This guest post is written by Zachary Petit. Zachary is the author of The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms. He’s also the editor in chief of Print, a seventy-five-year-old National Magazine Award-winning publication about graphic design and culture. Formerly he was the senior managing editor of HOW magazine, Print, and Writer’s Digest and executive editor of such newsstand titles as Writing Basics, Writer’s Yearbook, and Writer’s Workbook.
Alongside the thousands of articles he has penned as a staff writer and editor, covering everything from the secret lives of mall Santas to creative legends, his words regularly appear in National Geographic Kids and have also popped up in the pages of National Geographic, Melissa Rossi’s What Every American Should Know book series, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets. He is the co-author, alongside Brian A. Klems, of A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block.
Today he shares his insights on a challenge many freelancers face: generating strong article ideas to pitch to editors.
On the first day of my first newspaper job, I sat down at my desk and wondered what the hell I should be doing.
I expected assignments—you know, the editor strolls over and says, “Write this,” or “Write that.” But as I sat there, I realized I wasn’t getting any assignments. You can see my dilemma. I had to write something. That’s why I was being paid the princely sum of $10 an hour. Sure, I had the police beat (at that time, it entailed driving around to every local city and county station to collect crime reports, accident reports, and so on, and to look for anything that might tangibly make for a good story). But I didn’t know what to write about. I went to my editor, who gave me a curious sidelong glance. I asked him what I should write about. He suggested I go over to a local auto parts store because they had just expanded.
So I did.
I wrote 200 words on it. But then I had to write something else.
I contacted an old professor and lamented my cause.
“Frankly, I’m ashamed,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, stunned.
“Because you’re a reporter. You’re supposed to be out enterprise reporting. Did you learn nothing in school?”
Enterprise reporting. Basically it means that you get off your ass, go out, and find a story. Once in a blue moon, good stories fall into your lap while you’re sitting at a computer. The rest of the hunt is on you.
So I went out. I saw a sign on the side of a quiet country road on my way to the police station: WELCOME HOME. It had military insignias. So I found the family’s phone number, and I called them up. What I got from them was an emotional and intense story that appeared in the paper the next day.
And I’ve been chasing things that could be interesting puddles of words ever since. It’s funny: Once you train your mind to be on the hunt for stories, you eventually have many more than you’ll ever be able to write. I keep an idea folder in my phone into which I jot everything and anything, and a few persistent nuggets have been in there for years. (Maybe one day I’ll have time to write them.)
Coming up with ideas—good ones, sustainable ones, ones readers want and editors salivate over—is no easy task. But it’s not the hardest thing in the world, either.
Since you’ve identified your markets, the next thing to do is get to know them intimately. (That’s why it often helps to pitch markets you’re already familiar with and read regularly.) Read at least one copy of the latest issue of your target market. If you’re really serious, read three.
Then ask yourself: What would readers of this publication want to read? It’s time to get those wheels turning. Here are a number of exercises to get you started on your own ideation vacation and generate some solid article ideas.
Channel your expertise. What knowledge do you possess—or could you find out—that nobody but you could? What do you do in your day job that would fascinate people? What insight into a topic you’re obsessed with would a broader audience eat up?
Read large and think small. One easy trick of the trade reporters use is to observe what’s in the big national media and then localize it. What national concerns are affecting your own town? Financial crisis was in the national news at one paper I worked for, and we put together a great series on all the abandoned big-box stores in town. Is the keeping of wild pets and the dangers thereof trending in the media? (Did a guy just lose a toe to his pet cheetah?) Find an exotic pet owner or vet in your area, and interview her. The key here is to cover your subject in an honest and organic way that feels fresh—not like you’re just riding the coattails of CNN.
Think small and pitch large. Is a big story happening in your neighborhood that a much wider audience would be interested in? Pitch it. It could turn into a news story in a major outlet. Or it could be a narrative feature story in a magazine. There’s a lot to be said for the writer who can spot unexplored potential in a simple news story and dig deeper to turn it into a full-fledged narrative. After reading an amazing feature in Wired magazine about ten years ago, I e-mailed the writer to ask how the heck she came across such a crazy scoop. Her answer: She saw a blurb about it in her local newspaper and knew there had to be more to the story.
