Pen to Paper: Uncovering Story Ideas

  In keeping with the idea that we can ignore The Shoulds, I believe that turning off the hyper-critical mind is a great way to uncover story ideas---whether you want to write feature articles or novels.

I've given the following assignment to college seniors in their capstone journalism class, only to have the ideas spark four-part series on hitch hiking, college basketball, and the meaning of happiness. In other words, deeply interesting topics arose that couldn't be limited to a single piece. Pretty impressive results from something that seems deceptively simple:

Take out a sheet of paper and pen or pencil (I suppose you could do this on the computer, I'm just a big proponent of writing by hand as a way to bypass the delete key and any judgment we put on ourselves and our ideas).

Freewrite about your day: where you've gone, what you've done, who you've encountered along the way. Don't erase, and don't worry about good grammar or punctuation. Write with the purpose of getting an idea down in it's most whole and unpolished form.

Include details, and (this is the important part) write down any questions you had while you were going about your day or questions that arise now that you're reflecting on it. Note anything that didn't make sense or that you'd like to know more about.

Write for ten minutes, and no more. Set the paper aside, and go walk your dog or make lunch or go out to happy hour. Return to the paper later, when you're clear headed and fresh. Underline anything that feels like a story idea.

From there, making the magic happen is up to you. But I suspect you'll find at least one nugget of gold---something that has depth and promise for your writing.