The old adage is true: Time is money. But for most freelancers, coming up with timely ideas that spur editors to assign stories is one of the most difficult—and time-consuming—parts of the business. So we’ve come up with 20 ways to generate salable article ideas in fewer than 20 minutes each. Some are gleaned from personal experience, while others require quick research online or in trade or consumer publications. Still, others are fresh takes on classic ideas—sometimes all you need is a new angle. Ready to get started? Grab a pen and paper … and go!
20 Ways to Generate Article Ideas
1. Pick up any trade magazine lying around the house (perhaps even this one!). See that cover story? How can you modify it so that it appeals to a consumer magazine or newspaper audience?
2. Pick up today’s newspaper and read a national story. How can you make it local? Alternatively, take a local news story from your neighborhood or regional newspaper. Can you find ways to make it a national story?
3. Think about the two biggest problems you’re facing right now. For example, say you’re struggling to find a job and because you’re always busy working or looking for jobs, you have no time for a social life and therefore no friends. Combine the two topics to come up with a clever idea. “7 Ways Your Friends Can Prove Key to Your Job Search” could be one angle. “How Your Job Is Killing Your Social Life—and What to Do About It” is another.
4. Find the hidden character in a news story, profile, or narrative piece. The article may be about the star of the movie, the president, or a famous chef, but who is doing the important behind-the-scenes work? Share what a day in the life of a White House staffer or sous-chef looks like.
5. Log in to Twitter. What are the top five trending topics in your region, in your country, and across the globe? Choose a few to write about.
6. Look online for a list of upcoming things to do in your region (scan conference schedules, check special events, etc.). What are the most popular events in your region? What topics are they focusing on this year? Are there any article ideas in there for you? Pitch stories about the subjects of those events to in-flight, trade, and specialty magazines.
7. Think of a magazine or newspaper article that you’ve recently read. Consider what was missing from the story. What more would you have liked to know? What questions came up as you read the story? Can you take a different angle or approach to help answer those questions? Is there potential for an entirely new set of questions and an entirely new piece?
8. Picture yourself with all the time and money in the world to do whatever you want. Will you be found camping in the mountains, playing the piano, or learning salsa? Those are your potential interests—write them down. Now ask yourself what else you would like to know about them. Pitch those questions as article topics.
9. Look on Amazon for the latest books on topics that interest you. Pick a book and browse through its list of chapters for article ideas that you can give new slants and angles to. The bestseller lists are a good way to ascertain what’s current and interesting to people at any given moment.
10. The editorial staffs of women’s magazines have known for decades what the online world is only just discovering: People love lists—the longer, the better. So come up with 101 ways to do something, be something or know something, and you have a winner. Just remember to be clever. “101 Ways to Be Happier” has been done 101 times. Be specific, too. Instead of “101 Ways to Save More This Month” write, “101 Ways I Saved $1,389 in One Month.”
11. Find an old newspaper and skim through the headlines. What can you follow up on? Examples include a politician’s campaign promises and whether they held true, or updates on people who lost their homes during a natural disaster.
12. Test tips and theories offered by experts on how to solve problems. Choose 10 of the current most popular diets, for instance, and talk to dieticians to see if they really withstand scientific analysis. Or, in your own marriage, try out every relationship tip from the just-released books on the market and see how they hold up in real life. Look through bestseller lists to find ideas for these stories.
13. Find weird holidays, events, festivals, and carnivals around your area, or do a quick search on Google to see if there are any major town or city anniversaries this year that you could write about—the centenary of the local church or the 25th anniversary of the worst flood the community ever saw. Write about them individually or as a collection of strange events from your region.
14. Look through a magazine’s classified ads. The ads specifically cater to the magazine’s audience, so for each ad, think about the problem it’s trying to solve for the readers and then write a pitch offering more tips to meet that particular need.
15. Pick any subject (agriculture, education, engineering, neuroscience, community service) and do a quick Google search to see how technology is changing these areas and what new technologies are on the horizon. Sign up for e-newsletters related to those industries to stay up to date on new research for future articles. Then write about them.
16. Think of two jobs you’ve held over the years and tap into them for story ideas. Were you a teacher in a previous incarnation? Use that experience with young children to identify the problems in that age group for a parenting or education magazine. Worked in tech support? What are the most common problems Mac users face? Door-to-door salesman? Pitch a “get better at persuasion” article to a women’s magazine. Human resource manager? Write an article on how you can motivate your kids to do housework.
17. Remember those word games in which one person would come up with a word and then every other person would have to somehow come up with a related one? Play the same game with ideas. Think of a word, a sentence, or a phrase, and then come up with ideas related to it.
18. Dig up your favorite photo album, an old magazine, or just pictures that are lying around the house. What sort of article could you write around these pictures? Of course, this completely depends on the images you’re looking at, but if you were to place these photographs on a magazine page, what article would they be accompanying? Would the photograph of you on a roller coaster be next to an article teaching readers how to slow down and enjoy life, or would it be about dealing with the fear of heights?
19. Pick any topic, say technology. Now generate ideas on this topic for different magazines. For instance, with technology, I might try to come up with ideas for women’s magazines, young adult magazines, relationship magazines, or, perhaps, even business magazines. Better yet, get really specific. Think of topics such as taxes, solar energy, or smartphones. What can you tell readers of a relationship magazine about smartphones? Readers of a business magazine? A personal-finance publication?
20. Read through official reports to identify the latest trends. Check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (fda.gov), the Federal Communications Commission (fcc.gov), and the U.S. Census Bureau (census.gov) for facts, figures, and the most recent news for story ideas. Visit phys.org for the latest breakthroughs in medical science, physics, technology, and more.