Incubating ideas: Where do you get your ideas and how do you organize them?

by Lesley Evans Ogden



Clockwise from top left: Anne Casselman, Ann Marie Redmond, Paolo Pietropaolo, Don Genova, Jay Ingram

The start of a new year is an interesting time. It’s a period of looking both forward and back. For me, the dawn of 2014 marked a phase of furious pitching, which cast my mind towards wondering how other freelancers come up with story ideas. Where do their ideas come from? And how do they keep track of them? If story ideas are the currency of freelancers, do we put our treasures in safety deposit boxes, or stuff them in socks under the bed?

Personally, I suffer from what I facetiously call “idea diarrhea.” I’m constantly flooded with ideas for new stories. Story ideas hit me incessantly, waxing and waning in frequency, but usually unbidden, like cosmic rays showering a spacecraft. They arrive in a completely unpredictable fashion and I do my best to capture them, scribbling them down frantically on random scraps of paper, dictating audio notes on my smart phone during trail runs through the woods, jotting on bedside post-it notes, notebooks, and in lists on my computer. As yet I haven’t stumbled upon a great system that organizes my ideas in a logical fashion. And perhaps one doesn’t need to be logical about this embryological element of the creative process, but I was curious to find out what other freelancers do.

For this post, I asked five independent journalists five questions about where their story ideas come from, and how they organize them. Contributing creative wisdom to the discussion are…

Anne Casselman, Freelance Science Journalist, and contributor to National Geographic News, Scientific American, Canadian Geographic, and The Walrus, amongst others. Twitter: @annecasselman

Paolo Pietropaolo, Music, culture, and science journalist, broadcaster, and composer. Current host of CBC Radio 2’s In Concert. His accolades include two Prix Italia and a Peabody Award for his radio documentaries and productions. Twitter: @paolopp

Don Genova, Food and travel writer & radio & television broadcaster. Host of Food Matters on CBC Radio One in Victoria. Has been seen & heard on CBC, the Food Network, NPR, Globe & Mail, National Post, enRoute magazine, amongst others. Don also teaches food and travel writing and blogging at UBC and cooking classes at Kilrenny Farm. He is the Canadian Media Guild Freelance Branch president. Twitter: @dongenova

Ann Marie Redmond ‎President, and Executive Producer at Newroad Media, formerly an executive producer of programming at Discovery Channel Canada, and before that, producer and director at CBC’s Fifth Estate. Twitter: @redmondtazz

Jay Ingram Science broadcaster and writer, former co-host of Daily Planet at Discovery Channel, and before that, host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks. Chair of the Science Communications Program at the Banff Centre, and co-founder of Calgary’s new arts-science-engineering smash-up festival Beakerhead. Oh yeah, and in his spare time, he writes award-winning books. Twitter: @jayingram


Do ideas for stories come to you easily, or is this something that you struggle with?

AC: Easily. There are stories EVERYWHERE.

PP: I believe that creativity is necessarily wasteful. Ideas come out of the blue, usually, and I try to write every single one of them down. Some of them suck. But you need the sucky ones to come in order for the good ones to come. So in that sense, it’s a good idea to feel good about your bad ideas, because where there’s a bad idea, a good idea is (ideally) lurking not too far behind. Having said that, the worst time to come up with an idea for me is when there’s a specific call for pitches. Then, I struggle. My best ideas have come out of the blue and were obviously good, so I had no trouble placing them.

DG: Because I have a fairly narrow focus for my weekly segment on CBC Radio, I’m not usually struggling for stories. One week features someone on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands who produces a food or beverage product. The next week is usually about some aspect of food sustainability, and there is always a topical idea falling into my lap…last week, for example, I heard on the news about a major outbreak of disease in piglets in America. So I will be talking to local pig farmers to gauge their concern.

AMR: Ideas come easily when your head is in an open, creative space i.e. where you are not censoring your thoughts.  Unfortunately, too often I find myself censoring because I jump right to the next step — where can I sell this idea?   I own a factual television production company, so translating ideas into concrete pitches is our business.  Because it’s a business, often times these wonderful, creative ideas don’t necessarily translate into a pitch because I know they won’t work for commercial network television, or it would be an unrealistic show to produce.  But it’s a wonderful feeling to let ideas come without stopping them because thinking creatively is the reason why I got into the business. Too much censoring, and you kill your spirit!

