How do you find subjects to write about?

By Laura Copeland
The truth is that a good writer can find a diamond in the river gravel of the Ganges. The truth is that there is a story in everything.

Let’s talk shootings, which are unfortunately common events. They’re usually reported with the same formula:
         [Victim] was killed by [suspect] on [day] in [location].

A reporter from the Courier-Post used the formula just this week:
    A Camden man was killed by a security guard Wednesday inside a city check cashing business where he had allegedly attempted a break-in.

What lifeless, unmemorable writing. That’s not even writing; it’s Mad Libs. This reporter will one day be replaced by a robot, and no one will notice.

In 1985, a similar news tip — a fatal shooting by a security guard — made its way to the desk of Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan. Here’s what she did with it:
    Gary Robinson died hungry.
    He wanted fried chicken, the three-piece box for $2.19. Drunk, loud and obnoxious, he pushed ahead of seven customers in line at a fast-food chicken outlet. The counter girl told him that his behavior was impolite. She calmed him down with sweet talk, and he agreed to step to the end of the line. His turn came just before closing time, just after the fried chicken ran out.
    He punched the counter girl so hard her ears rang, and a security guard shot him — three times.

It’s unsurprising that Buchanan went on to publish fiction. She thinks in stories.

How do you find subjects to write about? Think in stories. Take the everyday and tenderize it with metaphor, paragraph breaks and a scant teaspoon of adjectives.
That’s my woo-woo advice.


A recent creative writing workshop titled Through My Eyes Project organised by British Council in Lagos.

If you’re more Type A, here’s the bulleted advice:
    Destroy all excuses. Start a blog or a freelance gig where your beer money (or self-worth) depends on generating story ideas. For many of us, “idea block” isn’t an option.
    Read, read, read. You’ll quickly develop a sense of what the world considers newsworthy, which will help you recognize subjects when they cross your path. Read the Washington Post, the NY Times, the Economist. Read Quora and notice what content gets reproduced in Forbes and Slate. Read your local paper if it’s any good. Read reddit and HackerNews and TechMeme, even if you’re not in tech. Watch what makes it to the front page, what gets reblogs and comments and beaten like a dead horse.
    Be a critic. While you’re getting your recommended daily allowance of news, ask yourself, What’s this story missing? What ground haven’t they covered? Scan the comments, where there’s bound to be an angry mob pointing out a story’s flaws. It’s not a crime to steal the idea and write a better follow-up.
    Use social media as a wiretap. I’ll be breaking the news this week that a well-known winemaker is moving his tasting room. This shouldn’t be news: It’s right there in a public Twitter reply. Stock up on Facebook page subscriptions and Twitter follows, and check in frequently.
    Leave the house. Unlike a novelist, who benefits from living inside his head, a journalist is a witness to history. You gotta get out there. Patronize bars and restaurants, concerts and festivals, dog parks and dog shows and book signings and tattoo conventions and nature preserves and farmers’ markets. Consider yourself always on assignment.
    Meet people. Leave the house by yourself and pledge to talk to strangers. Practice being friendly and listening, even if the stranger is really different from you — especially if they’re really different from you. I’ve never had more story ideas than during the month I spent suffering through OKCupid dates (well, except for the week I spent on a Greyhound bus).
    Impress your sources. Get their quotes right. Get the facts right. Be as warm as is possible while maintaining objectivity and professional distance. They will always remember you. When an alien spacecraft lands in their front yard, they will call you — “hang on, honey, I know someone at the paper” — even before they call 911.
    Check the calendar. No-brainer news days include Black Friday (action-packed coverage from the frontlines, with some thoughts from economists on what the high/low numbers mean), Christmastime (feel-good stories of toy drives, or sad stories about toy drives getting robbed), New Year’s Eve (how safe are the streets compared to last year, and how much of a crowd do officials anticipate?), Groundhog Day (how dumb is this tradition?), etc.
    Think small. Better leave it to Anderson Cooper to cover large-scale news like Hurricane Katrina, you might think, but au contraire — global news affects all of us. Reporters everywhere were thinking long and hard about that friend of a friend of a friend who lived locally but had a connection to New Orleans.
    Scan even the most god-awful press releases. There’s a release in my inbox from a restaurant chain making me aware that February is National Hot Breakfast Month. Could I have fewer fucks to give? Nope. But their pitch is interesting: “Give kids a healthy start to the day with breakfast at Bob’s Restaurant, which is now offering $2 cinnamon rolls.” There could be an investigative piece in there about restaurants that portend to be healthy but aren’t, like The Cheesecake Factory and its SkinnyLicious menu.[1]
    Daydream. Closely guard your alone time. Take extra-long showers and the circuitous route home. Put on some music. Do a rain dance.

Get into a habit of writing down ideas. You probably have more ideas than you realize but if you don’t write them down they will fly away and leave no trace. Make notes and then re-read those notes. An idea that went nowhere last Thursday might connect with something else today and make a story. Sometimes three apparently unconnected notes from different periods magically merge to make a new theme. And after a few weeks have passed maybe a chance comment you noted might be the spark that suddenly inspires you.

Oh, and it’s important to accept that a good number of your ideas will be utter garbage. Knowing when to throw the gravel back in the river is as important as knowing when to keep the handful that sparkles. The Times Is On It does a fine service chronicling stories that shouldn’t have been.

One thought on “How do you find subjects to write about?

  1. 'Fisayo Soyombo says:

    Great read! Thanks a lot for sharing.

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