Updated: Jul 13, 2022
When it comes to generating ideas, you probably think your personal life is one of the worst places to find them. You hear the admonitions of writing experts echoing in your head: "It's not about you." "Your ideas need to provide a benefit to the reader." "It's a conflict of interest to write about yourself."
What they don't tell you is that there are ways to spin your personal interests and experiences into content that works. Whether you're a new freelance writer who wants to break into magazines, a blogger looking for new blog post ideas, or a seasoned freelancer with writer's block—here are six ways to mine your life for ideas to write or pitch.
Get Article Ideas From: Your Job
Let's say you work in retail. This means you have reams of knowledge that readers of the right publications would love to learn—from how to find the best bargains to easy ways to return defective merchandise. Not to mention, retail trade magazines need articles every single month on marketing, building customer loyalty, keeping employees happy and productive, and more.
You’re a therapist? Pitch personal development ideas, or articles about a new mental health issue you're seeing in your practice. Bank employees have knowledge they can use to pitch personal finance or banking industry publications. Dog groomers can send ideas to pet-related magazines and brands. Entrepreneurs can mine their hard-earned knowledge for ideas to send business publications. You get the idea.
Even if you are an expert in the topic of your article, you won’t be the expert (unless you're writing for your own blog or website, or are a columnist who gets paid for their expertise). You'll use your expertise only to inform the topic—for example, to know how to pitch the idea, where to research, who to interview, and what to ask them. You will need to interview outside sources, and every fact in your article will need to be backed up from a primary source, whether that’s an expert interview or a research study.
I interviewed experts all the time, and nearly every single one of them loves their job, and loves to talk about it at length. They are excited by what they do and want to share what’s special about their work with the world at large. Take a cue from these people, and don’t dismiss your job as boring or menial. To do what you do likely takes special training, and the knowledge you gained on the job can enlighten others.
Get Article Ideas From: Things That Bother You
Got a problem? Other people probably have that same problem, and wish they could find the solution in a magazine, blog, or guide.
I have sold articles about medical problems I've experienced; in 2020, I wrote an article to Prevention called "Gross Health Problems Even Clean People Get," based on my family's run-in with scabies. Sometimes my personal experience works as a lead anecdote, and other times my experience just serves to inform the idea.
Caveat: Do not pitch ideas that are a thinly disguised rant! Here's a video I recorded on ways to turn your content idea from "here's something I hate and how you can make it better for me" to "it's all about the reader"—while still benefiting you in the end!
WATCH NOW: Freelance Writers, Don't Make This Common Idea Generation Mistake!
Get Article Ideas From: Your Hobby
Here are four ways your hobby can help you generate content ideas:
Industry publications need people who can both write and understand their industry. So if you design flyers and signs for your friends' bands in your spare time, try developing ideas for printing industry trade magazines.
Your knowledge can help you get your foot in the door at hobbyist publications and websites. For example, I used to practice martial arts, and I wrote on various aspects of this topic for ATA World (the magazine of the American Taekwondo Association).
Your hobby may intersect with the interests of a wider audience. I mixed-and-matched in this way to write about martial arts for Fitness (a reported essay on how martial arts helped with my anxiety), USA Weekend (the best martial art for your kid's personality), and Fortune Small Business (a profile of a bridal entrepreneur who was also a cage fighter...read more about that idea here.) As another example, my husband—a board-game enthusiast—wrote about a sheep-related game for Sheep! magazine, about a barbecue-related game for Chili Pepper magazine, and about a science game for Science.
If you're a content writer, your hobby can open doors at brands that cater to that hobby. Say you're a hardcore scrap-booker or you enjoy making embossed greeting cards; try pitching blog post or guide ideas to the brands that make the tools needed for those hobbies.
One additional pitch tip: If you're pitching a magazine, website, or blog, sure to include a quick credentials paragraph at the end that mentions your hobby.
Get Article Ideas From: Your Education
Just like your job, your education gives you special knowledge that clients will pay you to write about. Say you have a business degree; how about an article on the biggest mistakes new business owners make when seeking financing? If you have an RD certification, you have no shortage of potential ideas to pitch to health and nutrition outlets.
Get Article Ideas From: Your Friends and Family
Just as you have jobs, hobbies, and perhaps an education that you can mine for ideas, so do you have friends and family members who are great sources of topics. If you have a friend who is a massage therapist, for example, she may be able to give you some uncommon techniques for rubbing away pain that you can sell to a health magazine.
Using a friend or relative as a quoted source is considered a conflict of interest; instead, use them to inform your idea. If you have a friend or relative who is just too perfect to pass up as a source, be clear in your pitch how you're related to the expert—and mention that you can find a new source if the publication has policies against it.
My uncle was a prison guard at Sing Sing, and that gave me the idea for an article about the most dangerous jobs in America, which I sold to (the now defunct) Healthy Man magazine. And I have a friend who’s made good coin writing about accounting based on what she’s learned from her accountant dad.
Get Article Ideas From: The Publications You Read
Ideas are not copyrightable! You can certainly take an idea you find in one outlet and sell it to another. However, his works best if the audiences of the two markets are not likely to overlap. For example, I read a short piece in a university's alumni magazine about a woman who helps disabled parents learn how to care for their kids. I pitched this as a profile for Family Circle‘s “Women Who Make a Difference” department.
Your local paper and community websites are full of news about interesting people and businesses that readers nation-wide would like to hear about. When I read in a local paper about an 18-year-old who bought a store in Smithfield, RI, I pitched the idea of a profile to Rhode Island Monthly magazine.
Whatever you do, be sure not to lift an entire idea from any website, magazine, blog, forum, social media post, or anywhere else. Spin ideas in a way that makes them your own. What do you add to the idea that no one else can?
Remember, many editors rely on their writers to bring them ideas from places they don’t already know about—so your knowledge of your local news and community can be invaluable.