Editors at Work: Finding Good Story Ideas

By Lee Walburn

It all begins with ideas.

So, where do ideas come from? The answer is everywhere.

While at the hair stylist, listen to what people are talking about. Do that in the checkout line at the supermarket. Do it at the neighborhood saloon. Do it wherever people congregate and talk. What seems to be concerning them? What’s the meat of their gossip? What about their jokes and their stories? What are they buying? Has the news of the day had any impact on their lives? Are they excited about anything or anyone?

Use your own emotions as an idea factory by thinking in the abstract and writing in the specific. What makes YOU angry? What are YOU afraid of? What intrigues YOU?

But that’s so ordinary and obvious, you might argue. Well, almost everything is ordinary unless you refuse to believe it so. Two things have stuck in my mind. Texas Monthly has a saying, “Creativity is never overlooking the obvious.”

My all time favorite is the words of Chief Joseph. “The secret to life is making big things small and small things big.” I adopted that as an idea catalyst. Take small issue everybody can identify with. A man and his dog. At least once a week I go to the Dirtown Deli for a sausage and egg biscuit. I sit and listen. Suppose on one of those days I hear them talking about Joe Jones. Joe and his dog were inseparable. When you saw Joe in his truck, you saw Spot. You make a common everyday relationship huge by doing a story about Joe leaving his best friend behind when he shipped to Iraq.

Take a huge issue like burning the American flag. Find a person who sits at a sewing machine making American flags and explore her feelings upon seeing her handiwork demeaned.

I most often see confusion between a subject and an idea. Ted Turner is a subject. “How learning to fly fish saved Ted Turner from a nervous breakdown” is an idea.

Young writers are especially prone to pitch subjects rather than ideas. Any subject can be subdivided into countless ideas.

Here are examples of how to think in the abstract and write in the specific.
When your 10-year-old goes on his first overnight camping trip.
Dogs that go crazy when their masters leave home.
Assisted living or assisted loving?

The toughest job a doctor has: telling a family a loved one didn’t make it.
The dangers of internet diagnosis and “miracle cures”.
Where have all the great doctors gone? What has driven them out of their profession?

Are Big Rig Drivers Expressway Terrorists?
Confessions of an Asphalt Cowboy
Truck Drivers See the Darndest Things

Lee Walburn was editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine from 1987 to 2002—since retiring he has written a weekly column, Off the Beaten Path, for the Rome News-Tribune.

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