Whether you’re a freelancer trying to brainstorm that next pitch or an editor trying to fill a hole in your production calendar, it can be hard to find a new angle or story day in and day out, week after week.
You can’t always be creative, witty and hard-hitting. Sometimes you need an extra nudge, a little push in the direction of something beyond your old standbys.
Also on Mediabistro
So, we turned to some experts, writers, reporters and editors, who also have the challenge of finding interesting and compelling stories every day, for some advice about where they turn when their list of potential leads is looking thin.
Read on and you just might find some inspiration for your next byline.
Not the magazine, we’re talking about actual flesh and blood humans. Writing and reporting can be a lonely profession, but actual socializing can do more than just give your brain a break from deadline pressure.
“If I want a piece that has the possibility to do well, it needs to be more grounded in real life. So, it helps to remove myself from the Internet for a bit and have a conversation with someone face-to-face,” said freelance writer Lindsay Cross, who blogs daily for sites like TheGloss and Mommyish.
Cross turns to friends and family who don’t work in the world of digital journalism, like a former boss and her dad, for real inspiration.
“Both of them remind me that even though writing feels like a creative process and really closely linked to my emotions, it’s a job and a business. Sometimes it helps to remember that,” she added.
When someone asks what you do for a living, tell them what you’re working on or what you typically write about and let the ideas flow from those conversations. If you don’t want to prowl bars looking for strangers to ply for ideas, look for networking and industry events to meet new people.
Keep a notebook with you to jot down notes and ideas after you leave parties, or store notes on your phone, so you don’t forget before you wake up the next day.
2. The Competition
“Looking at the competition can help spark ideas that could fill gaps or news they’re not covering,” said Nick Barber, a tech reporter for IDG.
If you read a piece another outlet wrote about a subject, ask yourself what’s missing or try to look at the piece from the opposite point of view. “Sometimes a fresh perspective can help generate something new,” Barber added.
Pressed for time? Set up Google Alerts for any topics you’re interested in and watch the ideas flow into your inbox. And the competition doesn’t always have to be in your exact field.
If you’re a food writer, a quick check of Wired.com might unearth a profile of someone whose innovative freezing technology could be weaved into that piece on homemade ice cream you’ve been brainstorming.
Or, maybe it’s a blurb on The Wrap about Lindsay Lohan’s latest #fail that is the catalyst for your next parenting piece on teen discipline.
The idea is to keep your eyes peeled and your reporter’s cap on at all times.
3. Your Portfolio
When the story-well runs dry, looking through things you’ve written in the past may help conjure up new angles and ideas. Think about how you can approach an old story in a new way or new people you can talk to and interview.
Consider things that you wanted to cover that you didn’t have time for, or questions you were asked after the story was published that you can go back and answer.
What’s more, revisiting successful stories in new and different ways can capitalize on pieces that are already familiar with your audience and can likely lead to high traffic or interest from readers.
4. Comment Boards and Forums
“We always reach out to commenters,” said Meghan Keane, editorial director for women’s sites, including Crushable and Blisstree.
Keane’s writers and editors often ask commenters to tell stories in their own unique and personal way, either by writing it themselves or telling it to a staff writer.
“We want to reach out to people who will make stories interesting,” she added. Asking a reader to tell a story that you have previously reported about in their own words could reignite a topic that already struck a chord with your audience.
Again, scope out the boards for sites you don’t write for. Often, the readers themselves will reveal the hidden angle from an article, what a sports reporter should really have asked an athlete, or the biggest WTF moment of the latest season of True Blood.
Question forums like Quora and LinkedIn Groups can also shed insight into what’s on everyone’s minds. Keep digging and digging until you find a subject so deliciously niche that your editor just can’t say no.
5. The Calendar
Seasonal angles on stories are a no-brainer, but it’s funny how often we forget that. For example, a women’s publication can run countless versions of “The Best [XYZ] for Summer” without ever seeming repetitive.
There are also endless stories to be had around holidays, from the big ones like Christmas or Thanksgiving to smaller celebrations like National Ice Cream Day.
Just about every day of the year has been declared a “day” of some sort, so start there for quirky, fun pieces. Looking ahead to events can also help you pitch an outlandish piece to editors.
“If you want to jump out of a plane with Emma Stone while you talk to her about Spider-Man, and the movie is coming out in six months, then you might have a shot to make that happen,” Keane explained. “But if Spider-Man is coming out in two weeks, it’s probably not going to happen.”
Ever heard someone say they get their best ideas in the shower or while driving? This tip may seem obvious, but there have been several studies that prove that quieting the brain can do wonders for sparking creativity.
And you don’t have to be Deepak Chopra or a yogi to make it work. Start simple: Take a half-day for no reason other than to get away from your laptop. Go see a silly movie, treat yourself to lunch at new restaurant, or take a walk through the park.
In the need-it-yesterday environment of the media world, it’s easy to think that every day should be spent working toward some goal. But in fact, it could be the days where you’re lazing around doing absolutely nothing that you produce your best work.
7. Search Statistics
An online trend tracker can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Got an idea for a slideshow retrospective and need to know what America was buzzing about in 2004? Google Insights for Search will tell you.
Rather than trying to convince your editor that the artist you love is the next big thing, go online and find the numbers that prove it.
As the old saying goes, it isn’t a trend until it happens three times. So, if you really want to keep the assignments rolling in, it’s you, the reporter, who has to tell the world what’s hot.
If you’re a beauty writer who notices that both Katy Perry and Rihanna are rocking red bobs or a tech blogger who realizes that a few noteworthy startups have launched in Boston, start pitching—fast.
You just might be onto a juicy story that will bring in beaucoup page views and maybe even a little notoriety.