If you’ve written nonfiction for any length of time, particularly if you write in a specialized “niche,”it’s possible to reach a point when you feel as if you’ve run out of fresh ideas. You’ve done all the seasonal stories, covered all the breaking developments in your field—and the ideas for your next feature just aren’t coming. You’ve reached what we in the industry politely refer to as a “dry spell,” although when you’re in one, it more often feels like you’ve crash-landed in the desert.
However, it’s possible to transform this sandy expanse into an oasis. Reframing what you consider good story sources and how you approach topics you cover frequently can add zest and vigor to your writing and increase editor, and reader, interest.
Fresh sources of story ideas
Part of the reason many writers get stuck is that they tend to look in the same old places to drum up new story ideas. Looking in unexpected, even counter-intuitive, places for inspiration can break free new insights that can lead to intriguing story concepts.
Places to look for new ideas can include…
¨ The trash.Take note of what gets labeled “waste” or “a problem” in your field. What is everyone trying to avoid?
¨ The ol’ watering hole. Don’t stop at interviewing your sources—hang out where your sources congregate. Spend some time at the restaurant everyone frequents or the popular mixers during the “must-do” conference. What projects are hot?
¨ Your network of industry “Deep Throats.” Talk to those on the other end of the spectrum from your typical audience. Write for trade magazines? Talk to customers. Write for consumer-facing publications? Talk to vendors and suppliers to the industry.
¨ Your own bravado. Start a list titled “articles that will get me fired” or “stories no editor will ever publish” and jot down all the ideas you don’t dare suggest. Then scale these paradigm-busters back to what’s possible.
Fresh story approaches
Dry spells also get started because writers (and their editors) get in the rut of writing (or assigning)the same types of stories over and over again. It’s possible to take an evergreen topic and give it new life by experimenting with the following approaches.
- ¨ Practice “service journalism.” If you don’t already, start packaging article information in a way that readers can act on immediately. Think tip sheets,resource boxes, bulleted lists.
- ¨ Pick apart the ordinary. Use photos and reportage to deconstruct briefcases,lunches, desk drawers, calendar systems, etc., and document the effect of large-scale trends on individual employees, customers, or vendors.
- ¨ Be a contrarian. Editors love contrast for a reason—it sells. Turn an old approach on its head and see if the concept flies. Suggest a story where a company’s CEO interviews you (the reporter), or pitch an article focusing on how companies meet the needs of their smallest accounts, rather than the largest.
- ¨ Put old stories in new formats. Pouring stories into formats such as letters, memos,grade cards and scripts can aid understanding and increase reader enjoyment.
- ¨ Get the reader involved. Quizzes and puzzles can make difficult-to-understand information interesting. Suggest that your editor run contests (with prizes) to encourage feedback and input on articles or entire issues.
Keep those fresh ideas coming
Perhaps the easiest way to avoid dry spells is to proactively cultivate story ideas. Use the activities below to produce a steady rain of ideas, so you’ll have a wellspring which you can draw from any time you’re asked to contribute an original story idea.
- Keep a writer’s notebook with you at all times to capture random insights or research leads.
- Expose yourself to new experiences constantly. Stretch yourself.
- Buy five magazines that are far outside your area of expertise (and interest). Read them cover to cover. Catch your insights from this process in your writer’s notebook.
- Keep a list of“Burning Questions” in your notebook, too. What provokes you? Angers you?Amazes you? Ideas that provoke strong responses also possess built-in energy that can help you stay motivated as you research and write on the topic.