JI: I don’t have too much trouble [coming up with ideas] but right now I’m not having to come up with a steady stream of ideas [he’s currently spending much of his time writing a book]. I have a column, for example, in Canadian Wildlife magazine. And I never have any trouble thinking [of ideas] for those.


Where do you usually discover or think of your story ideas?

AC: Usually something in the news/social media channels might twig something. About 1 in 100 press releases may have promise. Also, many of my story ideas just come from conversations with peers, friends, contacts, people I’m interviewing for a different piece. Or the air. When I say I pull stories out of thin air, the thought process starts with: “I wonder what the deal is with X” or “There has to be a story behind Y.” That kind of thing.

PP: In the shower, or while walking. These two activities are idea breeding grounds for me. This is true also in the context of working on a project, and feeling stuck or unmotivated: a walk has always helped. If I don’t solve my immediate creative problem or doldrums on the walk, I may solve another one that’s been bugging me, or get an entirely unrelated idea that may bear fruit later on. I rely on walking for this.

DG: Many of my ideas come from absorbing various forms of media. Others while wandering around farmer’s markets or grocery stores, or just driving around. My wife is always great with suggestions as well, usually based on seasonal traditions and concerns.

AMR: They can come from all different sources — movies, fiction, reading newspapers and trade magazines, etc. etc.  It really depends on what kind of ‘ideas’ you are taking about.  Sometimes ideas are concrete show ideas that you have because you’ve read about an interesting subject matter, or heard about a fascinating group of characters that would make for captivating television. But often, ‘ideas’ aren’t so concrete.  They come from your own imagination where you envision taking old material and finding a fresh approach.  Networks are looking for innovative storytelling so they can grab audiences and make some noise. And these kinds of ideas often come from the quiet of your own mind.

JI: I end up scanning and being aware of a fair amount of what’s going on in the science world. For example, recently there was a paper published about ibises [a waterbird] flying in formation. I wrote about that [phenomenon] a long time ago in one of my books, and there had been previous research on Canada geese. The new ibis story is good enough on its own, but it’s so much better when you can bring a history to it. So now it’s a really cool news story, and it’s also got depth to it. That makes it more of a story, and more interesting. I can get away with that because I’ve been around for a long time. Stuff that I’ve written about years ago just sits there, and every once in a while, something happens today that triggers a way of going back to that other story. That’s where a lot of my ideas come from.


Once you discover or think of a story idea, how do you archive that idea?

AC: Evernote. Evernote evernote. I have a group of Notebooks in Evernote titled “Story Incubator”. I dump all my story ideas, preliminary interviews, and research from the web, etcetera, in there. Once a story idea takes enough shape I’ll create a dedicated Evernote Notebook for it. Then if the story is assigned, I just retitle it with the deadline and outlet and place it into my “Current Work” notebook stack. All of this will mean nothing to you unless you use Evernote yourself. But I highly recommend it. You can also search your Evernote by key word, etc. And it’s also a really easy way to review previous story ideas that may have occurred to me about a year ago and are due to be followed up on.

PP: I keep a notebook, and I have a list of ideas that I’ve been transferring from notebook to notebook for years as I go through notebooks. Some of them will die on those pages, but some of them have come to life after five or six years of languishing there. You never know when the right time or place for an idea will suddenly reveal itself.

DG: One way is just a stack of business cards of interesting people I come across. They stay in a holder on my desk. I also have a file folder next to my desk full of ideas. It is mostly tear sheets from newspapers, but also pamphlets and flyers I pick up in the course of my wanderings. I also have a whiteboard by my desk on which I write down ideas, which may or may not have corresponding business cards or tear sheets in my file folder. Ideas that are more urgent to do because of their topical nature are in red, the others are in black. Finally, I also get a fair number of ideas by perusing news sites or links online. I use Evernote to bank those ideas, which is wonderful because you can file by tags and create separate ‘notebooks’ for individual projects if you like.

AMR: I’m organizationally challenged, so I don’t have one great system.  I write stuff on sticky notes, backs of envelopes, or any paper I can find. [Whew, I’m not alone in this style of idea “organization”]

JI: Ideas that I don’t act on right away don’t really last that long. Unless they’ve had a folder created for them [on my computer] with no immediate purpose. I keep folders for magazine columns. I keep folders of old presentations that I’ve made, and old speeches, but more importantly, the research underlying those. So if you said to me, could you write a column on the waste of food around the world, I could, because I have a really great file on that even though I’ve never given a talk on it. So I just accumulate stuff that I think is interesting. The more stuff you have, the easier it is. And you’ve got to have breadth too – I think that’s a crucial thing. Particularly history. I love the history of science; I think it’s fantastic.


