feature writing

Where to find the best story ideas for articles

By August 19, 2020 14 Comments

It’s the moment many freelance writers dread. An editor asks if you’ve got any ideas you want to pitch. A client wonders what you think would make a good article for their business blog. Or you want to break into a dream publication, but your ideas have dried up. So where do freelance journalists and writers get their great ideas from? And how can you ensure you have an endless supply of unique stories that editors will find irresistible?

Where freelance writers can find the best story ideas for magazines and newspapers

With all the content we are exposed to, it’s hard to imagine that we may not know where to find great story ideas.

But the truth is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the news cycle and feel like you’re not sure what you can add that’s new.

And unless you’re writing about research, an event or product that’s absolutely new it can feel tough to find a fresh take on old subject matter.

Whatever area you write in, be it health, parenting, technology, food, real estate, business, education, travel or anything else, there are endless article topic ideas.

You just need to know where to find them.

That’s where the resources below come in.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of places and ways to source inspiration.

But I’ve personally used each of these resources and ideas to find interesting article topic ideas for the magazines, newspapers and online outlets.

Friends and family

The people close to you are endlessly useful when it comes to coming up with ideas for articles.

I was at a BBQ a few years ago when several of my friends were talking about going to a wedding of a couple who already had children.

Another friend chimed, saying she had been to a similar wedding in the past month.

This got me wondering if it was a trend.

Were more people getting married after having kids?

I did some research, pitched the idea to a Sunday magazine and this is the resulting story.

Apologies for the couple of underlined passages – this is a PDF that the subeditors sent me for fact checking.

Podcasts and radio

You know that I love podcasts, and while I mostly listen to podcasts about the business of writing or being an entrepreneur (in the hope it may rub off on me), there are so many podcasts that can spark great ideas.

Cat Rodie was listening to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast when she heard Rosie Ayliff’s story about her daughter Mia.

Instantly, Cat knew Rosie’s story would make an impactful feature article for Marie Claire.

A few years after I started freelance writing, I was listening to the radio when I heard an interview with a female boxer who also happened to be a barrister.

I wondered how many women were out there who were kicking goals in ‘unconventional’ sports.

I found two more amazing sportswomen.

Then I pitched and wrote this story.

The chances are, if you find a story or topic fascinating, others will too. 

Online book stores

Amazon, Book Depository and other online book stores can be a great place to find story ideas.

In the past I have typed in key words for the area I’m interested in (e.g. anything from women’s health to eco-houses) and I’ve found a list of potential story ideas, along with the experts you can interview.

I found a self-help book aimed at helping “older” women get back into the dating scene and that got me thinking.

After doing some research I discovered that women 45 years and over were the fastest growing users of online dating sites in Australia.

I pitched the idea my editor at a Sunday newspaper and it was commissioned.

Your local area

Sometimes we are so familiar with where we live it’s hard to see where there might be stories.

But often where you live is a gold mine of unexplored opportunities.

For example, a few years ago a small cafe opened up in the town where I live.

That by itself wasn’t especially newsworthy, but this cafe was a social enterprise.

It made me wonder whether other social enterprises were thriving in regional and rural areas.

I did a bit of research and pitched the idea to The Guardian.

This is the resulting story.

I’ve also written food stories about where I live, articles about people I’ve met at local farmers markets who make interesting products and stories for inflight magazines about the region where I live being a designated UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

(I know, it’s all mostly about food!)

Now, you might think, “But my town/region is boring. There’s nothing happening.”

I bet that’s not true.

I bet if you really look hard enough you’ll find fascinating stories just around the corner.

Journal alerts

Lots of editors will want ideas for articles that refer to recent research.

So, it’s a good idea to subscribe to journal alerts.

When I wrote a lot in the health field, I subscribed to all kinds of journals – about women’s health, psychological health, physical health and fitness, innovations in health and so on.

Depending on what you write about, you’re probably going to be able to find loads of journals in your areas of interest.

Simply google ‘health journals’ and you’ll see a whole list of journals pop up.

See if they send out alerts and subscribe – you’ll often be able to read an abstract of new research and sometimes the full article.

If you’re a member of your local library, they will often have a subscription so you can read academic articles online.

I also love using SSRN, an online database of early scholarly research and the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Another tip is to look at the publication you want to write for – which journals are they citing regularly?

Sign up to receive the journal alerts from the sources that the publications you read regularly refer to.

Round-ups

There are some fantastic daily or weekly alerts you can subscribe to that keep you in the loop about what’s happening in a particular field, or even just generally across the news cycle.

The ones I’ve found to be great sources of information are:

Dave Pell’s NextDraft newsletter – a pithy round-up of the top things you should know about each day.

ScienceAlert – a daily summary that gives you a quick overview of all the big science stories.

SmartBrief – curated news of trending topics in particular industries.

When I first discovered SmartBrief I went slightly (ok, a lot) overboard and signed up for about 15 of their newsletters.

What I love about SmartBrief is that you pick the area you’re interested in and then they have a further breakdown of the kinds of newsletters.

So for education, there’s edtech, educational leadership, K-12, higher education and STEM careers.

See what I mean?

It’s a treasure trove of information.

I must admit after about four months of waking up to more than 30 emails in my inbox of different alerts, I’ve now cut back.

I held on to them for ages, clinging to the idea those emails may just contain the story that would help me break into [whatever publication I was dreaming about breaking into].

In the end I made peace with the fact that I couldn’t keep up and unsubscribed from most of them.

But I know that if I’m struggling for ideas, all I have to do is subscribe again.

Or, I could always do what a friend does to avoid email subscription overwhelm.

She uses a separate email address to subscribe to alerts and newsletters.

