[Excerpt from Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing – http://www.paullima.com/books/]
Allow me to start with a few words from Gabriele Rico, the author of the critically acclaimed Writing The Natural Way: “What the writer often lacks is not ideas but a means of getting in touch with them.”
Developing ideas is essential if you are to develop your freelance writing business. Many people who want to write feel they lack ideas for articles. … I have developed a number of ideas while walking my dog. I sold four of the dog walking-inspired ideas, and then sold an article, “Ideas, Inspiration and Dogs,” on how I develop ideas while walking my dog. (You will soon be able to read that article online at http://www.paullima.com/articles. After reading it, you will understand why my motto is “ABC—Always Be Curious!”)
I was fortunate enough to write a bi-weekly communications column for Fast Forward, the former technology section of the Toronto Star, for seven years. I say “fortunate” because a regular gig means regular income. The downside? (There’s always a downside.) Twice a month I had to come up with ideas relating to technology and communications from a consumer or small-business perspective. In other words, twice a month I had to work, whether I wanted to or not.
Okay, so it was a good problem to have.
Coming up with ideas was not as difficult after the first year or so. The research I did over the years meant I had more ideas than I could use. In addition, PR agencies were always sending me press releases with material I could build on. In the beginning, however there were weeks when my communications-column idea file was empty.
Let your fingers do the walking
One day, while looking up the name of a company in the Yellow Pages, I stumbled across the heading: COMMUNICATIONS. Thumbing through the companies listed under communications, I came across an ad for a company in Mississauga (near Toronto). The ad claimed the company had the “World’s Largest Fax Machine as listed in the Guinness Book of Records.” Tah-dah! Did my article idea light bulb burn brightly? It was like finding an instant article. Okay, not quite an instant article. Freelance writing is a business that involves more than writing.
Here’s what I had to do to write my ‘instant’ article:
– Call the company; find out who the media contact was.
– Contact that person; tell him I wanted to write about their BIG fax.
– Schedule the interview.
– Do background research on fax machines.
– Develop questions to ask during the interview.
– Conduct the interview.
– Arrange for pictures of the fax machine to be sent to my editor.
– Write and submit the article.
Even if you do not have a regular column to write, the Yellow Pages (print or online versions) can be a great place to find article ideas. Take some time, let your fingers do the walking and see if you can be inspired by category headings and individual listings.
Other external sources of ideas
There are many other external sources for article ideas beyond the Yellow Pages. National and international publications (or television news) are a great source of ideas. How so? If you want to write for a local or community newspaper, learn how to analyze national and international news from a local angle, one that would appeal to readers in your backyard.
Consider these two headlines:
War in Eastern Europe
Famine in Ethiopia
Are there people who have moved into your city or neighbourhood from these areas? Might a local human-interest story, one that focuses on their upheavals, adjustments, and accomplish-ments of these people be of interest to the editor of the local paper?
When a ski lift collapsed in British Columbia, it made the national news. Are there ski resorts in your area? What safety precautions have the owners taken to ensure the same thing can’t happen there?
Several years ago, housing construction starts were down across the country. But in Barrie, Ontario (about 60 miles north of Toronto), housing starts were up. Why? (This answer might make for a local story or it might even make for a local story that has national interest.) How does your area compare with national trends? I’m not just talking about housing trends. Think in terms of housing, crime, other social or cultural issues, immigration, economic issues, legal or political issues, and so on. If your area is leading in a trend or bucking a trend, you have a local story—and you might even have a local story of national or international interest.
Now that you’ve seen a few examples, find several article ideas of your own by analyzing the national and international news from a local perspective.
More ways to find article ideas
You can also find article ideas by reading magazines, reference books, the want ads, and famous quotations. For example: Does a ‘stitch in time’ really ‘save nine’? If so, how? Does this apply to sewing? Does it apply to preventative maintenance for cars, appliances, your health, retirement savings…? Can you see other article ideas in this or other clichés?
You can find ideas by talking to people—social workers, teachers, students, business people, taxi drivers, and so on. You can find them by eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants or grocery stores, by listening to the radio, and in many other places. But you have to be open to them or you will not see them. In short, it is your job to ABC—always be curious. So take a creative approach to thinking about article ideas.
For instance, I met a novelist in a writers’ group. During a conversation, she told me that for a long time she thought she was never going to finish her “damn novel.” I asked why and she described the adversity she had to overcome to write it. Her story went beyond the typical struggling artist story. Ping. On went my idea light. (The query is included in the Everything book; you can read the article, “Dreaming of Fat City,” online at http://www.paullima.com/articles.)
Remember : no ideas equals no articles.
[Excerpt from Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing– http://www.paullima.com/books/]