First published on http://www.mediauodate.co.za in November 2015
How do you know a writer has been smacked by the proverbial ‘block’? Their screen is left blank and a brew of used coffee cups is left in their wake. The main reason writers block often strikes is that a strong enough story idea has not formed, leaving writers’ index fingers fixed to the backspace key or avoiding the work altogether.
By Remy Raitt
And this goes for writing across the board; fiction, media work, advertising and even academia. Without a solid story idea, it’s incredibly hard to produce a piece of well-formed and compelling content.
Author, copywriter and columnist, Paige Nick, says developing story ideas is a habit you need to train yourself into. “I work in three different types of media; advertising, columns and books, and they are all quite different, but I still draw on the same sorts of experiences and similar techniques, each just uses a slightly different muscle. It’s like walking up a hill, but backwards, you’re still walking, you’re just using a different skill to accomplish the walk.”
These techniques differ from writer to writer, and yet many wordsmiths rely on the same sources to sprout excellent ideas, which in turn become excellent pieces of writing.
“A lot of ideas are garnered from what’s trending and taking up a lot of mental space online and in the public opinion, or using topical issues as ‘hooks’ for other, more ‘evergreen’ issues,” says Your Familyonline editor and freelance feature writer, Samantha Steele. She says her first port-of-call is usually the internet.
“I am a voracious online reader and consumer of social media, and it is through reading that ideas will come, and also through awareness of what issues bother you, and what issues bother or interest your friends and family and deriving ideas from there,” she says.
Bury your nose
Steele stresses that reading is an essential part of any journalists’ job; “reading will sow the seeds for ideas to grow at a later stage,” she says. Deputy lifestyle editor of The Myanmar Times, Brice O’Connell, couldn’t agree more. “Magazines from around the world, especially neighbouring countries, give us loads of ideas for new features or small stories,” he explains.
Or get your chin wagging
“As a creative person, you have to fill your tank all the time, this is done by being out in the world,” says Nick. “All the knowledge inside of you is finite and if you use it all up, you’ll be empty. We are social commentators; so we need commentary,” she explains. And although writers aren’t typically known as the most social of sorts, Nick says, conversations or even eavesdropping can make excellent sources of story ideas.
Take with two hands
Writers, particularly journalists, are often inundated with pitches from readers or PR practitioners. O’Connell says the majority of his newspaper’s stories are born through contributions. “There are so many great organisations and representatives here that we never lack a good story source,” he says. Steele says she experiences this too, although often the ideas that are delivered need a little bit more spit to make them shine. “As one becomes better known as a freelancer, and as your work starts to speak for you, people begin to approach you,” she says.
“PRs are in constant contact with dozens of mails a day and though ideas come from there for the website which needs constant, short articles, it is rare that a strong freelance features idea will.”
Nick says the most important thing is to always be on the lookout. “I’m always stealing from life, I’m the ultimate thief,” she says. “And through this process I’m always building a couple of columns in my mind all at the same time.”
Breathe, then begin
Nick goes on to say the best incubator for story ideas is a relaxed mind. “Instead of stressing, just sit down and write. It often comes to you then. If you procrastinate, nothing can actually start happening. If you just start it, you can stop obsessing.”
Are you a writer? How do you come up with story ideas? Tell us in the comments section below.