Career Advice

Find Story Ideas by Thinking Like a Reader — Haphazardly

By Grace Bello June 25th, 2013

“Who comes up with your ideas for you?” is the most common question I get from non-journalists and brand new writers.

I hate to break it to you, but if you’re a writer, original ideas are your responsibility. While your editor will collaborate with you, it is more as a curator, manager, and quality controller. An editor’s main charge isn’t telling you what to do, it’s honing what you’re already bringing to the table.

Which poses a problem: How do you come up with stories that are not only distinct but ones that may go viral?

I’ll address the idea generation question in a minute, but first I want to dispel the myth that one can predict which topics will be popular and which ones won’t Virality is unpredictable. One thing I’ve learned from interviewing successful cartoonists, illustrators, filmmakers, and authors is that you never quite know what will resonate with an audience. Craft a story too broad, and it will feel generic. Create something too specific, and there may not be a market for it.

You can’t reverse engineer popularity. But what you can do is write the kinds of stories that you would want to read.

Slate editor Laura Helmuth figures out what she should write about by following the advice of the late journalist Molly Ivins: “Pay attention to what makes you angry and what makes you laugh. And that’s what you should write about.”

As bloggers, content strategists, and journalists, we want our own stories to be the ones that people talk about around the water cooler. We work on a piece for a few weeks or months, and we believe that our own blog posts or articles are our darlings. And perhaps total strangers  not just, like, our parents  will tell their friends to read the story that we worked on so diligently.

“Pay attention to what makes you angry and what makes you laugh. And that’s what you should write about.”

But the truth is, the reader is fickle, harried, and impatient. Online, she’s got about a billion tabs open: a listicle of cat gifs, a flash sale website, The New York Times, a personal calendar, a YouTube video of the latest Internet meme, your article, and a fake Excel spreadsheet for when the boss hovers over her shoulder.

In the battle for her attention, your story might not win. But here’s what gives your story a fighting chance: an element of surprise.

One of my colleagues Ben Popken wrote, “Metrics matter. How much a story kicks you in the gut is a metric.”

In my case, some of my favorite articles that I’ve written have come from pursuing odd topics that piqued my interest. For The Hairpin, I approached a (male!) Sweet Valley High ghostwriter who had the inside scoop on penning the popular YA girls’ series. For Tablet, I visited the 2nd Ave Deli to find out why one of their kosher dishes might be going extinct.

These aren’t stories that I read about in someone else’s blog. These are stories that I found by meeting the ghostwriter by chance and calling him up eight years later because his experience stuck with me. These are stories that I heard firsthand by chatting with the owner of the 2nd Ave Deli one morning at brunch.

You’d think that the best way to generate ideas is by browsing what’s trending on Twitter, but quite the opposite: You need to have conversations face to face or over the phone. You need to be able to ask questions and go beneath the surface of a topic.

I realize that some writers out there choose to focus on efficiency rather than creativity. Those writers will never stop searching for shortcuts, and it will show in the low quality of their work.

But in my experience, there are no shortcuts. Journalists are storytellers. And the best stories can’t be created with an algorithm.

I urge you to follow your instincts. Ask yourself: What am I curious about? What stories made me laugh, cry, or want to take action? Which people have I met who are memorable and whose insights can illuminate something that I never knew before?

You can’t predict what will become popular. And you can’t always predict what an editor will want. But here’s what you do know: which stories stay with you long after the conversation has ended. With any luck, your readers will feel the same way, too.

Grace Bello is a lifestyle and culture reporter based in New York. She teaches writing online for Skillshare.

Image courtesy of Julián Santacruz/flickr

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