January 16, 2003

“Where do you get your ideas?”

When writers, especially good ones, finish a talk and open up the floor to questions, that’s invariably one of the first to come up.

Generating story ideas is a perennial challenge for many of us–witness the enormous and growing popularity of Al’s Morning Meeting, the online fountain of story ideas furnished through the unstinting efforts of Poynter’s Al Tompkins.  

The best writers seem to have a steady supply of great ideas. I used to covet Tom French’s story idea list when we worked together in the features department of the St. Petersburg Times in the mid-1980s. It stretched for pages. 

Like Al Tompkins, Tom had a well-developed sense of wonder that he has never lost and the world seemed to provide a steady stream of story ideas he wanted to pursue.

You can find story ideas anywhere if you’re open to them. Ellen Barry of The Boston Globe has found them in the yellow pages.

“I must have been stuck on the B’s because I did baby models and bronze baby shoe salesmen and baby modeling agencies…” she said in Best Newspaper Writing 2002.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not so much a question of where you find story ideas but how you find them. Here’s one of the simplest ways: I ask reporters to leave the building and walk five minutes in any direction and write down every question that comes to mind.

Todd Volkstorf of the Wilmington (N.C.) Star had taken just one step outside when he heard a noisy airplane and wondered why his town seemed to be getting so noisy. The question led to “Quest for Quiet,” a front-pager that introduced readers to a noise expert, noise haters and a weird guy who loves the sound of planes screaming overhead.

If you’re having trouble coming up with story ideas — or you’re supervising reporters whose idea files are skimpy — there are several creativity tools that can help you take full advantage of your own private idea generator — your brain — to guarantee a regular supply.  


When Susan Trausch of The Boston Globe, who won the American Society of Newspaper Editors award for editorial writing in 1995, sits down to write on deadline, she doesn’t turn to her computer keyboard like most journalists. Instead, she picks up a pen and a legal pad.

Before she can tell editorial page readers what to think on a given subject, she first has to find out what her own thoughts are.

The notes she makes in those first moments make sense of the jumbled thoughts in her head. They will drive her reporting, plan her structure, make connections — all in rehearsal for the writing to come.

“Then I turn to the screen, and somewhere in that list is a lead,” she told me when I interviewed her for Best Newspaper Writing 1995.

With her legal pad and pen, Trausch is employing a basic creativity tool known as brainstorming. 

Brainstorming is simple: You simply choose a topic and make a list of everything that comes to mind.
Unfortunately, brainstorming is absent in most newsrooms I’m familiar with, I believe, because one of its essential qualities — withholding judgment — is a foreign concept to many reporters and editors. We are often most comfortable in the role of critic or watchdog. If a watchdog doesn’t bark, it’s not doing its job. For some people, it’s a lot easier to piss on someone else’s idea than generate their own.

There are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session because it’s a time for creating ideas, not criticizing them. (That comes later.)

Here’s how to do it: Brainstorming can be a solitary exercise or can be done with other reporters and editors. The key is to suspend critical judgment.

  • Write down as quickly as possible, including all the ideas and related thoughts that surface on a particular topic.

  • Don’t stop to evaluate items.

  • Don’t worry if the ideas seem lame; don’t cross out or ignore any idea.

  • Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or fill in details.

  • Write in your personal shorthand.

Once the flow of ideas has petered out, then and only then do you review and evaluate, discard and organize, clarify and expand. Look for the information that surprises you or that connects with other information in an interesting, unexpected way.

Here’s an example of brainstorming at work:

Reporters often complain that the nature of the news they cover is boring. Government meetings, budgetary matters, legislation aren’t the stuff that gets their creative juices flowing. Maybe that’s why newspapers are so boring. 

Let’s say the School Board is meeting next week about the school budget. The superintendent of schools has proposed a 140-page budget for the next school year with proposals for 5- and 10-year spending.

What happens when you turn off the inner critic and just let the ideas fly about the making of the budget?

  • How many people participate?

  • Who participates? Teachers? Principals? Students? Parents?

  • Is it top secret or an open process?

  • When does the process begin?

  • “Mr. Holland’s Opus”

  • Are there any teachers whose programs are being cut in the budget?

  • Which programs are getting the biggest bite of the budgetary pie: computer science or the arts? Football or girls basketball? Why?

  • Inflation and the “three R’s”

  • What does it cost to run a school in the 21st century?

  • How have school supplies changed — from chalk to computers — and how does that affect the budget?

That list took about seven minutes. It’s sketchy, but it got me thinking about a budget in a variety of ways: It not only unearthed questions that I need to answer but introduced, via a popular movie (“Mr. Holland’s Opus“), a possible angle to explore.

Try brainstorming with a colleague or your editor. Two heads can be better than one, especially in a brainstorming session. Ideas spark other ideas. Remember the first rule of brainstorming: There is no such thing as a bad idea.

Mapping and Branching

Brainstorming is a linear process. You write down ideas, usually in list form, that march from top to bottom. But the brain processes ideas in other ways. Some people think in nonlinear fashion. Mapping and branching are techniques that accommodate that way of thinking.

By letting you start in the middle, return to the start and go on to the end, and then go back to the middle and start over, these techniques allow you to retrace your thoughts and add afterthoughts, says Henriette Anne Klauser, author of “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain.” “And often the afterthoughts,” she says, “are the most valuable aspects.”

This time, instead of making a list about a story idea, put the topic or subject in the center of a page. When you get an idea, draw a line out from the center and write the idea at the end. If that idea triggers a new one, draw a new line from that word or return to the center and draw new lines for each idea. Continuing with the school budget, draw a map that encompasses the school budget idea and tracks your mind’s journey.

Klauser and others interested in left brain-right brain activities believe that mapping and branching more accurately reflect the way the mind works. Our minds don’t work in a straight line, but rather more like a pinball machine, bouncing ideas off one another helter-skelter. I like to think of it as drawing a map of your neural synapses firing.

Here’s how mapping a story on a proposal to change a bus route might look:
 (Click here to enlarge image from Reporting & Writing: Basics for the 21st century)

Now try the same exercise using the branches of a tree.
Here’s how it worked for me on a different topic: The crisis in child support enforcement.
 (Click here to enlarge image from Reporting & Writing: Basics for the 21st century)

Notice how nonlinear thinking takes you into new areas.

Scenario Building

Trying to imagine the future is big business today. Corporations the world over employ futurists to help them envision markets, products and structures that will respond to future needs. Journalists can borrow their techniques to help stay abreast and ahead of the news.

Here’s an example: Imagine it’s the year 2025, a quarter of a century from now. You are 25 years older.  Sketch a scenario that describes where you live and work. Where do your parents live? What are their needs?

Now that you have built the scenario, consider what news stories you could write.


A daybook, or journal, can be a seedbed for ideas. Use it to record your observations, ideas, memories, imaginings, details, overheard conversations and lines of writing that pop into your head but that will evaporate if not recorded. Keep it with you and write down your ideas as they come to you. Set aside part of the day, when you get up or before you go to sleep, to fill out the fragmentary thoughts you’ve jotted down during the day.

Where and how do you get story ideas? 

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Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and…
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