WordCount – Freelancing in the Digital Age

By Michelle Vranizan Rafter

10 great places writers can find story ideas

with 9 comments

When people find out I work as a freelance writer they inevitable ask, where do you get your story ideas?

It’s a simple question, but not a simple answer. The fact is, I get ideas for stories everywhere, too many places to explain in a quick soundbite for a new acquaintance.

During any given week, I’ll find ideas for stories in the local newspaper, talking to a friend or in a trade magazine. I’ve added a few resources to my idea bag of tricks over the years, thanks mainly to the Internet. And I’m happy to share.

Here, in no particular order, and my 10 favorite sources of story ideas:

Covering breaking news – This is a daily reporter’s bread and butter. Not so much for magazine feature writers. But even feature writers are called upon occasionally to attend town meetings, trials, games, press conferences or other impromptu or staged public or private gatherings to do interviews, witness something first hand or gather color for a piece they’re working on. Breaking news can be a good source of follow-up stories too.

Interviews – You’re scheduled to do an interview for story A. Don’t pass up the chance to tack on a couple miscellaneous questions at the end that could serve as a start for story B. If you get good material, you can use it in a query letter on the subject, and if you get a bite, in the story too.

Conversations with acquaintances – I don’t write about family and friends. But I do listen carefully when they talk about what’s going on in their personal or work lives because you never know when you might hear something that clicks. This happened to me not long ago when a friend told me that her company had curtailed flying to meetings and was having people do more videoconferencing. I used that tidbit along with a couple other examples to successfully pitch a story on the growth of videoconferencing in the wake of climbing costs for fuel and air travel.

Message boards – Online message boards are the 21st century equivalent of the man-on-the-street interviews I used to do as a newspaper reporter, where I’d hang out in a public place and listen to what people were saying, or go up to people and pose a question I needed answered for the story I was working on. Now I scan message boards devoted to particular topics that tie into the story I’m working on.

The local newspaper – Yes, I blog, keep up with news through my RSS feeds and spend most of my working hours in front of a screen. But I’m still an avid dead-tree newspaper reader. I parse the local paper every morning. Stories on the business page can introduce me to companies or people that could fit into a national trend piece. I’ve gotten assignments for business stories from ideas I pitched about personalities from the sports pages. And you never know what gems are hidden in pages of the local news.

Academic journals – I don’t write about health, nutrition or science, but I know writers who do and they routinely read the academic journals in their area of interest for new studies and other research they can use as the basis of stories for general-interest publications.

Trade and industry magazines – “The trades” are equivalent of academic journals for business and technology writers like me, in that they are often the first places to cover new products, services or trends. An astute writer can take stories written for a trade audience and recast them into articles that appeal to a broader audience of lay readers.

Trade shows and conventions – Back in the day, I went to the Comdex computer trade show,  Consumer Electronics Show and Internet World every year. Each one was three or four days of intense information collection and I’d come back exhausted. But by sitting in on lectures and panel discussions, visiting exhibitors’ booths, collecting product literature and schmoozing at breakfast buffets and cocktail parties I had a stockpile of information to sift through back in my office for possible trend pieces, profiles and other stories.

Numbers – I love digging into a good 10K or 10Q. Spreadsheets make me swoon. It’s not that I love numbers, it’s that I love figuring out what they mean, and then building stories around them. And as Mary Chapin Carpenter sang, “…the stars might lie, but the numbers never do.”

Press releases and PR pitches – The stories I glean from press releases aren’t necessarily the ones the agencies are selling. But the company or product being pitched might fit into a completely different trend I’m writing about. Or if it includes a source who sounds like someone I might want to use in the future, I’ll keep tabs on them by I’ll inviting them to join my LinkedIn connections.

Written by Michelle Rafter

October 17, 2008 at 1:34 pm

9 Responses

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  1. […] 10 great places writers can find story ideas […]

  2. Michelle, thanks for these! Another source that I monitor regularly is my alumni publications. Often there are interesting stories that haven’t been picked up by mainstream media yet. Scanning my class notes also gives me ideas on people who might be useful contacts. In fact, I just read that one of my old classmates is now editing a magazine in San Fran…


    October 18, 2008 at 3:13 pm

  3. Michelle,

    In this time when the economy is under such and intense spotlight, trade and business-to-business (B2B) publications are an especially great place to get information on specific niche markets — construction, farming, manufacturing, the supply chain, etc. — that might be relevant to your local area or have a significant impact the economy as a whole. As it happens, the ASBPE National Blog had a blog post on that topic today:

    Credit Crisis May Be Good and Bad for B2B Journalists

    Martha Spizziri
    Web Editor
    American Society of Business Publication Editors

    Martha Spizziri

    October 20, 2008 at 4:03 pm

  4. Martha: Thanks for weighing in on this. As a long time trade magazine writer, and former trade magazine editor, I have a great deal of respect for business-to-business publications.

    Michelle Rafter

    Michelle Rafter

    October 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm

  5. Thanks for publishing this very informative post.

    I saw your “status update” on LinkedIn and tried to use the accompanying URL to read this post, but ended up lost in cyberspace. Fortunately, I was able to click through on the “My Blog” link on your profile page. Methinks perhaps that URL needs a bit of tweaking.


    October 21, 2008 at 8:19 am

  6. Thanks Nadine. I used the Tiny URL service to make the original URL smaller. It worked for me just now, but it did take a long time to load.

    Michelle R.

    Michelle Rafter

    October 21, 2008 at 9:02 am

  7. How/where does one sign up to receive press releases and PR pitches?


    October 25, 2008 at 7:06 am

  8. […] 10 great places writers can find story ideas – Tune in to your surroundings and story ideas are everywhere. […]

  9. […] aggregators. After more years in the business than I care to share, I don’t have to. I know a good story when I see one. I can find sources. I’ve pulled court documents and interviewed relatives of […]

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