Weekly Writing Tips: How to Find Story Ideas

The Weekly Writing Tips are a collection of best practices for writing and reporting at Global Voices. July's tips are brought to you by Brazil editor Taisa Sganzerla.

Welcome to the (belated) July's second installment of your Weekly Writing Tips!

We'll dedicate the next two installments to an issue a lot of authors (including myself) often struggle with: how to find stories. Today, I'll share with you some of my own methods on how to find stories IRL (in real life) and, later, we'll do one on how to find stories in social media (or, The Great Internet).

Those are a couple of my own methods for IRL:

Look for fresh angles in widely covered stories in the media: We've all noticed it before: breaking news stories, though they're reported by every single website on the Internet, generally look identical: same sources, similar quotes and a general lack of interesting details. As an independent media website, it's important for GV to be original and offer fresh angles on widely covered subjects. But how to find them? Those are a few rules I follow while doing research:

  • Read the most local of papers: If a story happened in a small town in your country, don't go for the national outlets (let alone the international ones). Read that city's publication, as their reporters might have witnessed the event and their reporting might be richer in detail. Example: In this post I wrote for GV about the Equatorial Guinea dictator honored during Brazilian carnival, a story widely covered in international media, I found out that he has been honored before in (and had sponsored) a carnival parade in a smaller Brazilian city, by reading that city's local paper.
  • Be a stalker: Google people's names extensively: If you see someone's name in a article, even if it's just a quote, google it. Find out where they work, where they are involved, their Facebook and Twitter profile — they might have posted something interesting about the event you're trying to cover.
  • Pay close attention to the last paragraphs: In news writing, information is presented according to its relevance. Sometimes, however, great potential stories lie hidden in the last paragraphs — in the details the writer deemed irrelevant. Example: Last year, a big Neo-Pentecostal temple, probably the biggest in the world, opened in Brazil. It was grabbing all the headlines in national media, but I noticed there was a old, run-down Catholic church next to it that no one was paying attention to. I met with the Catholic church's priest and it turned out to be a great story that I wrote for a newspaper (err, sorry for the self-promotion). The contrast between the shiny new temple and the old church symbolized in a way the decadence of the Catholic religion and growing Protestantism in Brazil.

Tip: zoom in! Some of my authors write to me saying they want to write about very broad themes, like “police violence” or “immigration”. I advise them to zoom in on the theme and focus on more specific aspects of it as this help to make their story more compelling. I often ask the following questions:

  • What examples do we have to illustrate that theme?
  • Is there a new development, for better or for worse, related to that theme?
  • Do you know someone who would be willing to share a personal story/did someone share their own experience on social media?

Don't be so megalomaniac: We journalists always dream of publishing stories that will overthrow presidents and shut down corporations. But a lot of less grand stories — the ones that not necessarily try to explain the major challenges of our time — have made a very strong impact on me as a reader, and I believe this is the case for a lot of people too. Example: I absolutely love Latin American author Gabriela García's Calderón‘s posts. She brings so many positive, heartfelt stories, often from social media, that just brighten up my day, like this one about a YouTube star in Honduras or how the Kuna people treat albino people in their communities.

Don't be scared of inviting strangers for coffee: Head of NGOs, aid workers, activists, hackers, journalists: I lost count of how many times I wrote to these people introducing myself and inviting them for an unpretentious chat — and 90% of the time, of course, I was met with silence. However, the other 10% I met great people, with lots of interesting things to tell me that, even if they didn't immediately turn out to be a story, they helped me make sense of a lot of subjects I am interested in.

Diversify your group of friends: As we reach adulthood, we tend to hang out with people with very similar interests and often in the same work field as ours. I realized that this made me stuck in a loop where everybody often talked about the same subjects (and rarely disagreed about anything). So I make an effort and always try to hang out with (for example) engineers for a change. And remember: always ask people questions — a lot of them. Truth is, people love to talk about themselves and, specially, their work. Don't be bored: they will always interesting things to say if you know what to ask.

See you on our next installment!

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