Probably one of the hardest parts about writing is deciding what exactly to write about. When it comes to writing magazine articles this can be especially tough because there are such a wide variety of angles, or approaches from which to write.
As you’re searching for a story, you’ll need to keep the breadth of your focus in mind. You can think of this like the lens on a camera, zooming in and out to include more or less of the overall picture. Remember that when determining an angle, or focus, for your article, you must keep it general enough that you have adequate information to write about–zoom out to give your reader a wide enough view of your topic. But, at the same time zoom in enough to provide a clear focus on one specific area of your theme. If your focus is too broad, you will lead your reader down too many paths at once.
Always keeping this balance of focus in mind, you can set out to find your story. My suggestion when writing for magazines is to determine what magazines you want to approach before writing your article. Some people write the article first then try to find a magazine to sell it to. But because all magazines have different guidelines, word counts, themes, and so forth, to me that’s a lot like designing a wedding dress then trying to find that one bride who not only likes it, but who fits into it perfectly–it’s a hard sell!
So, start with what the magazine wants–what themes or topics are they looking for? How should the article be structured: a how-to format, an anecdote to open, an interview style? What’s the overall tone of the magazine: lighthearted, scholarly, humorous? Who is the magazine’s target market?
Answering these questions will also help you narrow your search for an appropriate story. After reading through several issues of the magazine you want to submit an article to, you should have a very good feel for what your story should look like. Now your job is to keep your eyes open! Stories can be found anywhere–if you’re looking.
Here are some places that may generate story ideas:
1. Current news stories or topics–Dig into the stories you see in your local paper or on the internet. Look beyond the story itself to find another story, and then consider all the different angles from which you could approach that new story. One example is a story about a local robbery in your area. From that one story you could research robbery trends–how much have robberies increased due to a bad economy? Which places are most likely to get robbed? How has the typical robber profile changed in a poor economy vs. a good economy (and it has!)? Questions like this help you see a story inside another story that other writers may have not considered. This approach can be taken with just about any news story.
2. Local events–What’s going on in your town or state right now? State fairs? Sporting events? See what kind of stories you can pull from things happening around you. Go to the event, if possible, interview those involved in putting the event together, research the economic effect such an event has on an area, an so forth. You might be surprised at what you can learn about a local 4-H competition, or the inspirational story that may come from it!
As I write this, our town just finished its third day of a Labor Day weekend Balloon Classic, with hot air balloon launches every morning at the crack of dawn and balloon glows every night after sunset. If I wanted to write about hot air balloons, I could get several angles from this one event: the origins and history of ballooning, what goes into organizing such an event (and I would interview the organizers), what it’s like to pilot a balloon (I’d interview some pilots), how to get into ballooning and get licensed, hot air balloon training facilities around the country, etc.
3. People around you--If you’re writing for a magazine that thrives on personal interest pieces, start paying attention to the stories of people you meet or perhaps hear about in your area who are doing something interesting or have an inspiring tale to share. You’ll have to put on your journalism hat, but start asking questions to learn about the stories that people have. Then take those stories and put an interesting twist on them by using a creative angle or point of view to tell them. If you find 3 or more people who have a similar story (cancer survivors, for example), use a round-up style article to share–as well as compare and contrast–each of their stories under one common theme.
A current example from my area is the Waldo Canyon Fire that ravaged our neighborhoods a couple of months ago. Everyone in my surrounding area has a story to share about the fire–the pressures of evacuating, the emotion of not knowing if their house made it, the devastation of losing a home or relief of not losing a home, and the tough decision of whether to rebuild in the same area. I could find several people to do a round-up article on and share their stories. To make it more interesting, I could get the stories from children as well as adults, who would have an entirely different perspective, and I could interview those who took care of evacuees, as well as the evacuees themselves.
There are stories everywhere. Usually the best ones are those that underlie the obvious. What makes a story great is the writer’s ability to get past the obvious and superficial story and into the deeper one, come up with a unique angle, and present it from an interesting perspective.
I’d like to hear from some of you on how you gave an ordinary story an extra-ordinary twist, or share any questions you may have about how to do this.