How do you get your ideas?
I got this question from a couple different people, and I am excited to answer it because I think it’s a very important—and potentially intimidating—part of any freelance career. But fear not, as long as you have a process in place, you can actually enjoy coming up with topics to write about.
I generally complete between 20 to 30 pieces per week, which includes news articles, listicles, blog posts, and copywriting assignments. That means I’m working on four or five pieces every weekday. Constantly needing to think of fresh material does come with a little pressure.
When I’m copywriting, it’s simple: The client provides ideas, and it’s my job to flesh them out with good copy.
However, usually, an editor will give me a general theme and ask me to pitch a specific idea. When I wrote “Back-to-School Shopping: Be Your Kids’ Money Coach” for Today.com, for example, my editor said he wanted a piece about parenting and money, so I thought the audience would be interested reading about how to teach financial lessons during back-to-school shopping.
Often, finding ideas depends on research from current events and news sites. For my work at The Billfold, I need to come up with one or two fresh articles per day. This means I spend part of every morning looking up the latest financial news, seeing if there’s anything that sparks an idea.
And then there’s The List. In addition to my other organizational tools for freelancing, I keep a big list full of ideas I’d like to write about someday. I recommend you keep a list like that as well. Put anything on the list—questions you have about the world (that you can answer by reporting on the subject), stories from your own life that might make good first-person essays, even general areas of interest and expertise.
One of the pitches that has been on my list forever, for example, is the idea that kids can learn just as much about spending and saving by playing video games as they can with an actual allowance. (This is based on my own childhood, of course, where I learned a lot about saving, spending, and planning ahead by buying armor, magic spells, and tents in Final Fantasy.) That idea may make it into an article someday.
Your list becomes a crucial resource whenever you run into researcher’s block. Yesterday, when I knew I needed to send three fresh pitch ideas to an editor, I drew one pitch from a recent experience, one pitch from an idea that popped into my head, and one pitch from The List.
There’s one more piece of advice I have for people who need to come up with ideas as often as I do: In the end, it’s about both the idea and the writing, not just one or the other. Your job as a writer is to take any idea, whether you get it from an editor or pull it from the bottom of a list, and turn it into a well-written piece. There’s so much content out there, which can lead to a lot of second-guessing if you think your ideas aren’t original enough. But even if you can take an existing topic and find a different way of looking at it, odds are that’ll be enough to get you work.
For that reason, I don’t worry too much about where I get my ideas. There are plenty of ideas out there. My job is to pick a few that sound like good starting points and begin writing.
Nicole Dieker has a lot of ideas of her own, but she needs ideas from you to make this column work. Please send your Ask a Freelancer questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.