There’s a lot more to finding a topic than mere stumbling opportunity. You mustn’t imagine I dash down to the corner shop for a pint of milk and randomly stagger upon a fully-fledged story of the “I’m Amazon’s best-selling comic-book writer; would you like full-fat or semi-skimmed?” variety. There is a great deal of work involved.
Of course, being Chief Features Writer at a national newspaper (click here to see the Sunday Mail website) does allow me access to an unprecedented number of Press Releases. But of the 100-odd that clunk into my inbox each week (advertisements for upcoming events; PR pleas for media coverage; disgruntled citizens with a grudge against – it oft transpires – almost everything) barely a brace merit further research. So I get out there and network.
Well, to be fair, mostly I stay in and work on the net.
USE YOUR ONLINE NETWORK
I trawl Facebook (sponsored links provide interesting topics more often than you might imagine, especially if you’re covering local features); I shamelessly abuse my LinkedIn network (students writing theses are a great inspiration – they’re usually at the forefront of new ideas and knowledge); I Google upcoming happenings to see who’s planning a cutting-edge event. Spend enough time on the internet, and something of interest will pop up. Sometimes, it takes mere minutes. At others – I’m afraid – the process will involve hours of your time.
ABUSE YOUR REAL-LIFE SOURCES
Real-life sources are also a great inspiration. Over the years, I’ve built a select group of contacts who always seem to know what’s new and exciting long before anyone else. How they do it, I’m not sure, though I have noticed that they all share similar character traits. Thus my sources are generally extroverts who are constantly meeting new people, possess a
rampant curiosity and a good memory for detail, and an eye for what might interest the public. (Funnily enough, they’re mostly in the arts and education – a personality link worth pursuing, I suspect.)
MISUSE YOUR INTERESTS!
However, there are times when everything and everyone lets you down (including your Editor, who usually has a story or two in her back pocket ‘just in case’). Usually because it’s holiday season and everyone’s far too busy elsewhere. And that’s when I, personally, turn inward for inspiration…
If all else has failed, I allow myself the luxury of choosing a topic that relates – not to anyone else and their doings – but to me and mine. In fact, some of what I know are my most-engaging pieces have resulted from an utter lack of subject matter. Third Culture Kids (http://bit.ly/1LnzYv1), of whom I am a typical example, was written at the height of the summer hols, but received more views than the rest of the month’s stories put together. The Wires of Connection (http://bit.ly/1QswWKs), which focused on connecting remotely with one’s family when abroad, was a big hit over Christmas. And Switching Off (http://bit.ly/1OhWn29), during which I went screen-free for a day, really resonated with readers over the Easter period. Sometimes, it seems, it really is best to write what you know.
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a titillating topic, you need to be on the job 24/7. Relying on Press Releases, random emails and chance meetings is never enough. Most of the time, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work: screen-time, phone calls and emails all. But, always, always ensure you have a couple of personal interests for potential use just in case. (I have notes on ‘The Fear of Flying’, ‘Long-Distance Love’ and ‘Medical Mishaps’ for when that topic pool is shallower than a drought-ridden puddle.) Because you can’t byline a blank page.
Are you a writer? I’d love to hear from you about how you find your topics!