Archive for March 27th, 2008

“I’d like to write more often for your organization,” a some-time contributor to Linux.com wrote to the editors the other day. “However, I was hoping you’d have some advice for someone like me that suffers from writer’s block. Sometimes I’ll come up with a topic, other times I struggle for ideas, then I read other articles on Linux.com and think to myself, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

By the time I logged on in the morning, Lisa Hoover had already given a comprehensive answer, to which I could only add a few points (I’m on Pacific time, so I log in long after everyone else in North America, although I sometimes get there before the Indian editors). Lisa posted her reply in the Linux.com forums, and I urge anyone interested to read it.

Meanwhile, here’s my suggestions, which includes my rewriting of Lisa’s as well. I’m talking about free and open source software. but I think that with a few changes of context most of the points would apply equally to any kind of journalism:

  • Know the field you’re writing about. In this case, that means keeping up to date on the other basic news sites, such as Linux Today, LWN, and FS Daily. It also means checking out information on new software from FreshMeat, and keeping track of what’s happening with major organizations in the field, such as the Free Software Foundation or The Linux Foundation. Often, these sites just give the bare bones announcement of events, so there is almost always room to go deeper. Moreover, once you have extensive knowledge, you’ll be able to see connections – and, therefore, possible stories – as you make connections between different pieces of information.
  • Subscribe to mail forums in areas that you’d like to write about, and join local meetups of people with similar interests. Their problems and interests will provide endless stories, and, occasionally, a piece of breaking news.
  • When you read a how-to, try it out. What information does it leave out? What information is now outdated in it? Could the information be presented more coherently? Is there a related topic that is left out? Could your personal experience add anything to the instructions? Answering any of these questions can lead to an article.
  • Question what you read. If someone makes a claim about a particular piece of software, go see for yourself. If someone is quoted, contact them to expand on their comments. The more you know about the field, the more you are likely to question. For instance, a few months ago, I got a story when a software project’s members were being quoted as having an opinion which I knew was likely to be wrong.
  • Read bloggers and columnists in the field. Note their opinion, and see if you can come up with a counter-argument (For the record, I write a lot of blog entries using this technique, especially when the subject is career advice).
  • As you get to know your chosen field, you will become familiar with the truisms that everyone knows. Play the contrarian, and see if you can come up with a valid argument that qualifies or over-turns conventional wisdom. An example is my article for Datamation, “It’s time to get over Microsoft,” which suggested that free software was now strong enough to have no need to fear its traditional nemesis. Of course, I received plenty of negative criticism, but I still feel that the point needed to be made.
  • Everyone has a story, and so does every group. I’ve never yet met someone who was boring when talking about what matters to them, so get in touch and tell those stories.
  • Watch for common problems that people have, either in online forum or in your everyday life. Lists of resources or steps to overcome these problems are articles that editors will love, because they’ll continue to be read for months after they’re published.
  • Make lists. For instance, in the last 3 years, I’ve written “11 tips for moving to OpenOffice.org,” “9 characteristics of free software users,” and at least a dozen more. Lists are an excellent way to make use of random observations and thoughts.
  • Think of what’s appropriate to the season. For instance, last Christmas, Linux.com carried articles about gifts for geeks, and non-profits to which people might want to donate before the end of the year to get a tax break. For Valentine’s Day, the site carried suggestions of how to mark the day using free software. In the past, other articles were published to mark the university of the OpenOffice.org and Debian projects.
  • Think about your own experience in the field, whether with your home computers or at the office. Often, what you’re doing with your computer will make a good how-to article, especially for beginners. For instance, I got at least half a dozen stories from my customization of my new laptop last summer.
  • Contact companies and experts, asking for more information about new software or new policies. If you see something interesting in the way of hardware, ask about getting a review unit.
  • Network like crazy, not only with movers and shakers, but also PR experts and ordinary developers. This advice is always sound no matter what you’re doing, but, in journalism, it pays greater and greater dividends as you continue to write, because people will contact you when they think they have a possible story. I don’t know how it works for other journalists, but I now get 2-3 stories and another 2-3 possible leads per month – a substantial reduction of my need to generate ideas. Three years ago, when I started, I got none. And, increasingly, those stories are scoops, given to me because people feel that I’ve written about them or their colleagues with some fairness or insight in the past. Of course, many of these contacts have their own agenda, but generally that agenda is only to get publicity, so you generally don’t have to worry about preserving your independence.

You see the common thread? Consistently generating ideas to write about means that a part of you is always hunting for stories. As you go about your business, a part of you needs to be always analyzing the story potential of what you encounter.

If my experience is anything to go by, once you have this habit, your problem won’t be coming up with ideas. It will be choosing which stories you want to write in the limited time that you have in the day.

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