How Great Nonfiction Writers Discover Great Ideas
by Brendan Borrell, The Open Notebook
Bright ideas are everywhere.
In June 2010, Michael Finkel needed a new idea. The Bozeman-based author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa and writer for GQ, National Geographic, and Men’s Journal wasn’t satisfied with the stack of print-outs in the two-inch deep brownie pan on his desk. And none of the hundreds of ideas in a Word document on his computer struck his fancy. So, he opened up his web browser and typed a query into Google: “Amazing human feats.” That nebulous search brought him to a YouTube video of a blind man careening down a trail on a mountain bike, and by the end of the day he had a killer one-paragraph pitch for Men’s Journal: The Incredible (Yet True) Way That (A Few) Blind People Can “See”: Echolocation. [Editors’ note: Find Finkel’s pitch at The Open Notebook‘s pitch database.]
There are whole books on interviewing, and whole books on structure, but finding ideas remains one of the most mysterious and frustrating parts of journalism. “Nobody teaches you how to come up with ideas,” Finkel says. “It’s alchemy.” As a freelancer, I find that there are few things worse than running out of ideas and becoming paralyzed in front of the computer, wondering what I am supposed to write about next. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. If I had the idea, I could start the research, and if I could start the research, then I could start the writing. It’s that old catch-22: I don’t want to invest time researching a topic that may not turn into a sellable story, but if I’m not researching that topic, I’ll never find that story.
If ideas are essentially information without context then the skill of the feature writer is to recognize their significance, pluck them out of the data stream, and put them to good use. Sometimes the tidbit you stumble upon leads you down an investigative rabbit hole. Other times, you may already have an intriguing story topic, but you’ve never been able to crack it because you’re missing that nugget that turns an academic idea into a riveting narrative. I know how I fumble in the dark for inspiration, but I imagined that some writers out there might be a little more professional about things: What tricks do they have to keep the momentum up, and what do they do when the well runs dry? How do they recognize a good idea when they see it?
Perhaps it makes sense to start with Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Lehrer is just about the most ideas-oriented journalist you can imagine. His beat is mostly neuroscience, his website organizes his clips under the rubric of “ideas,” and, after the publication of his second book, How We Decide, he became a sought-after speaker delivering 30 to 40 lectures a year. He’s a thinker, but he certainly doesn’t spend his days staring at the wall. “Even the very idea-centered pieces begin with this social spark,” he says. As he discovered reporting “The Eureka Hunt” for The New Yorker, people who have eureka moments don’t have higher IQ scores, but they tend to have widespread social networks and lots of acquaintances. A dinner in Toronto led him to the man who cracked the lottery, while a conversation with a scientist for another story put him on the trail of The Decline Effect, a piece on scientific results which don’t seem to stick.
In February 2009, Lehrer was backstage at a conference in Boston preparing to give a talk when he struck up a conversation with another speaker. Lehrer asked the man what he did for a living. “Oh, I work in floor cleaning,” the man replied. “Oh my God, this is the most boring conversation,” Lehrer thought. “How did I get here? What am I doing?” He was calculating how he could pry himself away from the tedium when something remarkable happened—the man began to talk about how he invented the SwifferTM to replace the mop. Bingo! That quirky and unexpected tale opens Lehrer’s upcoming book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which will be published in March 2012.
Many writers I spoke to agree with Lehrer that cultivating a wide social network is key, but they also maintain a diverse media diet. Finkel is partial to New Scientist and Science News for research briefs that hold feature potential at a general interest magazine. Elizabeth Svoboda, a contributing writer at Fast Company and a contributing editor at Popular Science, periodically checks in at Eurekalert for news ideas, but she finds that feature ideas come from reading broadly and getting a handle on the larger questions in a scientific field. She collects ideas in Firefox folders arranged by potential outlet and then she checks back on when she has time to pitch. One of her favorite sources for profile subjects is university research magazines at the University Research Magazine Association. “Sometimes it seems the harder I look for ideas, the more they squirm away from me,” she says. It’s true that it’s often easier to find a new idea when you’re out reporting on another story: Svoboda learned about a Florida cardiologist sending patients abroad for stem cell treatments—which she later wrote about for Popular Science—when she was working on a long news piece on stem cell tourism for Fast Company.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a staff writer at Science and a contributor to Wired, Discover, The Atlantic, and other magazines, regularly reads science journals and press releases as part of his day job, but he also looks at Indian newspapers and regional newspapers in the U.S. to find stories that haven’t broken out nationally or may have an untapped science angle. That’s how he kept track of the organ trade in India, and learned about a self-taught surgeon who ran a kidney trafficking ring. Since he’s a generalist, he finds it hard to keep in touch with old sources, but if he writes a story he thinks they may be interested in, he’ll send them a link and a quick hello. “That has led to some of the most privileged information coming to me,” he says.
Of course, recognizing a good idea—no matter where it comes from—can also be a challenge. “I feel like knowledge and ideas are sometimes in conflict,” Bhattacharjee says. “If you don’t know anything, you are more receptive to ideas.” One day he was flipping through a 2008 report on organized crime from the Department of Justice when he noticed that the U.S. was cooperating with European law enforcement to battle cyber crime. He called up a few people on background and the town of Râmicu, Romania popped up in an interview. It’s the kind of detail that might slip past a beat reporter looking for the big picture. But for Bhattacharjee it was the first step to a Wired feature in February 2011: How a remote town in Romania has become cybercrime central.
Finally, writing can be a personal endeavor and some of the best ideas just come from looking inside yourself. “This is kind of embarrassing,” Svoboda says before launching into a tale of self-discovery. During American history class in high school in California, she coughed up a pea-sized white chunk into her hand. “Is this a piece of tumor?” she wondered. She was frightened and horrified, but forgot about the incident for many years. Until it happened again. She hunted for information on the web, but never found anything. “I came to the conclusion that I was the only one with this problem,” she says. Then, one day, she discovered that the harmless condition had a name—tonsil stones—and there were entire forums on the topic. She decided that if it was so hard for her—a science writer—to get the straight story on tonsil stones, it had to be worth writing about. [Editors’ note: read Svoboda’s pitch here.] The New York Times agreed.
Brendan Borrell has written about science, crime, and natural resources for Bloomberg Businessweek, Nature, Scientific American, Slate, Smithsonian, and many other outlets. Follow Brendan on Twitter @bborrell.
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