My Writing, Writing advice

Writing articles: coming up with ideas

I’ve had a few friends ask me how I get articles published, so I thought I’d write a series of posts about the process. This first one is about where to get ideas for articles. It is mostly geared towards print magazines, as that’s where the majority of my work gets published, but a lot of this will apply to online publications and newspapers too.

Go into a supermarket, newsagent or WH Smith and you’ll find hundreds of magazines. And most of these magazines will rely on freelance writers to produce at least some of their content.

I have a few different approaches to generating article ideas. There are lots of ways to go about it, and this is based on my own experience – there’s no wrong or right way to create ideas!

Browsing magazines

One way is to browse magazines and think about whether you could write something for them. Often I’ll be reading a magazine and find this sparks my imagination, finding myself thinking about articles I could write that would fit.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook lists hundreds of magazines and newspapers – I like reading through and highlighting any that sound promising, and then go and research them in more detail by reading through.

Write what you know

I regularly brainstorm ideas in my notebook, thinking about what I’m interested in or have experience of that could be used in an article. For example, one of the main areas I’m interested in is disability: I’m disabled, and have worked in the sector, giving me a good grounding in various topics.

I think about what themes or topics I could cover based on this. So, I might list “being a disabled student”, “disability travel”, “disability and employment”, etc. I would then think about these in more detail. Let’s take “disability travel”, for example. I could think about places I’ve travelled to and could write about, or advice for disabled travellers, or hotels that cater well to disabled people, etc. I would then research potential markets and think about what matches up.

We all have things we can write about. Think about your job, your hobbies, your travels, any challenging experiences you’ve had… Are there interesting angles you could take on these? I find creating mind maps or doing some free writing on a topic helps me think through potential approaches.

Combing the two approaches

Often, I find that my article ideas come from a mix of these two approaches – I may know I’d like to write for a certain magazine, especially one I am already familiar with, so I’ll brainstorm ideas that could fit that publication.

Or, I may know I want to write an article on, say, the Lake District, so I’ll read relevant magazines and think about what angle I could write.

It’s important to remember that it’s hard to sell generic articles. So, with my Lake District idea, a simple “Guide to the Lake District” is likely too general to get taken up by an editor. One of the first articles I had published was for Cumbria magazine where I wrote about my experience of going to the Calvert Trust outdoor pursuits centre for disabled people in the Lake District. I was writing about something quite unique that it’s likely hadn’t been pitched to the editor before, giving it a much stronger chance of publication. While I did interview someone from the centre to add depth to the feature, I mostly drew from my own experience to write it.

Next steps

Keep a list of all of your article ideas, even when they’re really rough. I have a spreadsheet with two tabs: one of what I’ve pitched and where, and one with a (sometimes pretty vague) list of article ideas and potential markets. I also have jottings down in various notebooks where I’ve brainstormed ideas. I often find article ideas can take a while to form. I’ll make rough notes and then come back to these a few days later, finding taking a fresh look can help me see the idea from a new perspective.

Once you have an idea as to which publication you’d like to write for, it’s important to really understand that magazine. The next blog post in this series will look in more detail at how to analyse potential markets in order to develop your initial idea further and to get the best chance of being commissioned. Go grab a notebook and start creating some ideas!