Then, when she has a free ten minutes, she’ll have a quick scan through the alerts that have landed in her inbox.

Industry news

If you are writing about a particular industry, where do people who work in the field go to find out information?

In the travel industry, they may subscribe to TravMedia or travelBulletin.

Find out if the industries you write about have newsletters or alerts and get on the mailing list.

Track official inquiries

Early in 2020 I was thrilled to be interviewed by Cristiana Bedei for IJNET for an article about how journalists find their story ideas.

As I mentioned to Cristiana, tracking governmental inquiries can be a unique way of finding stories.

I often look through current parliamentary inquiries and see if anything grabs my interest.

I’ve found at least three stories by using this method.

One of the articles was this one for The Saturday Paper – a story about the problems with transvaginal mesh implants in Australia.

Magazine newsletters

If you want to break into writing for magazines and newspapers, you need to have great story ideas for feature articles and know what makes a good pitch.

You also need to keep track of what the magazine or newspaper has recently published.

Most magazines have a website where you can subscribe to their news round-ups.

This is a great idea to keep track of not only what is published, but the tone and style of the articles.

The key behind all of this is really to read a lot and be curious about what you see – interesting topics are everywhere!

Where have you found interesting topics for the articles you write? 

14 Comments

  • Claire says:

    I’ve often wanted to ask you where you find all your ideas – now I know, so thank you. It’s something I struggle with, especially as I don’t really have a niche to focus on. I often find once I start looking at a subject, really interesting facts and people will emerge. For example, I interviewed a young apprentice coppicer a while back, and ended up finding out all sorts of interesting things about charcoal production and how harmful it can be to protected rainforest environments and how imported charcoal is fairly toxic stuff, stuck together with all sorts of chemicals. Whereas her locally produced charcoal was almost pure carbon, sustainable etc. The same when I interviewed an artist who is also a florist and grows her own flowers. I discovered how toxic the conditions for overseas flower growers can be – life expectancy in their 40s for some. Neither of them were the stories I thought I’d find, both were things almost mentioned in passing by the interviewees. People are full of fascinating information!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I agree Claire – it can be really tricky when you don’t have a niche or niches to know where to look for story ideas, because everything is a possibility. I tend to have a few newsletters that I always open and find fascinating, as well as a few news websites that I check most days, so I tend to use those combined with Twitter I find that’s all I need to gather enough ideas.
      I love your examples – and how if you are opening to hearing opportunities they are everywhere. Is sustainability one of the things you are writing about or want to write about?

      • Claire says:

        It’s something that I’m particularly interested in, but I’m not sure if there’s any market for it. It’s certainly where my interest lies though.

        • Lindy Alexander says:

          I think there is a huge market for it. Nearly every corporate is thinking about sustainability and their environmental impact – and most want to get the word out about what they are doing.
          In terms of newsstand magazines, I feel like loads of publications are hungry for eco-articles. In Australia, publications like Peppermint, DumboFeather, Green magazine, Organic Gardener, but even lots of ‘mainstream’ publications will run articles about sustainability if they are on trend and new. There’s also all the scientific innovation angle too. I think if this is what you’re passionate about and interested in, there are so many opportunities to write about it.

  • Collette says:

    Fantastic post Lindy, thank you so much. This was one of my answers in your recent questionnaire – I love the diversity of your work so was so interested in how you come up with such interesting topics. Counting down the days till the kids head back to school, and my youngest starts prep, so life is about to change and I’ll actually have some time to invest in research and getting back on track. Hope you’ve been able to have a break with your family and enjoy some downtime before it all gets a bit crazy again. xx

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I’m so glad you liked this post Collette – the question about finding ideas popped up a number of times in the survey.
      Gosh, big changes are afoot for you – I must admit I found it SO much easier when I "only" had to concentrate on work rather than juggling looking after children during the day. I’ll look forward to hearing how your first few months go.
      I’ve had such a big, lovely break – thank you. I have been getting back into it this past week – it’s been slow going!

  • [object Object] says:

    Hi Lindy! First, I have to say your blog is so helpful! This post has reminded me of something I’ve been wondering about for a while, about using quotes from sources. For example, above you mentioned how Cat Rodie heard Rosie Ayliffe’s story on BBC Woman’s Hour and then wrote about it for Marie Claire. In the MC article, there were quotes from Rosie Ayliffe – is it okay to take quotes from podcasts, radio shows, TV interviews, or even quotes that you’ve found in other magazine/news articles, if you haven’t interviewed the person yourself? Do you need to ask permission to do this?
    Thanks so much again for this blog, it’s a treasure trove of useful information that I dip into regularly!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Hi Naomi, thank so much – I’m glad you’re finding my blog useful.
      If you can, it’s always better to get firsthand quotes from interviewees. If you can’t, then it’s acceptable to use quotes from podcasts, books etc as long as you reference where they came from. For example, "In an interview with The New York Times in November, Joan said "XXX"" (and if it’s an article for online hyperlink to the original quote and if it’s for print, then add the link at the end of your article so subeditors can verify).
      Hope that helps?

      • Naomi Dalton says:

        Thanks Lindy, it does help! I was wondering because I keep an eye on the local media and events where I live in Spain, and there’s a really cool themed tapas event going on in my town for most of November. I thought about pitching a story about this event to international markets, but wasn’t sure if it would be okay to use quotes from the town’s Mayor which were used in the local Spanish-language press (obviously I’d translate these to English). But if I can include links to the articles with the original quotes, then that would be great! Thanks again 🙂

  • Brilliant idea to have a dedicated email address for alerts and media releases. Wish I had thought of that.
    Thanks for some new ideas, like following the SSRN and parliamentary inquiries.

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