Noticing Ideas

Some writers consistently come up with good ideas about subjects others haven’t noticed. How do they do that? Here are some techniques.

First, some people just naturally notice things, both details and patterns. My childhood pal Edward Spencer and I kept finding things that others didn’t: money, puppies, hideouts, even a colossal steel boiler. Well, it seemed colossal to a five-year-old.

Edward caught details that others missed. In the woods one day, he heard a faint squeaking, and we found five abandoned collie puppies, which we later sold. My skill was patterns; I could spot four-leaf clovers just by glancing at a patch of grass. I noticed breaks in patterns, where others failed to see the patterns. So I discovered things that were hidden, like an abandoned laboratory, and Edward found things that were small, such as a dime.

The best newspaper reporters profit from deep curiosity, which drives them to notice details and patterns. And journalism has a tinge of outlaw culture, which makes them look where others don’t. We call this “contrarian thinking.”

Point of view determines what you see and hear, and you can find original ideas by placing yourself where others aren’t. If you stand in a group watching a boat, you see the boat, but if you’re aboard the boat….

My friend Mary Jo Melone, a former columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, attended a groundbreaking ceremony in Tampa. I had taught her to recognize when she was looking in the same direction as everyone else, and then to turn 180 degrees. She realized that she and a grandstand full of officials and reporters were all watching Donald Trump and the mayor break ground for a new hotel. So she stood up, turned halfway around, and looked out the back of the grandstand, where she saw a group of ragged men standing in line outside a quonset hut. When the ceremony ended, she walked to the front of the line, where she met a man ladling out soup. “What’s this?” she asked. The soup guy replied that his organization fed the homeless. She said, “Well then, your people can get jobs building this new hotel, and they won’t be homeless.” “No,” said the ladler, “Trump’s bringing in workers from New York, and as soon as we finish lunch today, they’re going to bulldoze my building to make them a parking lot.” “That’s terrible,” said Mary Jo. “Oh, I’m used to it,” he replied. “It’s the second time it’s happened to me this year.”

Bingo! Mary Jo found what nobody else saw or wrote about, because she turned her back on what everybody else focused on. Notice that she also got what all the other reporters got first, then added richness. You turn the arrow of attention around.

One of the richest sources of new ideas is sources of old ideas. People can tell you what they notice. Late in a good interview, ask the subject who else you should talk to. And here’s the trick: then ask what they’re likely to tell you. You also want to followup on what subjects say when they think the interview has ended. They tend to get unguarded and bring up things you didn’t ask about, but they want to talk about.

A court-reporter friend of mine asked people he barely knew in the courthouse to tell him something that would surprise him. Half laughed the game off, but the other half gave him a tip to develop. A weather writer I knew would question ordinary homeowners about rainfall in their neighborhoods, and then ask, “What’s going on up where you live?”

My African friend Dele Olojede asked for a business card from everybody he met and kept them in a deliberately unorganized file. Later, he would pull cards out at random, and call people to ask what was happening. It’s flattering to get such a call, and he hit about 50 percent.

In your daily life, you’ll notice details or patterns, but you might not ask about them because they don’t seem relevant to what you do or write about. But you’re not after whole ideas from these inquiries, just interesting sparks. The questions you ask yourself as you begin to notice connections can make the most unlikely material turn into ideas only you have.

[Let’s hear any techniques you use for spotting ideas.]

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Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 12:28 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Every time I went to the barber, I asked him what was new. He’d usually tell me something newsworthy and I’d pass it on to the local paper. When I was a city editor, I read the classified ads religiously. Saw a yard sale item that led to a story about the manager of the local cable company being fired.

    The turn 180 advice is excellent. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dear Tom;

    Thanks for your response. I think I will add a part about seeking out people likely to know what’s going on, such a chief operation room nurses, anybody in a university with an assistant title, and copyeditors.

    All best, Don


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