5 Ways to Find Off-Beat Story Ideas

Editors are constantly looking for fresh angles, new ideas, and untold stories to fill the pages of their magazine or the homepage of the website. Which sends freelance writers scrambling for those diamond-in-the-rough stories just waiting to be told.

The truth is, there’s no magic bullet for uncovering these hidden gems, because they can pop up anywhere. But once you get into the mindset of scouting for story ideas, that trickle of inspiration can quickly turn into a flood. Here are five ways to get started.

1. Play the contrarian.
A few years ago, everyone was writing about how social media was the hot new way to find a joy. But a few writers turned this notion on its head, writing about how social media mistakes could actually cost you your job. For every trend, there’s usually a flip side to the coin. For instance, instead of writing about house foreclosures, you could look at people who found unusual ways to save their homes. Instead of covering the iPhone craze, you could talk to smartphone holdouts or people who’ve decided to give up cell phones altogether.

2. Mine the cutting room floor.
In most cases, you’ll collect more research than you can actually cram into the article. Focus on covering the items your editor wants, but hold onto any surprising stats or other discoveries, as these can be great fodder for a future piece. Maybe in the midst of interviewing a mortgage expert, you go off on a tangent and discover that your expert also runs an artisan chocolate business on the side or sings with an ABBA cover band. Who knows? Maybe you can pitch another piece about their unusual hobby or business.

3. Listen to the peanut gallery.
Editors want to deliver content that’s relevant to their readers, but they don’t always have time to read every single comment or forum post. Still, these can be a gold mine of ideas! If you publish an article and readers leave follow-up questions in the comments, pitch your editor a second article that addresses those questions. If a website has a forum attached, see what topics readers are chatting about. Or if it’s a print publication, read the letters to the editor. I once got an idea for an article based on a job rant a reader emailed me in response to a career article I’d written.

4. Ask your sources.
Whenever I’m wrapping up an interview, I ask sources what other trends or issues they’re noticing in their industry. Often they spot under-the-radar topics before those stories are picked up by mainstream media. Or if you’re interviewing “real people” sources, you can ask what else they’d like to read about in the magazine or website and report back to your editor.

5. Look at Twitter trending topics.
Since conversations on Twitter are much more “now” than magazine articles or even websites, you can often spot trends or germs of an idea while they’re still brand new. Trending topics, which track popular words or phrases in real time, show up on Twitter’s homepage or by geographic location after you log in. You can also create lists to organize your feeds, since individual tweets can also spark interesting ideas.

With a little creative idea sleuthing, you can position yourself as an editor’s go-to writer when they need new ideas.

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.