I have to confess, after re-entering the world of freelancing about six years ago, I did have a minor panic. Where would my ideas come from?
Now that I’m teaching new writers, I realise it’s a common theme. Every new writer worries about this! (And you don’t have to be a writer-to-be to ponder this question. I’m asked “Where do you get your ideas?” at least once a week by someone outside the writing world.)
The good news is, ideas are everywhere. I promise. In fact, once you get into a rhythm you’ll realise there are more ideas than time.
So how do you start?
Start by: reading the news (your Saturday newspaper is good because it has a higher percentage of features than the weekly paper); noticing what’s being talked about at dinner parties/social gatherings; and regularly reading the publications you want to write for. After all, you need to understand what your dream editor considers a good story idea.
Eventually, you’ll start to develop a radar for what works and what doesn’t, but in the meantime, do these three things:
1. Make sure you note an idea down as soon as it strikes.
Let’s face it; that stroke of genius may be fleeting. I use the notes section in my iPhone to do this, and then email the idea to myself to keep it on file. Just so I don’t outsmart myself, I head the email “Story idea: XXX publication” (because I know that a good idea is no use unless I match it to the right publication, at the right time. See below.)
2. Be willing to sit on an idea for a while.
Your idea MIGHT be fabulous, but you need the right outlet for it. This means the right section of the right publication.
Here’s a real example. I have lots of friends for whom English is a second language, so I’m quite interested in figuring out what makes learning a language easier for adults. This conversation (held regularly with friends for years!), recently turned into a story in the Life pages of Spectrum (Sydney Morning Herald’s cultural and arts pages). Interesting? Sure. And great to get it a run. But the idea was no use to me a couple of years ago, when I didn’t have the right outlet to place it in. Remember, you need to find the right publication for the right story. More on that in an upcoming post. In the meantime, read the story here.
3. Start noticing what other people care about.
Many casual conversations I have throughout my day ultimately become fodder for published stories (if you’re speaking with me, look out!).
Here are a couple of examples:
- A chat with a friend about how her two-year-old was inundated with toys, became a column on “Greening up your child’s toy box” for Green Living magazine.
- A group of (Gen Y, office-bound) friends were sympathising about the need to sneak out of the office for Facebook breaks on their smart phones, as the site was blocked off in their most of their offices. Huh? I work from home, so this phenomena was not on my radar, but watching everyone else in the group nodding actively and engaging with the conversation, I realised this was a real issue for a lot of employees. It ended up as a cover story in My Career (SMH and The Age).
The key is to listen to what other people are interested in, and start to think ‘Is there a story in that?’
- Where do you get your ideas?
- How do you keep track of all those top notch ideas? (A notebook, an email file? a ‘brainstorming board?)
- How have you managed to ‘hone’ your ideas radar?