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Never Run Out of Story Ideas by Asking This Quick Question

Carol Tice

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.