Have you created a system, or discovered a system, for organizing and indexing your story ideas?

AC: See above. What I will add though is that the only thing that I really think I need is a set list of criteria that will help me prioritize my story ideas. I might be totally hooked on the idea of writing about Canada’s Fisheries Act but at the end of the day, maybe developing a strong feature article story proposal for an American magazine like Discover or Outside is a better use of my resources that aligns better with my long-term career goals. In that sense, I think I could absolutely prioritize which story ideas I work on developing rather than just chasing everything that I think can get me an immediate assignment in hand.

PP: No system. Just that list.

DG: Today I was in a small grocery store and saw a local product I might want to feature. I just used my Voice Memo app on my phone to record the website of the company I saw on the label. Quite often I will take a photo of a book or magazine cover or product with my phone as well, but the trick is remembering to go back through the photos to then transfer the idea to whiteboard or file folder.

AMR: I keep a running list of ideas on my work desktop.  Or if have an idea at home, I email it to myself.  When I have the time and resources to develop these ideas further, I then go through the list and prioritize what gets my time.

JI: I have everything on my computer and on my hard drive. I store individual ideas as folders. I can give you an example. I have had a folder for a long, long time, on why our fingernails grow faster than our toenails. I’ve never realized this story. It’s a good story, right? You know it’s a good story no matter what the explanation is. I don’t know what the explanation is and I’ve never found it. That’s a three-article folder. And around it there are just individual stories: birdsong and how it connects to human language, something about Neanderthal language, man with weapons – I haven’t done anything with that one and may never. I have another file on laughter. And I’m trying to introduce new ones [idea folders] all the time.


What was the strangest or most unusual/serendipitous situation in which you came up with a new idea for a story that you ended up producing/writing?

AC: There are so many! But most of them are word of mouth. The number of times that friends of mine have mentioned something to me over coffee or dinner or in passing and I think: Wait! Let me write that down. That’s amazing! Similarly, interview subjects will mention one little unrelated thing while I’m on the phone with them and it sparks an image or a scenario that I can tell right away has the makings of one scene in a bigger story that I could tell and sell. I’ve reported on the BC Cryptozoological Society’s quest to find the Cadborosaurus that way. Ditto with ESL programs in Vancouver high schools. Quidditch. A killer whale scat sniffing conservation canine. The gutted Fisheries Act going into effect last November. Survival suits.

PP: Nothing comes to mind at the moment, I’m afraid.

DG: I guess it was on a union-related trip to New Brunswick that turned into a bit of an exploration of back trails and waterways thanks to some colleagues at CBC Moncton. I ended up going hunting for fiddleheads with a fiddlehead cookbook author in his ‘special spot’, and later having a complete stranger hop into my rental car to take me to her family’s oyster farm which was also out in the middle of nowhere. But both stories turned out quite well.

AMR: I think my own unusual UFO experience when I was 19 years old always stayed with me.  So I’m not surprised I am now producing a series for Discovery Channel called “Close Encounters”

JI: It may not be that strange but I was invited to the Jasper Dark Sky Festival this fall. They persuaded me to give three different talks. All I started with was that they had to be about astronomy, so I was forced to come up with something. I ended up talking about archaeology, ancient history, and birds following constellations… And maybe I haven’t stressed enough the importance of being commissioned. Yes, we all have to flog our ideas, but it helps to be pushed, like I was in Jasper, to think beyond what you normally would do. That… and deadlines. These are the best things we have going for us!


Thanks for your great insights on ideas, everyone! Now, Story Board has some questions for you. Where do your ideas come from? And how do you keep track of them?


Lesley Evans Ogden is a recovering scientist and freelance journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a frequent contributor to Natural History magazine, New Scientist, and BioScience. Her work has also been featured by CBC, Scientific American, Cosmos, Canadian Running, and The Washington Post. For Story Board, she’s previously written about what it takes to be a successful freelancer, and why a topic is not a story.  Favourite topics that inspire her writing ideas include natural history, ecology, wildlife conservation, animal behavior, paleontology, archaeology, health, environmental science, nutrition, and physical activity. When not writing, Lesley can usually be found running or hiking in the outdoors, with or without her family.  You can follow her on Twitter at @ljevanso.

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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