Lost and found: How great nonfiction writers discover great ideas (The Open Notebook)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

In June 2010, Michael Finkel needed a new idea. The Bozeman-based author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpaand 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 JournalThe Incredible (Yet True) Way That (A Few) Blind People Can “See”: Echolocation.

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.