I can’t remember which class it was: Column writing? News writing, or something like that? Tom Suddes was the professor, and he was the greatest influence on my journalistic work at that time (and for many years after college). He gave our class several key pieces of advice, if we were willing to listen, and one of them was about the importance of continually developing new ideas for your editor. At its most basic, that was the job if you were going to work in a newsroom: Always have your next idea ready to roll. And make it a good one.
I’m 34 now, and I try to impart this wisdom to younger writers as often as possible. Yes, of course, you need to act on your ideas. You need to meet people and immerse yourself in stories and find information and write the goddamned thing, but the idea is your currency. There’s nothing worse than not having a good idea when your team needs you to deliver. Without a good idea, you’ve got nothing.
But an idea is different from a topic, and this is where I think a lot of writers get mixed up. I know I’ve made this mistake countless times, delivering some vague notion to an editor in the form of a “story idea.”
A topic is inert. A topic may be a helpful starting point, a framework for narrowing down your interests, but a topic is not an idea.
An idea is active. A good idea pulses with energy. A good idea comes complete with early answers to early questions. There’s a structure in a good idea, and often the idea itself will demonstrate how to get from beginning to end, how to shepherd this energy into a story structure. You’ll know it’s a good idea if you can see a path forward, a clear (open-ended) path for the work to pursue.
Independent journalist Kamala Thiagarajan put it this way in an interview with the Freedom With Writing team: “Often, the best story ideas begin with simple questions. Why does this happen? What is going on? What’s so special about this? The process of finding answers can often lead you to the most intriguing people and stories.”
This is great advice. Those questions can draw out the energy of an idea (if there’s energy to draw). Those questions are critical to ask before delivering an otherwise inert topic to your team.