Keep your ear to the ground. Sounds obvious, right? The difference between a writer and a normal person is that a normal person says “Wow” when they hear an amazing story. We say “Wow,” too, and then our imaginations get to work figuring out what else there might be to the story—and if it’s something worth digging into and sharing with a wider audience. So tune your ear, and always consider what could be a story. This applies to any form of coverage—from a new restaurant coming to town to a career-making news story about a corrupt politician. Talk to people. Building up contacts is key to getting the stories to come to you.
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Read industry blogs and websites pertaining to specific niches. Especially in realms like the science world, there are oodles of sites that publish startling studies that nobody hears about until the right writer at the right general-audience outlet finds them. Do some interviews and broaden the language for a wider readership, and you might have a great piece on your hands.
Don’t suppress your voice. Have a strong opinion about something? Write it down. If it’s persuasive enough, there’s a good chance it’ll see print.
Don’t get caught in the past. Especially for newspapers and weekly markets, don’t pitch recaps of past events unless they’re still happening when the piece publishes—a concert review or a festival review, for instance. Editors generally don’t want them because they look dated and don’t serve a reader well. Instead, consider previews. A simple formula I’ve utilized time and again consists of looking at a calendar of upcoming events, identifying an interesting happening, and then reaching out to the organizer or media contact to find someone with an interesting angle or backstory that would make good fodder for a preview article of the event. (For example, I wanted to write about an Appalachian festival that was coming to town; the organizer pointed me to a fascinating woman who had been photographing coal miners and whose work was to be featured at the fest.)
But don’t totally forget the past. What are you passionate and knowledgeable about? I’ve always had a thing for film and theater, and I get a kick out of covering those areas. Events that will be running for a while are entirely fair game to cover—assuming a publication doesn’t already have a regular critic assigned to the story. One good strategy is to reach out to the section editor in charge of those areas and offer your services. Should the regular be out of town, you may be on the call list—which means you’ll snag the preview tickets to the show.
Consider holidays. A cursory glance at the calendar can open up a wealth of ideas. Publications and websites large and small are always seeking timely holiday coverage. Again, the key here is to find a unique way into the topic and to avoid the same old tired story. Rather than simply writing about how a local park is going to have a massive annual holiday light display, why not write about the backbreaking work that goes into setting it up and the stats on the rigs? Rather than writing about how Santa is going to be at the mall, why not interview the Santa, find out who he is as a person and what makes him tick, for a personality profile? I’ve become addicted to doing this over the years and have interviewed and profiled five or so Santas—all to spectacularly fun (and often spectacularly strange) effect. (As one Santa told me, “The industry gets very competitive. I know other Santas who won’t do parties and do exclusive mall work, and some who are pretty pathetic and look like they just need a meal.”)
Consider anniversaries. Dig into subjects that might have an anniversary year coming up. Your local opera house? A favorite film? There are innumerable ways to cover anniversaries, from retrospectives to the where-are-they-now approach. The history of objects and art pieces merit books of their own because so much blood, sweat, and tears went into them—and many have not been properly documented.
Haunt the archives. Many museums and city libraries maintain exhaustive local archives that you can check out. Some will require you to break out the microfilm, and others (especially newspaper archives) will often be digitally accessible through the library’s website. My advice: Open the archives at random, and see what you find. Remember that “Everybody Has a Story” bit that Steve Hartman used to do on the CBS news, where he’d throw a dart at a map and then go there and pick someone from the phone book to interview? Archives are a lot like that. Dig in, and you’ll find a cache of forgotten stories—ones that you can resurrect and follow up on to great effect.
Capitalize on your struggles. Brainstorm the hurdles you’ve recently overcome. Did you just quit smoking in an outside-the-box manner? Did you just successfully overcome installing a new door frame even though you have practically no Mr. Fix-It skills? Did you just get married and pick up some vital tips and tricks of the wedding trade? Don’t let your wisdom go to waste. Capitalize on it, and share it with others. Endless publications publish how-tos, from expert business-to-business outlets to consumer magazines and newspapers. (I once wrote a how-to about how to get pulled over, featuring advice from the cops. Unfortunately, I was a staff writer at the time, so it didn’t help me pay for the speeding ticket that spurred the idea.)
Keep an eye out for local accomplishments. Know someone who has published a book, done extraordinary mission work, pulled off an amazing or bizarre feat, or been named to one of those “20 Under 30” lists? That could be a local or national story.
Seek passion. In my experience, passion is at the heart of every good story. Every event, every community happening, every initiative, and every book has a wildly passionate person behind it who went to the often-monumental task of putting it together. Find that person. If you can get him to open up, you just might have a hell of a story on your hands.
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