Becoming The Rainmaker: Generating Fresh Story Ideas And Approaches

    Photo courtesy of AngelsWings.

    Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Liz Massey of Creative Liberty.

    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.

    Liz Massey is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Phoenix. She blogs about the creative process at Creative Liberty.

    About the author


    • Steve Shaw says:

      I use your notebook idea myself, yes, it’s very effective – I’ll often have my best writing ideas when doing something completely unrelated, and by writing it down there and then, I have a list of ready ideas waiting for when I do sit down and write. Also, once you get in the habit of writing ideas down in a notebook like this, it seems to stimulate further creativity, and you get ideas coming all the time. I’ve also virtually written whole articles before, or at least a large proportion of them, in a notebook if the words keep coming once I’ve released the muse! Get some strange looks mind you as I stand there scribbling …

    • Great post, as a writer I know what you mean. It is really hard to think of something original and unless you go to extremes you will end up writing what everyone else has written and that will never work

    • Ian Parker says:

      I particularly like the magazine suggestion. Getting far outside of the knowledge comfort zone can really boost creativity. Nice article.

    • Great article thank you. I couldn’t help chuckle at the tip about Trash, because that’s what write about everyday. So maybe I should delve deeper into the garbage on times.

      I rely on my notebook heavily and use “thought clouds” in mindmaps to record ideas. When I look back it greats a great snapshot of my thought processes at that point in time.

      Thanks again for some fab tips.

    • Ribeezie says:

      I’ve learned to carry around a notebook to write new ideas in because the fact of the matter is, you never know when inspiration might strike! And it’s better to write it down than to try and remember later because most of the time, it just slips our mind.

    • I don’t write in one niche, but after years as a copywriter I found my ‘voice’ had become stale and I approached clients in the same way and was thinking very much in the box. I had to shake myself up and I used the bravado approach there. Get big and crazy and see what happens. It does help. I also started blogging and I only blog about what interests me and I ahve resisted the niche and it has definitely freed up my words and improved my copywriting too.

      I also swear by my voice recorder for catching those late night brainwaves. It is quite common for me to get a post idea or a tagline while I’m trying to get to sleep.

      Great advice. Thanks.


    • Al at 7P says:

      These are some great list of suggestions. I’m a big fan of having the 24×7 notebook. Sometimes the best ideas come from nowhere.

    • sumati says:

      nice list, thanks for sharing.

    • Jim Manley says:

      I do some of these things – but not all. Since my day job requires writing in a narrow niche, my idea generator has atrophied to fit the container. Thanks for the fresh ideas.

    • “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London

    • writer dad says:

      The best thing, for me anyway, is a change of environment. If I’m constantly seeing the same things, chances are I’m thinking them too. It isn’t just the fresh air, it’s the different things you see. Nine times out of ten, a nice walk (even if it’s raining) gets me right where I need to be.

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