Just imagine: It’s 11 pm and your column is due by 6 am the following morning. You have no earthly idea what to write about so you stare at that white screen. You find yourself nodding off, wishing you could just go to bed! This is very real, folks. Idea generation is crucial for writing a successful column and it is hard!
After freelancing for magazines for a couple of years–very part time–I landed my first regular column on Natural Health Ezine writing four to eight blog posts each month. I was ecstatic!
Shortly after that, I started a monthly money-saving column for my local newspaper. Then another for Christian PF (now Seed Time). Then I secured another column for From Scratch magazine. Over the years, I’ve written regular columns in at least seven publications, both print and online.
But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.
I spent years nodding off in the dead of night trying to meet a deadline. Then, one savvy editor required something of me that set me on the right path to not just idea generation but getting my assignments organized and submitted without losing sleep. Because after all, when you have several regular columns to write, feature articles to research, and business clients who need their copy, things can get out of control in a hurry. Fortunately for you, I have a few tips to help you avoid the frenzy.
Idea Generation Tips for Your Regular Column
Go through past articles and see if you can flesh them out further. For instance, I once wrote how I got four meals from one roasting hen. Other articles could include recipes, other ways to stretch meals, or feeding a family on a budget.
Look at the publication’s archives. Surely there are articles written by others that you could flesh out, too. Or, use them as a springboard for an entirely different topic.
Read the headlines. I receive a “daily headlines” email from my two local papers as well as other regions of Virginia, the New York Times, the paper local to the publication I write for regularly, LinkedIn’s Daily Rundown, the Skimm, and Owler’s Daily Snapshot. (There are plenty more options to subscribe to, too.) They keep my inbox full of what’s happening in the world and I often find story ideas there.
Read Your “Junk Mail.” I have trouble using the phrase “junk mail” because someone like you or like me wrote it! But you know what I mean. Do you subscribe to the newsletters of the magazines you write for? You should. You should also subscribe to the newsletters of the magazines you want to write for. Or their competitors. Read them. They are a great source for column ideas of your own.
How to Organize Writing a Regular Column
Generate a List of Story Ideas
So, back to your newly assigned column. The first thing to do when an editor assigns you a regular column is to plan it out. I like to plan mine a year in advance. This wasn’t my idea. One of my editors requires it of all his regular contributors and I have to admit that his technique makes the following year go a lot smoother.
Depending on the frequency of the column, you may need quite a bit of time to come up with the topics. I like to start brainstorming story ideas in September for the following year. If your column is more than monthly, you may decide to make your plan for six months. Remember, this is supposed to make things easier so do what works for you.
Once you make a list of ideas, write your working headlines. Then, you may want to submit them to your editor even if he doesn’t require it. Just say,
“Hey, here’s a list of topics I’m thinking about covering next year. Any thoughts?”
He will know if something has already been covered, or if he’d like a different spin on it, or has an expert to suggest as a source. This step will save you a lot of headaches down the road, trust me.
The first thing I always do before I start any assignment, regular column or not, is to secure interviews with my expert sources. When you have to juggle your own schedule things get hectic. But when meeting your deadline hinges on the schedule of someone else, you better give yourself plenty of time.
You need two types of sources for an article: the expert and the man on the street. I find my experts in a few different places. Universities are the best. Since I write on a lot of agricultural topics, I look to the Extension Services of state universities. If the one in my state, Virginia Tech, doesn’t employ the right person to speak to my idea, I ask someone there who they would recommend. Medical schools are where I go for medical or health experts. And if I’m unsure, I can always ask on LinkedIn.
For the man on the street experts (you know, the person that actually has been-there, done-that) I use social media. I belong to a ton of groups, both on Facebook and LinkedIn, in my various niches that always turn up the perfect person to interview.
Do Preliminary Research and Write Interview Questions
While waiting for responses from the experts I reached out to, I do some research on the topic and formulate my list of questions. Experts may want to see a list of questions ahead of time so they can be thinking about their answers. Some even look up studies or relevant court cases that you may want to reference.
If the man on the street asks for questions ahead of time, though, I don’t generally supply them verbatim. I will say something like,
“Oh, I’m going to ask you about your accident, the legal battle that followed, and what you think may have prevented it.”
This kind of answer usually suffices. I don’t give them a full-blown list because many folks will dash off emailed answers and call it good. And, you know not to do email interviews, right?
Keep Everything Organized
Okay, so you could possibly be lining up 50 interviews between September and Christmas with this approach. Things will get crazy hectic unless you plan to put off some of the actual work until after the first of the year. However you approach it, keep everything organized.
A few tools I use to organize myself are:
- Calendly. Calendly integrates with Google and prevents a lot of the headaches that come with the back and forth of finding a time slot that suits both you and your sources.
- Google Calendar. Because it integrates with Calendly, and because I can use it for time blocking that is color-coded and drag-and-droppable, I LOVE Google Calendar.
- Paper Calendar. I am a paper geek! My Midori traveler’s notebook contains a paper planner that I use for my LIFE. While Google time blocks my work hours, the rest of my life is in my paper planner.
- Trello. I use Trello to organize my assignments. I have a list for each step of the process from Query and Assigned to Waiting for Interview and Submitted. It is great, integrates with your calendar if you want, and sends deadline reminders.
Conduct the Interviews
If at all possible, batch the interviews according to the story. For instance, If you’re interviewing two doctors and three patients for one assignment, schedule them all on the same or consecutive days. This will keep the information fresh in your mind and help you from getting confused.
After all, if you’re interviewing a doctor about peanut allergies on Monday morning, a farmer about growing watermelon at lunch, and a building contractor about his latest project in the afternoon, well, you get the point.
And that reminds me of something else: if you have columns for multiple publications, follow this outline for one column at a time. You will be much more productive if you batch like work together. So, do all your assignments for your health blog, then do all the assignments for the money-saving column, then finish with the home remodeling assignments. Believe me, your brain will thank you!
Write Your First Draft
As soon as possible after all your interviews are conducted, write your first draft. I learned this the hard way. I got on a story right away, did my research and conducted the interviews, then because the story wasn’t due for a few months, promptly let it slide. NEVER do that. Trust me.
Since you will, however, have time before you have to turn in the assignments, let those first drafts sit for a while before you go back to edit. Also, ask your editor how early she would want your columns turned in. If she wouldn’t mind, send them all in as soon as you have them done and invoice.
Finish and Submit
The sooner you can turn in your assignments, the sooner you can go on to sending out more queries and getting more assignments. If your editor doesn’t want them that early, go ahead and attach to an email, with your invoice, and schedule it to send right before the deadline.
And that’s it. Just remember to brainstorm, plan ahead, and batch and you will crush this column writing.