Where do freelancers find ideas? Sometimes it’s a shot in the dark

I wasn’t covering the UNH Career Fair last October for anyone. There was no story due in the hours that followed and I certainly wasn’t getting paid. So why did I spend 3 hours out of my day and a couple bucks in parking to attend? I needed some business story ideas.

Finding story ideas is one of the hardest parts of being a freelance writer. I’ve been getting better at it, largely by focusing on publications I’ve worked with in the past. I ask them straight up — what are you looking for? Editors always have a wish list of stories they’d like to publish but don’t have the staff to do it. Simply asking them to share that wish list with you is a huge step toward landing a story with them.

Attending networking and trade events is a tool I’ve used lately in better meeting editor’s expectations. I’m not pitching the event as the story, but instead am contacting the editor before I go and asking him or her — if I were to go looking for story ideas, what should I keep an eye out for? This gives me a list of questions to ask people at the event and helps get me closer to finding a subject worth writing about.

I got the idea for this piece for New Hampshire Business Review after attending the UNH Career Fair last fall. I didn’t pitch the event as the piece, but instead called the editor beforehand letting him know I would be attending and talked about some potential stories that could come out of it — who’s hiring, who’s growing, what majors are in high demand? I got some suggestions from the editor and headed over.

As is often the case when walking into a room blind, what you expect to find and what you actually find when you get there don’t always line up. I spoke with plenty of representatives from out-of-state companies, but didn’t find many local, innovative companies. And then I came across On Call International, a swiftly growing company with a unique business model based in Salem, N.H. I pitched a story based on the editor’s recommendations and landed an assignment.

Attending these events can sometimes be a gamble and don’t always pay off, but I’ve more often than not, I can come up with something an editor is willing to bite on if I look hard enough. You can read a portion of the piece below.

Traveling? The last number you call may be in Salem

Keeping cool heads during a crisis has been On Call International’s mission since its inception nearly 20 years ago. It’s a trait that has served its customers well, helping them navigate their way out of foreign jams big and small. It’s also a trait that has helped the company through some rocky times, bringing On Call International from the brink to recognition as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country.

The travel risk management firm provides a wide range of services for travelers both in the United States and abroad. Whether it’s a medical emergency, an arrest or a lost passport, On Call works with officials and medical staff on the ground wherever the client is located to resolve the situation, sometimes traveling to the customer to bring him home.

Last year, On Call International fielded 500,000 incoming and outbound client calls, and 300,000 emails to and from clients. The company brought home the remains of more than 300 people and sent 400 private jets and air ambulances – equipped with a rescue nurse and medical equipment – to locations around the world to bring clients home.

For the rest of the story, go to NHBR.com.

Starting this business is a funny thing to write about


About two years ago, I decided I would give newspapers a break. If you’ve never committed yourself to a career in journalism, understand that this was a big change of heart for me. I gave up higher-paying jobs to work at a newspaper. I let relationships suffer and I abused my own health to work at a newspaper. I had been dedicated to daily news for almost a decade, so giving it up wasn’t a decision I made lightly.

But if I’m being honest, leaving newspapers behind was pretty easy once I decided to do it.

Working at a newspaper, no matter how large or small, is simultaneously the most uplifting and most depressing job you can have. One day you’re hunting down the parents of a child killed in a hit-and-run, the next you’re interviewing a Rwandan refugee who found out that morning he will be going on to college after graduating high school in the spring. Then there are the internal ups and downs. The brotherhood of reporters and editors who laugh at the dark jokes you’d never dare utter to people outside the newsroom. The support we give each other, even though we’re digging our talons in as deep as we can to hang on to the job we’ve got. And I will never forget the hostility that can infect a newsroom after years of layoffs, pay cuts and poor management.

I wrote the following post as a basic how-to on starting a business in New Hampshire, but if you know the back story, it’s about much more. I’ve abandoned my career in newspapers — for the time being — to give mercenary writing a try. I really thought I would miss newspapers more, but I don’t.

Starting your own business: My story

About a month ago, a large envelope from the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office came to me in the mail. Inside was a letter and certificate notifying me that I now officially had my own business. As of Nov. 12, 2013, BLH Writing Solutions is free to perform “independent contracting services providing writing and web content” within the state of New Hampshire.

Does this piece of paper make a difference in any way except by adding a small ounce of legitimacy to my self-employed existence? Not really. But it certainly feels nice to know that when people ask me what I do for a living, I can tell them I run my own business.

My experience this year has been relatively crisis-free, but I know there can be lots of challenges to starting a company. As I prepared to launch my business idea, I found the stories from others who started their own business to be helpful. Although I’d like to avoid giving advice here, I’d like to share my story.

The Idea

After a few years in the newspaper business, I began to question the future of the industry. Seeing “journalist” at or near the bottom of those annual job security lists made me nervous and I worked with many talented people who were ahead of me if a promotion ever presented itself. When I gave birth to my daughter, instead of taking maternity leave I left my position, not really knowing what I’d do for work next, just that I wanted to work for myself.

A I considered my options, I kept thinking about a casual conversation I had with one of my regular sources. She told me that good writers were impossible to find and if I ever wanted to change careers, she could refer me to a few businesses looking for writers. This wasn’t the first person to tell me this. People in the business world have told me repeatedly that knowing how to write a letter or an announcement or instructions to staff on a new policy are skills in high demand.

So that’s where I started – writing for people who didn’t have the skills or the time to do it themselves.

The Plan

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on networking, which covers much of what I did during the first six months. I contacted people I had worked for in the past, and people I met through other jobs. I told them if they needed something written, I could do it. I got one client right away, who connected me to a marketing firm looking for a writer. I got a reference to write for a college publication from a friend’s mom, and a college friend, who now edits a trade magazine, gave me a few assignments. The work trickled in slowly at first, but as I met more people, more work came in.

This summer, I did some networking on Facebook and landed my biggest assignment yet.

The Details

As the end of the year approached, I realized I’d have to do my taxes. It was time to get my house in order. I filed my business name, BLH Writing Solutions, with the Secretary of State, which the law says is required to do business in N.H. Then I took a few hours to gather up my receipts, invoices, check stubs and any other materials I could think of and paid a visit to an accountant.

The visit was not uplifting, but it didn’t make me want to hang it all up either. I will have to pay a significant amount to the IRS next year because I didn’t submit quarterly filings. (I was supposed to file quarterly?) But because I did a good job of keeping records, I can deduct most of my expenses without fear. The accountants I spoke with also gave me a good plan moving forward so I don’t make the same mistake next year.

The Next Step

While this first year in business has been a great education for me, it has also made me realize there is so much more to learn. Next year I hope to form a relationship with theNew Hampshire Small Business Center to make sure I continue in the right direction. I am also interested in learning more about information offered by SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which offers business seminars throughout the state, and the Center for Women’s Business Advancement in Manchester. Stay Work Play also hasresources for starting a business in NH on their website.

As far as first years in business go, I am happy with the way mine has gone. I have no regrets about working on my own, but there is one thing I miss about the old days — paid holidays.