I get a lot of questions about becoming a freelance writer. Most times, these questions come from people who fall in one of two groups. The first group is people who are brand new to freelance writing — who have the dream of being paid to write, but don’t know how to scale that dream into a full-time career, or even a successful side hustle. The second group is people who have experience with writing, but are intimidated about taking the plunge into really going for a full-time freelance career. There is one question that I frequently hear from both groups, though: How do you come up with new ideas for stories?
And hey, I get it. Brainstorming can be difficult — exhausting, even. And with freelance writing, there’s a solid possibility that that idea you just spent hours brainstorming is going to be rejected or ignored until it finds its home. It can be discouraging, frustrating, and it’s easy to feel stuck. Though I’ve experienced all the ups and downs of going freelance (you can read more about my journey to freelance writing here), coming up with new ideas is the one area that I feel like I’ve mastered over the years. Still, I recognize how difficult it can be and even today, I get stuck sometimes, too. But I have come up with a few brainstorming hacks and strategies that help. Here are three of them.
Keep Track Of Every Pitch
This strategy can be admittedly tedious, but it’s worth it, particularly if you’re just starting out with your freelancing journey. Keeping track of your pitches in a simple spreadsheet and jotting the idea down along with some basic information (when it was pitched, where it was pitched, if it was accepted or not) is a great way to stay organized and hold yourself accountable. When you are jotting down every pitch you have, it’s pretty easy to be honest about whether or not you’re pitching enough. And when you’re just starting out, pitching regularly is key, maybe more so than anything else (I talk about this in my comprehensive pitching guide).
But this habit is also arguably more helpful when it comes to idea generation. When I go to pitch an outlet now (whether it’s a new-to-me publication or not), I consult my pitch list. I take note of which pitches have been rejected or ignored and try to think of ways I can re-work them for other outlets. It’s like a constant, ever-growing list of ideas — all from my own brain. It also is an excellent confidence-building exercise, because you quickly learn that even if a pitch doesn’t work for one outlet, it may very well work for another.
Think In Terms Of Formatting
This is another one of my go-to hacks for generating new ideas, inspired by my time working as an editor at a website. In those days, when we wanted to capitalize on a story that was generating a lot of clicks, we would think about format. If “I Tried It…” stories were working for beauty products, we brainstormed what other types of products we could try in this format. If personal essays about body image were resonating with our audience, we would encourage our writers to commission these types of stories.
What I tell my clients now is to use this method when brainstorming new ideas for a publication: Go to the publication’s homepage (or its latest issue) and take note of what stories are on the homepage, or on the section landing pages. Think about the formatting of those stories. Are you seeing tons of listicles about trending accessories? Think of what type of listicles you could pitch about similar items. Once you get into this habit, it becomes a super low-effort way to get your brain churning.
Write The “I Need To Talk To Someone About…” Story
You know that thing that you keep searching for someone to talk to about? That book you can’t stop raving about (AKA me with Project Hail Mary)? The dress you can’t stop wearing? The T-shirt from Target you’ve convinced everyone to wear? Pitch a story about that. These types of first person stories tend to do really well for certain outlets because they connect with people. I’ve written stories about the dress that I want to buy in every color or the jumpsuit that people couldn’t stop buying from my Instagram. Whatever it is you need to talk about with someone, odds are there is a reader out there who wants to listen, so pitch accordingly.
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