Success in the freelance writer’s world greatly depends on mastery of the pitch. If you have a great new angle for an article (or better yet, a series of articles), you’re almost guaranteed a platform on any well-known publication. These ideas can seem almost effortless when you read other people’s articles; magazines certainly seem to have an abundance of them.

As it happens, it can take considerable work and great knowledge of public taste to really find freelance writing topics that pique the interest. Personally, it took me months, when I started out freelancing, to understand how important it was to the success of my pitch to be original and interesting.

Sometimes, I would pitch an article, and the editor would reject it with a consolation prize thrown in –they liked my writing, and would consider me again if I could offer them better ideas. Unfortunately, when it came to original stuff, I didn’t have a pile sitting around. It’s a terrible thing to come by opportunity, and see it slip away. I decided to work on a method.

Content isn’t king, ideas are

If there is one skill that helps you find success as a freelance writer, it’s knowing how imagination works. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see that you’re anything special when it comes to the actual writing — the ideas and convincing arguments and facts put you over the top. New ideas are so important, it would make a lot more sense if editors were to modify that old saying about content being king to a more accurate form reflecting the importance of the ideas behind pieces of content.

Ideas don’t come up in a vacuum

Ideas work the same in any field — inspiration and creation come out of hard work, rather than spontaneous lightbulbs. If you’re a musician, you want to study hundreds of tunes, and analyze them to find out what makes them tick. If you’re a writer, you want to go through dozens of articles each week, analyze them, and ask questions about everything they say. The right question will lead to the insight that will turn into an idea.

If you are unfamiliar with the process, this description can be hard to understand. An example can help. If you are a fitness writer and you’ve just read an interesting article about Coca-Cola and their latest advertising push to put obesity down to a lack of exercise, rather than a dangerous junk food habit, questions like these can bring up a few lightbulbs:

  • How much skepticism is coming from other observers?
  • What parts of the skepticism do you find insincere or incorrect?
  • How does the article affect various groups of consumers or industries and what do they have to say about it?
  • What do publications from various political groups have to say about it?
  • What is the story trying to hide, and why?
  • Where else in the world or in history has this happened?
  • What numbers does the article use, and how are they misinterpreting them?
  • Are there any hidden stories within the story that everyone seems to be ignoring?
  • What studies can you find?
  • How does the story connect to ideas such as climate change, the election cycle or divorce rates — things that one wouldn’t normally associate with junk food or fitness?

You’re looking for new tangents to take on your way to discovering the unexpected, and offering interesting angles. You should brainstorm all by yourself, censoring nothing.

Talk to anyone who will listen

Social situations bring out something special in all of us. I often find that ideas that take me hours to come up with on my own often pop up readily the moment I talk to someone. Whether you already have an idea or are looking for one, you want to talk about your thoughts with anyone who will listen — strangers, friends, family, members of freelancing forums and so on.

Here’s an example of how this can happen. Once, I was trying to come up with a new angle for an article on online dating, and I was considering finding an explanation for why many people had little luck on them.

After getting nowhere digging for an interesting angle, I happened to ask someone sitting next to me on the train what they thought about it all. The person mentioned in passing that he sometimes wondered why many people never replied. That was when it occurred to me — maybe most profiles were bogus. I wondered if this could really be true, and interviewed lots of people on the street. I had an article right away.

Now, with news of the Ashley Madison hacking attempt, the company has been accused of padding its profile database with nonexistent attractive women. It’s a real phenomenon, and the subject makes for a good article.

At another time, I heard someone say that they found that many of the people they dated from online sites didn’t actually seem single. A little research uncovered that there was data that showed that 80% of all online profiles by men were actually those hoping to cheat. One married person once talked about how it made him feel guilty just going online on dating websites just to check things out. Both made for interesting articles that created a few waves.

There are formulas to break everywhere

Sometimes, formulas easily work when it comes to finding freelance writing topics. All you need to do is to pick an accepted fact or truth, a cliché, say, and deny it. You only need to find some form of evidence to back your denial. For instance, everyone says content is king; I just denied it above, and probably got a few looks. If I made that title of my article, and hunted for real material to back it up with, it would make for an interesting article, indeed.

From Facebook to friendships, a familiarity with the news and formulas, there are seeds of ideas everywhere around you. All you need to do is to look, think, and ask questions.