Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Where'd you get that idea?

I'm teaching two writing courses this semester. Tomorrow, everyone has to pitch me their story ideas that they'll be working on during the semester.  This is the hardest thing for some people. I get the question a lot: "How do I come up with story ideas?"

The gut reaction of any journalist over the age of 40 when he hears that comment is: "Well, if you have to ask, you're in the wrong business." Harsh. But maybe true. If you want to be a writer, you have to have a pocketful of ideas at all times. Where do you start?

Read, read, read. And make it the good stuff. See what others are writing about. Start with The New York Times (which is a daily miracle), every day. The. Whole. Thing.  The news pages fill you in on what's happening. The op-ed pages fill you in on what people think about it. The arts pages fill you in on everything from who's wearing what to the awards shows to what movies stink. I even read the Times sports pages, not because I'm interested in sports, but because I often find pieces like this pricelessly funny story. 

The Times' blogs cover everything from the Hollywood Awards Season to the environment.  College students get a huge discount, all-you-can-eat subscription rate. It's a news and features buffet! So do it. And next time you're researching anything, try TimesTopics instead of Wikipedia.

I also subscribe to The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Fortune, Wired, and I pick up More, Real Simple and Oprah at the library. What's on your reading list? If you wanna write for magazines, you need to know what they're publishing. 

Check in on other sites like the Pew Research Center, which measures trends in different areas like the economy, demographics and how  people use technology. 

See what publications are looking for. If you want to write for magazines, mediabistro.com is invaluable. I pay $50 a year for premium membership, which is totally worth it for their  How To Pitch section. Here's a link to a three-part series on which markets are buying personal essays. Wow. Got any ideas yet? 

Listen, listen, listen. If you're not listening to NPR, you're missing out on one of life's great pleasures and also a way to hear some great journalists working at the top of their game. It's another golden age of radio. Listen to This American Life with Ira Glass. Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  On Point with Tom Ashbrook. What are they talking about? Anything in your universe that fits?

Get super smart in a few areas. I'm encouraging students in my magazine writing class to follow their interests and build their  expertise in those areas. So one person is pursuing food writing--I'm encouraging her to read MFK Fisher, Alice Waters and other food writers, and get up to the library archives, where there are lots of resources on local cookbooks. The student who's interested in climbing and outdoors will dig into the publications who cover those activities and think about stories that will work for those audiences. Often when you start your reporting in one focused area, you come across other stories besides the one you're working on. All of a sudden, you've got a beat for yourself.  

Listen in on other people's conversations, especially when they're complaining. I was walking by two women who were out for a jog on Saturday morning up in Marblehead. They were about my age, and one was complaining to the other about the Facebook Timeline feature. This is about the fifth time I've heard these complains for women in my age cohort, so I'm definitely doing something on this for my fiftyshift blog at boston.com. What's a complaint that you've heard a lot of lately? Oversubscribed Spanish classes? Maybe there's a story there.

Think headline. Sometimes you can sell a story with a good headline. In the course of developing the above idea, I came up with a headline: Does this tech make me look old? Now I have to write the piece, about how and why older people need to freshen up their tech skills regularly, starting with getting rid of that hotmail e-mail account. A good headline needs some action, a noun and a verb. What have you got?

Three makes a trend. See above. Three of anything, from being dumped on Facebook to removing a tattoo might be a trend story. Look around.

Localize a national story. This is easy if you've been reading the news. What's the local impact of changes to student loan regulations? Has President Obama's administration been good for young people or not and how?  Are students engaging with the Republican primary race, and if so, how? If not, why not? 

Explain the unusual. Make sense for the reader of something they don't get.

Explain the usual. The Pulitzer was awarded one year to the journalist who explained how the Hubble Telescope worked.

The current events explainer. I've always thought the Collegian could use a column that explains, in, say 400 words, a current news event or topic using the expertise of any of the great faculty at UMass. Can you explain the current Iran situation for the busy college student? It might be hard, but what a service you'd be providing. And you could syndicate it to other papers.

The private side of a public person.  What does the new president of UMass do in his off hours? Enquiring minds want to know.

The public side of a private person. Who exactly is that dining commons lady who has a smile for everyone every day? How'd she get here? What does she know?

Interview the expert. UMass has a lot of them. Check out the UMass News Office website. Or check the Five College Calendar. Who's going to be speaking? Who's selling a book? Any of these people would probably do an interview with you to get publicity for their appearances.

Think timely and seasonal:  Holidays, seasons, sporting events,  birthdays, bicentennials, anniversaries, all offer story opportunities. You'll need to plan ahead for this one. Are you keeping a calendar?

Use mindmapping techniques to flesh in your idea.  We do a lot of "no-stakes" writing in my magazine writing class, just to get the juices flowing.  There are lots of techniques out there for tapping into the other side of your brain to get yourself going. Here's a link to Writing the Natural Way, which I use in class. Mindmapping is another technique that lets you brainstorm an idea without any structure, judgment or editing, until it works. Here's a fun site to try this. 

Have you got ideas about how to generate ideas? What works for you?


Steve Fox said...

The best advice I ever got in managing reporters was to find stories they are passionate about...it makes life easier.

Follow your passions!


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