you mentioned it, but for some reason, pitching a “follow up” article hasn’t occurred to me. Which is weird because I’m the type who would always google stuff like “Whatever happened to… [insert person / issue here] 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Well, then these will be a lot of fun for you!

  12. Larry

    I like the idea.
    However, I’ve heard that when it comes to magazines, you need to think six months in advance. So, it seems a bit odd to pitch an idea about a year anniversary after just six months have passed. Therefore, does this work better with newspapers which have a minimal turnover time?

    • Janeen

      Larry, some magazines will accept manuscripts a month in advance of publication especially if they are time sensitive. If you have written for them before , they may even accept on shorter notice, especially if the idea is one that would be of great interest to their readers.

      • Carol Tice

        Agree. And newspapers and newsweeklies are great for these. And regional magazines in my experience don’t have as long leads either, more like 3 months.

        Bigger anniversaries like 25 or 50 years from something are fine for big mags too, it’s close enough when you’re researching it.

  13. Rohi Shetty

    Thanks, Carol, creating a ‘future’ file is an incredibly valuable tip.

    I’ll put it into use right away.

  14. John McDuffie

    As always, I can usually find a good idea and a creative booster by visiting your website. We rely on every one but ourselves to keep up with the whens and wheres of today and tomorrow. I used to write everything in a planner and I kept those planners. I could go back to a month or day from the previous year or 10 years and pull out something I could write about today. I have replaced the planners with a Google calendar titled “yesterday or tomorrow”, but the concept is the same and works.

  15. Alicia

    I’m not sure how else to contact you, so I’m sending you a comment. I was trying to subscribe to your feed with AOL Reader but it isn’t working. Perhaps something is wrong with your address? I’m not sure how it all works yet.

    • Carol Tice

      I didn’t know AOL Reader even existed! But you don’t want to get me on RSS — subscribe on email because I send cool freebie stuff out to my subs on email…free training videos, or then there’s the time I gave out my cel phone number and just did free mini-mentoring sessions all day. If you’re on RSS you’ll never see these offers.

      • Carol Tice

        Hey — I’m back to say I tested it and the RSS add box comes up fine and seems to include AOL Reader too…so not sure what’s up there. Try another browser I say…or better yet, subscribe on email. 😉

  16. Joe Kovacs

    Follow-up is great not only to generate article ideas but also because it serves readers who really care about a particular story and demonstrates that you, as a media outlet, care as well.

    Carol, I hope I’m not getting off topic here (if so, excuse me). But if you consume a story simply because it’s in the media and then forget about it when something else shows up on the front page the next day, how much did you really care? Where’s the attention span? Maybe you’re just reading something because it is in front of you.

    I live in Washington, DC. A few months ago, one of the Metro stations was closed for a few hours because someone got hit by a train. There was no follow-up story by the Washington Post to at least let readers know whether the person was okay. And I did wonder. It made me realize that story was likely more about letting commuters know about possible delays than anything else.

    I understand the Post is a news organization. But the lack of follow-up did seem a bit ruthless and non-human. I think that follow-up stories whether it’s a day, a week or a year later, Carol, not only help article writers come up with ideas (thank you for making this great point!) but I think also serve as a positive relationship-serving tool for the media outlet and its readers.

    Thanks again!

    • Carol Tice

      It’s not that they’re ruthless…there are just a lot of stories to chase. And followup often falls by the wayside – that’s why it’s such a great story to pitch.

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