Some writers have more ideas than we know what to do with. Other writers stare at the computer screen, paralyzed by their fear of the blank page, secretly worried about rejection, feeling like a fraud.
So what do you do when you’re trying to come up with article ideas but you’re not sure what you want to write about? After all, you need to make a living. So you’ve got to get cracking.
Among Susan Johnston’s suggestions are:
1) Read alumni magazines
You get great ideas in these magazines to pitch to other newspapers and magazines. Besides, there is some surprisingly good writing in alumni magazines. In my experience, it’s also a pleasure to write for these magazines. They pay a fair price for articles. And you only have to deal with one, or at most two, editors. Women’s magazines, on the other hand, often edit by committee and sometimes don’t communicate well internally. Which means that you can make an entire set of changes for one editor and then have to make an entirely different set of changes (even changing things back to how you had them) for another editorial committee.
2) Combine seemingly unrelated ideas
This is the chocolate and peanut butter concept. Put two awesome foods together that are both tasty on their own and even better, though unexpected, together. So take two subjects that usually don’t go together, put them together, and you have a novel idea sure to pique the interest of an editor. A doctor who had three C-sections weighs in on home birth, for example. Or the zoo that lives in you and on you (that is, why humans aren’t actually human). Or the surprising connection Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, who was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, had to Southern Oregon and Northern California.
3) Repurpose past articles
If you’ve written an article on a subject in the past, you can always refresh and repurpose it for another audience or outlet. This is a great way to generate new articles because you’ve already done a lot of legwork and you know more about the subject than your average Joe. Maybe you’ve sold a first-person opinion piece about the importance of breastfeeding. You can then write a longer research-based article about the advantages of extended nursing.
Susan Johnston’s ideas are all very inspirational and smart.
My challenge has never been coming up with interesting and creative ideas for magazines, newspapers, or on-line sites. I think sleep deprivation helps my creativity. I have many interests, and love to write about what I don’t know but want to learn more about as a way to get paid to learn. What’s harder for me is the follow through: pitching my ideas and following up with editors if I get the Black Hole of Silence in response.
And once I sell an idea, oddly, I sometimes feel letdown, as if the thrill of the hunt has ended.
Not that I’m really sorry, of course, as I’m always grateful for assignments.
But I can’t help feeling, sometimes, like “Yikes! The editor called my bluff. Don’t they realize I have no idea what this article will really look like?! And now I have to figure that out?!”
Writer friends and colleagues, what about you? What advice do you have about coming up with article ideas?
Published: November 25, 2009
Last update: May 15, 2021