10 ways to generate story ideas

by Rob Johnson
26 October 2020

Generating story ideas is the hardest part of pitching. I suspect that’s why so few people pitch stories to editors. You’d be surprised how few. I have about 120 writer contacts in my book, and I reckon about five of them would pitch regularly. But those five writers get the lion’s share of any work I’m farming out. If writing is your business, figuring out how to generate good story ideas is a sure-fire way to get work.

But no-one teaches you how to do it. If you give it a go and you’re rejected, no-one ever gives you detailed feedback on why. Based on many of the pitches I have received, I think writers often start with a story idea they’d like to write. Then they try to find a magazine to sell it into. Which is virtually a recipe for rejection.

It’s mentally taxing to come up with ideas that will be rejected. So I’ve laid out these ten way of coming up with stories to take a bit of that cognitive load off. Following them won’t give you a list of stories that will definitely be commissioned. But it will make it easier to come up with multiple ideas and do so regularly.

Where to start

Don’t start with the story. Start with the magazine or website. Even better, start with the audience of the magazine or website. I know this is tricky, because it’s the story that excites you. But the editor who will commission this story is thinking about their audience. And it’s the editor you’re pitching to.

What you want to know is; who is the audience, and what is their problem? What are they trying to solve or fix in their life by reading this magazine or website?

Some publications and sites have poorly defined audiences. This may be hard advice to take, but it’s probably good to steer clear of pitching to them. Because no matter how much you like it, if they can’t define their audience, they can’t judge whether your idea is any good. And they probably also can’t define that audience to advertisers, which means they’re likely to go broke and not pay you.

If you’ve settled on a title you’d like to write for, go onto their website and hunt down their media kit. That will tell you who they think their audience is. If you’re pitching to Bauer magazines (or ARE, or whatever they’re called this week), for example, you’ll find a breakdown of their audience at www.baueradvertising.com.au/brands/. If you want to pitch to the Herald, you’ll find out about their audiences at www.nineforbrands.com.au/our-audience/. If you’re pitching to a trade magazine like the dentist magazine I have, go to bitemagazine.com.au/advertise/.

Once you’ve got your head around who the audience is that you’re writing for, try one of these ten strategies to generate story ideas.

1. Find someone who has solved their problems

Everyone has problems. They go online or to magazines to solve them. Whatever the problem is, find someone from that particular audience who has solved it. There’s your case study (and lede) for your article—here’s person X, and this is their problem. Ask them if they got help solving it—there’s your expert commentator. Ask the commentator if they’ve solved the problem for anyone else. There’s case study two.

2. Connect issues to people

Our world is full of issues, both big and small. Sexism, racism, entrenched disadvantage, climate change, nutrition … I’m sure you can come up with a longer list. An issue, in and of itself, is not a story. But how does that issue effect the audience you’re targeting? Is it something they can solve, or help solve? Is there someone who looks a lot like your audience who is dealing with that issue? There’s a story there.

3. Use keyword tools

Keyword tools have long been used by SEO agencies to look for keywords they can then target with paid ads. But they can also be a great prompt for story ideas. Tools like Google Trends or Answer The Public draw data based on other people’s searches. Type in a couple of words related to either your audience or the problem you’re researching. Each tool will give you a long list of search queries people have used with those words in them. Then trawl through to see which one sparks an idea.

4. Use form rather than content

Describing a story in terms of a standard format makes it much easier for an editor to picture. When I say format, I mean as a Q&A interview, or a list, or a for-an-against — a format that describes how to story will look as much as what it will be about. A clear format can disguise a weak story angle, because the format draws you in as much as the content. But thinking in terms of format may also help you home in one what’s strong about a story.

5. Look to the sections

Have a look at the different sections of the title you want to write for. Make a list of what stories are in each section. When you read back over your lists, you’ll immediately start to see what those stories have in common. If you can’t bring yourself to look at the actual pages or stories, look at the contents page — it’ll break things up into sections. If you’ve got some ideas for profiles or issues that you think may be relevant to this audience, see if you can fit them within the format of the sections.

6. Steal ideas from overseas

You may be reading an article in an overseas title similar to the one you’re targeting and think, ‘I wonder if this issue happens in Australia?’. That’s not really stealing an idea, I know—it’s probably safer to call it ‘direct inspiration’. In any case, I’m not suggesting plagiarising someone else’s story. I’m suggesting taking a core idea and seeing if it applies here. Even better, see if that idea applies here and fits in a different format.

7. Steal ideas from television

Repay the favour. Television producers have been stealing ideas from print for decades. Now we have all these lifestyle programs and documentaries and reality shows, all brimming with stories to tell. And they all have an incredibly limited format in which to tell them. The stories that are told on TV can almost always be told with greater depth, colour and candour in print or online. And because you’re not limited by time or the need to have images for everything, you can probably do a better job of it.

8. Steal ideas from universities and/or journals

One of my favourite writers is Malcolm Gladwell. I’ll read pretty much anything he writes, as well as listen to his podcasts. He’s been interviewed many times about where his ideas come from, but you don’t need to listen to those interviews to understand how he does it. He reads academic papers and journals. Particularly sociology and psychology journals. He looks at the research academics are doing, and then uses it to explain a surprising phenomenon, like why people crash particular cars or why chips are tasty. If that research debunks common wisdom, even better. If you can’t find journals or don’t understand them, pop over to a university’s website and see what their academics are researching. Apply their research to the problems or issues of the audience you’re writing for.

9. Help out a fellow author

This is an oldie but a goodie. Book publishers will often list their upcoming releases on their websites. Surf over to any list that ISN’T new release fiction and see what’s coming out. The author of every one of those books will dig the publicity from being featured in a feature article. The story doesn’t have to be straight plug for the book. The subject matter of the book might be the jumping off point for an article on a different topic, with the author as a ready-to-interview expert. It also offers an element of novelty or currency to the story—so when you pitch it, you can say, “This expert has a book on this topic coming out in two months’ time”.

10. Ask a reader

Do you know someone who either reads that title, or fits the profile of a reader? Ask them what they want to know. You’ll have to ask some pretty specific questions, of course, because people don’t always know what they don’t know, if you know what I mean. If you’re the target audience, then sit down with some mates just like you and a list of regular sections, and ask each other what you want to know.

In conclusion

Having a system to generate story ideas doesn’t make the ideas predictable. It just lessens the cognitive load required to come up with them. And if coming up with them is less effort, you’ll be less attached if a few get rejected or passed on.

Set aside an hour or two once a week, or once a month. Set a goal of coming up with two ideas each session. Keep a log of them, and you’ll find in a couple of months you will have a wealth of ideas to pitch. Then follow a few of my tips for pitching to editors that were published here before, and wait for the work to roll in. You won’t be waiting long.

How often do you pitch story ideas – or do you wait for commissions to come to you? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments. (And don’t forget, if you ARE pitching stories regularly, our pitch tracker is essential.)

Rob Johnson
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One response on "10 ways to generate story ideas"

  1. Thanks Rob, this excellent, so extensive and really helpful. I’m surprised so few writers pitch you. I feel I have heaps of ideas but something else is holding me back, getting back in the trade after a 15 year hiatus! That’s why I’m currently enrolled in Rebecca L. Weber’s “Freelance Writers Bootcamp” course, where she’s actually teaching pitching! (She’s not paying me anything for promoting her, by the way :))

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