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See it, sell it: Finding freelance story ideas out in the wild

With a sharp eye, you may not need to go much farther than your own backyard for a story idea.

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finding freelance story ideas


If you’ve ever gone birding – but without binoculars or a clear idea of what a jay or robin or red-tailed hawk actually looks or sounds like – it’s likely you came home disappointed, persuaded that the trees were empty. But once you know what to look for, it’s hard not to spot birds all around you.

Story ideas are like that. They’re everywhere. It’s a rare day I leave my apartment in a small suburban New York town without stumbling across several great story ideas for my magazine, newspaper or web editors, or material for my non-fiction books.

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Ideas are all around us for the taking: cropping up in casual conversation with a local merchant, neighbor or our children. They’re hanging from bulletin boards, both real and virtual. If you’re not already carrying something with which to record every idea as it occurs to you, start today. I often use my cell phone to snap reference visuals that help me add great detail to my pitches and stories.


The following are marketable story ideas I’ve found just by keeping my eyes and ears open.

  • As do most writers, I read a variety of publications. I kept seeing a small ad in a local city magazine advertising a wilderness survival course – hardly what you’d think necessary for people living in or near New York City. The class was offered in a corner of Central Park, and the day I took it, it poured rain for much of the time, but I was there on assignment for The New York Times. 
  • In the summer of 2011, my husband, a devout Buddhist, decided to take me on an eight-day silent retreat. I went reluctantly and heard a woman give one of the lectures. A meditation teacher who had worked with organizations from NASA to Monsanto, she seemed interesting, so I asked for a meeting with her, the one time we were allowed to speak. She was working with Google on meditation techniques and teaching a class at the company. After six months of intense negotiation, I had a national exclusive on the front page of The New York Times business section about the classes.
  • The silent retreat proved to be a revelation in several other ways. As someone who is usually highly social and chatty, staying silent for more than a week opened my eyes, and ears, to new ways of relating to my husband without my usual reliance on easy conversation. I sold my insights to Marie Claire magazine in a personal essay about the value of him showing his love for me by his actions, not words.
  • Riding through my small town in a taxi, the driver and I started chatting about a huge, 13,000 square-foot retail space that had remained vacant for almost two years, a source of puzzlement to many locals. I sold that idea – about how my town’s retail environment is rapidly changing these days – to a New York Times editor within a day.
  • I faced hip replacement surgery a while back. I knew it would offer great material because it is one of the nation’s most commonly performed medical procedures. Some 285,000 Americans have this operation each year, many of them as nervous and apprehensive as I was. I kept a notebook handy, and my husband – fortunately, a professional photographer – took photos of almost every post-op minute, including the first time I stood up on my new hip. My post-surgical portraits weren’t especially flattering, but they did help me sell that story, and my husband’s photos, to

Of course, not everything you see or hear is something you can sell to an editor right away. It might take a few exploratory phone calls to gather more information and an online or library search to make sure your target markets haven’t already covered the story or the angle you have in mind.

Thanks to technology, staying comfortably at home searching for all your ideas online has become tempting. With growing frustration, journalism educators tell me how difficult it is to get students to leave the building and go report something firsthand.

The best journalists still rely on the old-fashioned method called shoe-leather reporting. You can gather the most compelling sensory details only by being on the scene and conveying to your editor – and readers – what the shore smelled like or the exact color of the car’s interior. You need to read people’s expressions or silences, offering your readers a compelling and unassailable sense of immediacy and authority.


Lace up those shoes and head on out.


Caitlin Kelly is the author of Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. This article was originally published in our September 2013 issue.

Originally Published