Staff Writer

October 1, 2023 (Updated )

Writer’s block is real. Conjuring a story idea out of thin air and nurturing that creative spark can seem impossible — particularly if you’re expected to do it regularly. I recently discussed the shudder-worthy image of an empty blank page in the Journo Resources newsletter, and it seems a lot of you shared my pain.

Journalism involves a lot of idea generation — ideally completely original ones — and performing creatively under pressure is difficult. While staffers might find themselves filing double-digit story numbers every day, freelancers might also feel added pressure to stand out in editors’ inboxes and ultimately pay the bills. It can sometimes feel like you’re just wading through the sludge rather than connecting creatively with the world and letting ideas simmer.

Are We More Creative Under Pressure?

A Harvard Business Review article from 2002 explores the idea of ‘creativity under the gun’ by assessing people’s creativity levels in the context of different work demands. The research examined workers’ diary logs when under intense time pressure, relatively low pressure, and when ‘creativity-shielding practices’ were implemented — for example, one company protected 15 per cent of the workweek for creative endeavours.

Journo Resources

The authors acknowledge instances of highly creative thinking under incredible time pressure — like Apollo 13’s flight to the moon in 1970 when NASA mission control was faced with a life-or-death situation. Presented with an explosion-induced build-up of carbon dioxide in the cabin, the team successfully built a filtration system against the clock.

But we aren’t talking about astronauts and explosions — we’re talking about everyday idea generation. Harvard Business Review’s research suggested that, in an everyday work environment, working ‘under the gun’ impacted creativity negatively. Similarly, though, it advised low time pressure didn’t necessarily foster creative thinking either.

“When people are encouraged to learn, to play with ideas, and to develop something truly new,” is when they say creativity can thrive.

Get To Know When You’re At Your Creative Peak

Granted, we don’t all have the luxury of time to learn and play with ideas — thanks to tight turnarounds and all the non-writing tasks journalism jobs tend to involve. What I’ve learned to identify, however, is when I think most creatively and how I can use that to my advantage. As I mentioned in the newsletter, it was through my (admittedly chaotic) notes app that I was able to gauge when idea generation tended to be the richest for me. By noting down not only my ideas, but where I had them. I could start to notice a pattern.

Journo Resources
“It is all about calibrating your brain and the way you think about things. Could there be a story here? Who is behind this? Who is profiting off this? Why has this come about now? Why has this failed?”
Amelia Tait, Freelance Journalist

Ideation is best for me when travelling on public transport or moving my body on a run, when I’m well-rested, and when I’m having fun. For example, I’m lucky enough to live a short train journey away from the coast, and one of my favourite pastimes — fuelled by nostalgic childhood memories — is going on the amusement penny slot machines.

Recently, I uncovered a full notes page of amusement-themed feature ideas: exploring the history of penny arcades; touring the country’s oldest coastal amusement parks; how long could I make £1 last? The list goes on.

“It’s All About Calibrating Your Brain”

Amelia Tait is an award-winning freelance features writer best known for writing human-interest stories about culture, trends, and the internet for publications like The Guardian, New StatesmanThe New York Times, Vice, and Wired. In a Journo Resources workshop, Tait (who has authored some truly fascinating features) shared some advice on how to come up with unique ideas.

Amelia explains that she has trained her brain to respond to stimuli in a certain way. “It is all about calibrating your brain and the way you think about things,” she says. Whether you’re in the supermarket, at the cinema, on your phone, in the pub — anywhere. Tait highlights the importance of always asking who, what, where, and why — even if it’s a mundane part of everyday life. “Could there be a story here? Who is behind this? Who is profiting off this? Why has this come about now? Why has this failed?”

Quick Tips To Spark Your Creativity

• Ideas can spark anywhere, whether it be during your daily commute or while in the shower! Take note of it as soon as it appears, whether that’s in a notebook, an app on your phone, or in a voice note — otherwise, you may lose it forever.

• When you find yourself at a loss, remember to ask questions. Thinking about who, what, where, when, why, and how may generate a whole new lead.

• Don’t forget about context — looking into the economic, social, and historical angles around a subject or topic can unlock a unique idea.

• Remember to make sure all of your ideas are relatable. If an editor can see how it directly relates to their audience, the more likely your pitch will be successful.

The idea for Tait’s story about crisp flavours in The Guardian, for instance, was born, as you might imagine, in the crisp aisle — but it was because she asked the above questions that it became a fully-fledged piece. Tait saw all these whacky flavours — from baked camembert to spiced cola.

It sparked the memory of a story her dad had once told her about cheese and onion crisps first coming to market — five decades after plain potato crisps were invented. How, Tait questioned, had it taken so long to be able to buy flavours like cheese and onion and salt and vinegar, when you can now choose from hundreds of wild combos?

Tait finds these ‘historical tracing’ activities a great way to develop ideas into a piece. Another example is a piece she wrote about the trope of a bodybuilding babysitter in films after seeing a trailer in the cinema for the action-comedy My Spy. It all felt very familiar. So, she emailed herself with the idea as the subject line and went on to publish a feature about “big man, small kid” films through the decades.

