“Where do your story ideas come from?”
That's a question I often receive and my answer is usually straightforward: “From conversations like the one you and I are having right now!” When people say something interesting, I hone in and ask questions. I try to get as much information as possible to determine if there’s enough material for a feature.
Click image to read article
My story on Detroit City Council member, Gabe Leland, ran in a recent edition of the Detroit Jewish News (DJN). Leland represents District 7 in Northwest Detroit, and he was elected to office in 2013. Here’s how the article came to me, as well as my process to write it:
I’ve known Leland for a few years, and I saw him at an event a few months ago. We talked about his time in office when it occurred to me he would be an excellent person to profile. I’m especially interested in what folks are doing in the City of Detroit – the metro area is my hometown – and as a council member he certainly is involved in various aspects of the community.
I asked him if he had been profiled by the DJN. He said he had, but it was in the months before he won his election. I saw this as an opportune time for another piece, as he had been in office a few years and would have a different perspective now that he was in office, rather than a candidate.
The next day, I pitched the story to my editor at DJN. I told her I talked to Leland and that he was open to an interview. I offered some background on the councilman. She approved the piece, assigned a deadline and a word count, leaving it up to me to figure out the angle. While I wasn’t sure what exactly the story would be about, I did know I wanted to touch on the progress he’d made while in office.
Click image to read article
He invited me to a community visioning session in his district a few weeks later, and I was able to see the interaction between Leland and community members. I had the opportunity to talk to Leland again, and also speak to residents and members of Leland’s staff. Between the previous phone conversation I'd had with the councilman and the information I gathered at the meeting, I now had enough material to write the story. In keeping with the article’s community engagement focus, the published headline read:
“An Engaging Figure.” Click on either of the images above to read the complete piece.
In summary, my advice for developing stories:
1. Seek new people: put yourself in a position to be around unfamiliar folks – attend networking events, social gatherings, community meetings, etc. I find I’m more open to new concepts when I’m out of my routine and my comfort zone. I’m more likely to come up with notions when I’m around acquaintances with whom I don’t often interact, rather than close friends and family I often see.
2. Ask questions: if you talk to someone for long enough, they'll probably say something that might make for a good story. Everyone has a tale and it’s a writer’s job to extract it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “Why would you want to write about me? I’m not that interesting!” Truthfully, many people aren't interesting all the time, but everyone has had interesting experiences.
3. Accept the writing process: ideas take time to develop, so don’t worry if you only have part of a concept initially. Continue to speak to people and collect information and eventually you’ll have enough for a piece. Also, working on deadline is a positive as it forces you to find an angle. As some point, you have to stop gathering, start working, and go with whatever material you have.