Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: How Do I Find Enough Stories for My Particular Beat?

By Nicole Dieker February 24th, 2015

In his Freelance Strategy Hacks video (which I strongly recommend to any freelance writer), Shane Snow mentions how writers should have one or two specializations, or areas of expertise. My question is, once we have focused on one topic—science, culture, etc.—how do we go about hunting down the best stories for that beat?

—Hunter Education

Isn’t Shane Snow’s Freelance Strategy Hacks video the best? I also strongly recommend it to writers who are looking to formulate a plan of attack for a freelancing career.

But one your career is up and running, suddenly you face a new challenge: finding the enough stories for your specific beat. Becoming a science writer seems like a great idea until you realize you have to come up with, say, 52 unique science-related stories a year. How do you keep it up?

Although I write on everything from coffee shops to kigurumi, I’ve settled into three primary beats:

1. Personal finance “with an emphasis on the personal,” like the writing I do for The Billfold.

2. Pop culture, like the work I do for SparkLife and MindHut.

3. The business of freelancing, including this weekly Ask A Freelancer column and my Tracking Freelance Earnings column on The Write Life.

How do I find the best stories for these beats? In my case, it comes down to a three-pronged strategy: reading news, following my interests, and asking questions.

Every weekday, Monday through Friday, I publish two stories on The Billfold. How do I come up with 10 new personal finance stories every week? I read a lot of news. Every morning, I get up and start reading sites like Slate, The Atlantic, and The New York Times to look for topics I can turn into stories.

I want to keep these stories as current and fresh as possible. On February 11, for example, Slate published “If You Aren’t Rich By 45, Give Up;” on February 12, I posted “I Have 12 Years to Become Rich,” which took the big ideas in the Slate piece and applied them to my own finances.

I’m not the only person who gets ideas from regular reading. As Make A Living Writing’s Carol Tice puts it: “I read—or I should say quickly skim and analyze—dozens and dozens of sources every week, from daily papers and monthly magazines to online blogs and e-newsletters.”

Or, as Stephen King cautions in On Writing: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

What are you reading every morning? If you are a science writer, are you reading everything from Popular Science to Science News to The New York Times science section? What about the Harvard Gazette’s science and health section or NASA’s news feed? The more you read, the more likely you are to find that piece of news that inspires your next idea.

I also find good stories by following my interests. When I was 16, I played Little Red Riding Hood in a community theater production of Into The Woods and fell in love with Sondheim musicals. Last year, when I learned that Disney was making an Into The Woods movie, I pitched SparkLife on what became an entire series of Into The Woods coverage, including taking close looks at the soundtrack, the costumes, the trailers, and—of course—the completed film. I was able to write several good stories off that single interest.

The idea of developing stories from your interests is so important that Kurt Vonnegut made it the first rule on his list of “How to Write With Style:” “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

Chances are your beat is based, at least in part, on your interests, so start following those interests. What new inventions or developments are you excited about? What movies, books, and products pique your curiosity? That’s where you should be developing your pitches.

While we’re on the subject of curiosity—start asking questions. Behind every question is a story. I pitched Unbounce what became “How to Write Click-Worthy Blog Headlines Without Resorting to Clickbait” because I was tired of seeing clickbait headlines and wanted to know what other types of headlines got similar engagement results. I didn’t know the answer to my question when I pitched the idea, but I knew the answer would both satisfy my curiosity and be useful to others.

Try sitting down and brainstorming 25 questions related to your beat, then see which of those questions might lead to interesting stories. Or find one of the news sites you read every day, look at a recent article, and ask yourself, “What is the biggest question I still have after reading this article?”

Here’s one final thought for you, if you fixate on finding “the best” stories, you’ll spend a lot of time worrying that a story isn’t good enough and that there might be a “better” idea out there. Instead, find story ideas that interest you and inspire you to ask questions, and turn those ideas into great stories.

Having a specialty is important, but there’s so much overlap between beats at this point that it shouldn’t be too hard to shape a topic until it works with your interests. If you’re a science writer, you can still write about science in movies, the science of listening to music, how politicians view scientific issues, sports science, etc. Ultimately, your beat is supposed to help guide you as a freelancer, so try not to get stuck thinking your ideas have to fit strict parameters.

A call to our readers: The Ask A Freelancer column is inspired by reader questions. We get a lot of questions from entry-level freelancers, but we’re also interested in hearing from freelancers who have been working for a while. What questions do you have about managing your business or building your career? Which burning freelance questions keep you up at night? Why not ask them here? Send your questions to Nicole Dieker at dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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