Similarly, a piece Tait worked on during lockdown came from tracing how something had changed over time. While she had always been interested in desire paths — paths developed naturally over time by people taking alternative routes — they had been written about before. So when the pandemic saw new pathways emerge due to social distancing, she had found her new angle. “It is about bookmarking something that you really care about keeping in the back of your mind and thinking about a time when that might be relevant again,” says Tait.

Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Scrolling — Or Your Sofa

Tait also credits her sofa as somewhat of an inanimate muse. It was when she was sitting on it, watching The Circle’s season finale, that she realised how long the pause was before the winner was announced. “Has it always been this way?” she wondered. Some data collection and several reality TV YouTube videos later, Tait discovered it hadn’t.

Journo Resources

Scrolling social media, Tait finds, is never a waste of time. “It’s people organically telling their stories and organically trying to get their life stories out into the world,” she says. Tait advises screenshotting and emailing things to yourself to prevent “journalism brain” from seeping into every moment of your life.

However, Tait is conscious to add that she is not a stranger to the blank page. “I don’t want to sell myself as some amazing fountain of ideas because I have been there, and I understand […] that sheer panic and that sensation that you will never have another idea again,” she says.

“Sometimes you look at your emails the next day, or your notes, and you’re like, ‘what did I even mean by this?’ It is not always a winner, but if you just get used to doing that and jotting it down all the time, you will find there will be some nuggets in there,” Tait concludes.

‘Writing On The Tube’

In short, it’s about finding a space that works creatively, no matter how unconventional. Crucially, you’ll also need a way to capture these thoughts too. Journalist and digital producer Effie Webb recently shared a writing exercise on TikTok called ‘Writing on the Tube’. Webb acknowledges that writing an article can sometimes be really daunting due to feelings of overwhelm, perfectionism, and self-doubt.

Instead, she uses the notes app while commuting to and from work, dedicating around 20 minutes (or however long the commute takes) to simply write. “I put a timestamp, and then I just write,” she explains. “No stopping, no breaks; you can’t go back, you can’t edit it. You choose a topic — it can be anything, it doesn’t have to be journalistic or newsy.” Effie stresses that it is not meant to be easy, but rather, it’s intended to help make the process of writing quickly and without predetermined structure, thoughts, and ideas, more possible.

Journo Resources
“Every day, make a note of three news stories/things that caught your eye. Over time, you’ll find the same stories keep piquing your interest, and perhaps there’s room for a bigger story in this vein.”
Suyin Haynes, freelance writer, media consultant, and former gal-dem editor

This one hits home. Katie Edwards is an academic, author, columnist, and broadcaster who has written for publications including The Independent, The i Paper, and The New Statesman. Also speaking at a Journo Resources event, Katie says: “So many times I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night, and I’ve had an idea that’s been so clear. Then, in the morning, I cannot remember it for the life of me. The same thing happens in the shower, which is quite annoying.”

So, even if you think you might be dreaming at 3am, write it down because it’ll probably be long gone by morning. Edwards has solved the shower conundrum by purchasing a waterproof notebook. Nope, we didn’t know they were a thing either.

She also advises keeping tabs on what’s trending, reading the news from all perspectives, and resisting the comfort of limiting yourself or your loyalty to one publication.

Keeping Tabs On Your Thoughts

Suyin Haynes is a freelance journalist and media consultant covering identity, race, culture, and underrepresented communities. She was also the editor of the independent magazine gal-dem. Haynes, who recently interviewed Gemma Chan for the cover of ELLE Magazine, explains how a tip shared by her mentor has helped her generate ideas.

“Every day, make a note of three news stories/things that caught your eye — something you retweeted, shared on Instagram, read on a news app etc. Over time, you’ll find the same stories keep cropping up and keep piquing your interest, and perhaps there’s room for a bigger story in this vein.”

Haynes says she did this during the summer of 2020 when monitoring the protest and removal of statues as the Black Lives Matter movement regained momentum. Haynes ended up doing several stories around this — including explainers about what was happening and why, features about activists campaigning to decolonise public space, and profiles of artists rethinking power in sculpture.

Journo Resources

Ebony-Storm Halladay, a freelance business and technology writer, has recently found inspiration by recording voice notes with an automatic transcription software. “I often use the text generated as a basic structure or synopsis for my writing. As someone who rarely has ideas at her desk (and almost always on the move), it allows me to capture the stuff I would otherwise forget,” says Halladay.

“There should always be something relatable at the core of what you are writing, right?” Tait questions. Something people want to read or connect with, and where better than the pub to find out what people are connecting with and what is engaging them?”

So whether you are writing on the tube, eavesdropping in the pub, mindlessly scrolling TikTok, or investing in a waterproof notebook, remember to revisit the basics and ask yourself: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? After all, you never know what you might see on your daily commute or where your lunchtime walk may take you. Ideas are everywhere, you just need to ask the right questions to find the stories within them.

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by the SPA in 2018.

She was a BBC Sport Kick-Off Reporter in 2019 and had co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying for the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.

Header image courtesy of Brooke Cagle via Unsplash