Creative Web-spinning: Brainstorm ideas using the Internet
Published: September 26, 2006
| Every freelance writer worth his or her salt occasionally falls into a story rut, in which every idea seems to come straight from the "Well, duh" school of journalism-"10 ways to save at the grocery store" or "Lose weight without dieting." But when the writing gets tough, that's when the tough get going, straight to the Internet.|
What's on your mind? If you're a member of any bulletin board or discussion group, you possess an invaluable wellspring of story ideas. If you're not yet a member, join an Internet group that shares your interests. Then see what the members are talking about, and voila! You have a topic to write about. "I write a lot of parenting and children's-health features," says Diana Burrell, co-author of The Renegade Writer. "I belong to a couple of Internet groups where moms post about their kids' development and health. I get a lot of great ideas from them-if something's worrying a bunch of moms on the Internet, chances are there's a story there. Plus, I get my sources in one fell swoop!"
Trend-spotting using RSS feeds and press releases. Every day, the Internet hands writers story ideas on a platter through RSS feeds and press releases. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and the easiest way to think of it is as a real-time sampler of headlines on topics that you pick, much like a customized ticker-tape headline feed on CNN Headline News. Rather than having to check a particular Web site every day, you receive the most current information on a designated page, like "My Yahoo."
If, for example, you wish to receive the most current news on the environment, you subscribe to The New York Times RSS feed for "Science/Earth" and have news on environmental topics sent to you as soon as it breaks. Some services, like "My Yahoo," have the feed reader built into them, so all you do is click on the RSS feed you want and it will show up on your "My Yahoo" page. (For more on this Yahoo feature, go to http://my.yahoo.com/s/about/new.html.)
Other search engines like Google offer RSS feeds, but you have to download a feed reader first (sites such as www.feedreader.com will let you download the latest version for free). In a similar vein, you can subscribe for free to a Web site like E-Releases (www.ereleases.com), and it will send you press releases on the topics you're interested in.
All of this bulleted information can jog your brain into spotting connections or trends it otherwise wouldn't.
Ideas in the bank. Many writers will have had the experience of stumbling onto a great Web site during the research phase of a story that might be too off-topic or end up on the cutting-room floor in the final draft. Freelance writer Rhonda Foster knows that unused research can be the inspiration for a future story. She keeps a running "Article Ideas" folder and bookmarks any Web site she runs across in her research that, while it may not be right for her current story, could be a perfect subject for a future article.
Just the facts, ma'am. Think statistics are dry? Find some reputable sources for statistics and browse them when you need story ideas. Do you write parenting articles? Try the National Center for Education Statistics. Do you love CSI? Check out the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Plagued by writer's elbow? Try the National Center for Health Statistics. A good statistic can spark a story idea, or make an editor look twice at a query letter. #
Freelance writer Toddie Downs is the Online Resources columnist for the writers newsletter Inkspotter News. Her work has appeared in a number of child-care and health publications.