Freelance Story Ideas

An excerpt from Zachary Petit's new book, The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing.

Zachary Petit, Writing for
7-minute read
Episode #508


On the first day of my first newspaper job, I sat down at my desk and wondered what the hell I should be doing.

I expected assignments—you know, the editor strolls over and says, “Write this,” or “Write that.” But as I sat there, I realized I wasn’t getting any assignments. You can see my dilemma. I had to write something. That’s why I was being paid the princely sum of $10 an hour. Sure, I had the police beat (at that time, it entailed driving around to every local city and county station to collect crime reports, accident reports, and so on, and to look for anything that might tangibly make for a good story). But I didn’t know what to write about. I went to my editor, who gave me a curious sidelong glance. I asked him what I should write about. He suggested I go over to a local auto parts store because they had just expanded.

So I did.

I wrote 200 words on it. But then I had to write something else.

I contacted an old professor and lamented my cause.

“Frankly, I’m ashamed,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, stunned.

“Because you’re a reporter. You’re supposed to be out enterprise reporting. Did you learn nothing in school?”

Enterprise reporting. Basically it means that you get off your a**, go out, and find a story. Once in a blue moon, good stories fall into your lap while you’re sitting at a computer. The rest of the hunt is on you.

So I went out. I saw a sign on the side of a quiet country road on my way to the police station: WELCOME HOME. It had military insignias. So I found the family’s phone number, and I called them up. What I got from them was an emotional and intense story that appeared in the paper the next day.

And I’ve been chasing things that could be interesting puddles of words ever since. It’s funny: Once you train your mind to be on the hunt for stories, you eventually have many more than you’ll ever be able to write. I keep an idea folder in my phone into which I jot everything and anything, and a few persistent nuggets have been in there for years. (Maybe one day I’ll have time to write them.)

Coming up with ideas—good ones, sustainable ones, ones readers want and editors salivate over—is no easy task. But it’s not the hardest thing in the world, either.

Since you’ve identified your markets, the next thing to do is get to know them intimately. (That’s why it often helps to pitch markets you’re already familiar with and read regularly.) Read at least one copy of the latest issue of your target market. If you’re really serious, read three.

Then ask yourself: What would readers of this publication want to read? It’s time to get those wheels turning. Here are a number of exercises to get you started on your own ideation vacation and generate some solid article ideas.

Essential Guide to Freelance Writing

Channel your expertise. What knowledge do you possess—or could you find out—that nobody but you could? What do you do in your day job that would fascinate people? What insight into a topic you’re obsessed with would a broader audience eat up?

Read large and think small. One easy trick of the trade reporters use is to observe what’s in the big national media and then localize it. What national concerns are affecting your own town? The financial crisis was in the national news at one paper I worked for, and we put together a great series on all the abandoned big-box stores in town. Is the keeping of wild pets and the dangers thereof trending in the media? (Did a guy just lose a toe to his pet cheetah?) Find an exotic pet owner or vet in your area, and interview her. The key here is to cover your subject in an honest and organic way that feels fresh—not like you’re just riding the coattails of CNN.

Think small and pitch large. Is a big story happening in your neighborhood that a much wider audience would be interested in? Pitch it. It could turn into a news story in a major outlet. Or it could be a narrative feature story in a magazine. There’s a lot to be said for the writer who can spot unexplored potential in a simple news story and dig deeper to turn it into a full-fledged narrative. After reading an amazing feature in Wired magazine about ten years ago, I e-mailed the writer to ask how the heck she came across such a crazy scoop. Her answer: She saw a blurb about it in her local newspaper and knew there had to be more to the story.

Keep your ear to the ground. Sounds obvious, right? The difference between a writer and a normal person is that a normal person says “Wow” when they hear an amazing story. We say “Wow,” too, and then our imaginations get to work figuring out what else there might be to the story—and if it’s something worth digging into and sharing with a wider audience. So tune your ear, and always consider what could be a story. This applies to any form of coverage—from a new restaurant coming to town to a career-making news story about a corrupt politician. Talk to people. Building up contacts is key to getting the stories to come to you.