How to Be Your Own Story Idea Engine

Get out there and write!
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

You may have heard that the freelance writing business is a game of feast-or-famine. Some insist that it’s the easiest way to make a six-figure income in under a year (I’m still not quite buying that one). Where a very few talented and lucky writers might bang out their first best seller during their only attempt at NaNoWriMo and others seem to land every query they pitch, for the vast majority of us the business of freelance writing is actually more of a numbers game. That is to say, the more quality pitches you can get in front of the correct editors, the more likely it will be that one of those story ideas might catch an editor’s eye and, thus, land you a job.

When I accidentally re-posted what I wrote for Carol Tice’s advice blog, Make a Living Writing, on my own blog earlier than I was contractually allowed to, it had the happy effect of starting a brief email exchange with the Freelance Writer’s Den Mother, herself. Though our correspondence was brief, by the end of it I had garnered this little gem (it is the full, complete, unedited text of her last email to me):

Writing more = secret of success. 😉

No arguing with that one. So, what do you do when facing an idea famine? Push forth, of course! There’s always something out there to write about, and story ideas are all around you, whether you are aware of them or not. Here are a few quick tips you can use to help jump-start the idea-generator in your brain.



This is probably the only good reason to burn a little bit of time chasing random links—just make sure you stick to the ‘news’ and ‘video’ tabs as best as you can. Look for local activity you could follow up with, and when mining the web for gleams of inspiration it may be in your best interest to turn the “safe search” featuron just as a quality filter. Unless you write erotica; then, by all means, keep it off.



That’s right—go out in public, bring a notebook, post up somewhere (a coffee shop? A bar?), and just listen. Go super-incognito with headphones that are plugged into nothing. Listen for personal stories—reactions to situations that would likely not mirror your own—and take plenty of notes.


Make a New Friend

While listening-in secretly on private conversations has its benefits, the results of this process are not always going to be story-worthy. If this is the case, try actually talking to someone new—introduce yourself to someone or a small group of people sitting alone and ask a few questions. People love to talk about themselves—ask the right questions and those little glimmering details that turn real people into interesting characters will eventually start to materialize in front of you. Simple as that.


See What Others Are Writing

Take a look at your target markets again and see what pieces are making the cut. Try to think of ways to parallel the angles and approaches used in those stories on other subjects—perhaps topics with resources you can access easily within your own community or neighborhood. Bonus points if this leads you to step out of your home office on a fact-finding mission.


Re-Read a Classic

Maybe all you need in order to find something worth writing about is to be reminded of what you like reading about. And don’t be afraid to try out a twist on a classic fairy tale or fable, or an update on an old piece of long-form journalism. Call it “art for art’s sake” and build on whatever arises. This one is a game with no losers or wrong answers.


Email Blast Persons of Interest

Don’t be afraid to aim high—just like looking for paying markets, getting quality interviews from high-profile sources can be very difficult. Still, the more interview requests you make, the more you are going to land. Even if you don’t have a story angle yet, talking to people you admire is often enough of a reward on its own. Also, chances are good that an angle for your next story might become clear to you during an inspired round of conversation.


What about you—do you have any tips or tricks you use to generate brilliant story ideas? If so, I’d love to hear them!



Published by cbakeraz

Craig is a freelance writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona.

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