It’s the moment many freelance writers dread. An editor asks if you’ve got any ideas to pitch, a client wonders what you think would make a good subject for an 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 that we are exposed to, it’s incredible to think that we may not know where to look to find great story ideas, but the truth is, sometimes it’s all so overwhelming and unless you’re writing about something totally new it’s hard to find a fresh take on old subject matter.
Whatever areas you write in, be it health, parenting, technology, food, real estate, business, education, travel or anything else, there are endless article topic ideas out there for you. You just need to know where to find them.
That’s where these resources below come in – of course, it’s not an exhaustive list of places and ways to source inspiration, but I’ve used each of these to find interesting article topic ideas for the magazines and newspapers that I write for.
Friends and family
People close to us are endlessly useful when it comes to coming up with material and 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 and it got me wondering if it was a trend. Were more people getting married after having kids?
I did some research, pitched the idea 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.
I was listening to the radio when I heard part of an interview with a female boxer who happened to be a barrister and I wondered what other women were out there that were kicking goals in ‘unconventional’ sports. I found two more amazing sportswomen and pitched and wrote this story.
The chances are, if you find a story or topic fascinating, others will too.
Amazon is a great place to find story ideas – just type in key words for the area you’re interested in (it could be anything from women’s health to eco-houses), choose the department (e.g. books) and you’ll find a list of potential story ideas, along with the experts you can interview.
Lots of editors will want ideas for articles that refer to recent research. If so, you may want to subscribe to journal alerts. I write a fair bit in the health field, so I subscribe 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 more likely to find more than enough 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.
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.
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 10 things that you should know about each day.
The 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 that I subscribe to, I’ve now cut it back. I held on to them for ages, clinging to the idea that they may just contain the very story that would help me break into [insert dream publication here].
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 – she uses a separate email address to subscribe to alerts and newsletters and then when she has a free five minutes, she’ll have a quick scan through the alerts that have landed in her inbox.
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 subscribe to them.
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 will have a website where you can subscribe to their news round-ups – this is a great idea to keep track of not only what they have published, but the kinds of content they are interested in and 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 else do you find interesting topics for the articles you write?