Looking for Ideas? Three, Four, Five Are the Magic Numbers

By Jack Limpert

At a magazine, good ideas are the difference between success and failure, between stories that get talked about and stories that fall flat.

My first rule of good magazine stories came from Don Hewitt, for 40 years the producer of television’s 60 Minutes. He said a good story is an idea, not a subject. Newspapers can do subjects, not magazines.

How does an editor get good ideas?

Clay Felker at New York magazine was known for circulating at events and dinners in the evening and then coming in the next morning with the latest on this-is-what-people -are-talking-about.

Reading lots of other magazines—and websites—can help spark new ideas and approaches.

Lots of good ideas come from writers who have beats, who are out talking with cops or lawyers, politicians or physicians, to find out what they’re talking about.

I also was a believer in brainstorming—an approach easy to misuse.

My first rule of brainstorming: Three, four, and five are the magic numbers. Keep the group small enough so that everyone takes part.

Get six or more people together and it’s a meeting. At meetings, I often found the smartest people talked the least. They’d sit, sometimes with a bit of a half-smile, as the talkers held forth.

When setting up a brainstorming session, let those taking part know the focus a day or two in advance—are we talking about good political stories, about what kind of short profiles the magazine needs, about how to improve the magazine’s design?

Don’t have everyone from the same level on the masthead. Mix a young person or two in with one or two senior people. It’s a way to keep everyone at the magazine involved and to let senior people get a better fix on new staff.

And, of course, the most important rule of brainstorming: There are no bad ideas.  No putting down of anyone for throwing out an unusual idea. The off-the-wall ideas sometimes are the best.

And with a small group, silences can develop and nobody gets nervous about it. We’re thinking, we’re thinking.

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