Freelance Secret #3: Steal Story Ideas from Your Own Life
It can be maddening to sit down with a stack of magazines and try to come up with a list of solid pitches. If you’re like me, most of the ideas that come off the top of your head are so obvious you’d be embarrassed to send them to an editor.
You see Brad Pitt on the cover of GQ and think, “Hey, I wonder if they’ve ever considered interviewing George Clooney!”
You read a front-of-book story in Runner’s World about how to dress for the cold and say, “You know what else would make a great story? How to dress for the heat!”
You see Cosmo and think, “If there’s one thing this publication’s readers need, it’s even more tips on how to drive their man wild in bed.”
The truth is, all three publications will likely write these exact stories sometime in the next year. But if you’re a freelancer new to the magazine, you have to come in with something fresh – something they haven’t done a hundred times before. One way to drum up story ideas is by chasing trends – combing through press releases, newspaper stories, and strangers’ Instagram accounts to find out what’s new.
But there’s another, somewhat less exhausting, way to know what people are thinking before editors do: Look in the mirror.
Make an inventory of your own interests and hobbies. Consider the problems you’re grappling with in your own life, the “how to …” phrases that you’ve found yourself Googling. Take a look at your own social media pages.
Odds are, other parents are facing the same parenting problems you are. Other body builders are facing your same body building problems, other writers are facing your same writing problems, and other woodworkers are facing your same woodworking problems. And these problems are a great place to look for story ideas.
Here are some examples from my own experience:
My son started playing with our iPad around the time of his first birthday. I knew most doctors recommend limiting screen time before the age of two, but I also knew that the research hadn’t caught up to the new technology. How worried should I be about this?, I wondered. When I couldn’t find the answer, I knew I had a decent pitch for a parenting story, which I ended up placing in Parent & Child.
During my mid-twenties, I traveled a lot, and whenever I bought a trip online I was given the option of purchasing additional insurance. I always declined, but I started to wonder what my plain, ol’ American health insurance would cover if I had to go to the hospital in the Netherlands. I turned this question into a pitch – and an assignment – for Budget Travel.
Recently, my wife was recruited for a job at a school with an innovative education model. We didn’t want to move, and so she didn’t take the job. But the experience sparked an idea for an article about schools that have experimented with new approaches to the school day, which I wrote for an education magazine.
There are many more instances where I’ve missed the boat. A year ago I went on a health kick and did a lot of research about exercise programs like CrossFit, Insanity, and P90X. I decided they weren’t for me and forgot about them. Fast-forward to today, and magazine racks are full of covers about the extreme fitness craze.
I should have pitched it.
Calvin Hennick’s travel writing has been published in The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Club Traveler, Budget Travel, SmarterTravel.com, Yahoo Travel, Northshore, WestJet, Cape Cod Travel Guide, and elsewhere. Recent assignments have taken him to Costa Rica, Tuscany, Iceland, Barbados, and Curacao. He prefers aisle seatsSee other articles by Calvin Hennick