As the associate editor of Arizona’s wildlife magazine, I often choose my own assignments. Each summer, I come up with ideas for the following year, and run them past my editor. She lets me know which ones she thinks are hot, and off I go … free to nurture those tiny seedlings and help them grow into stories.
Researching self-generated assignments, I’ve taken nature tours, watched endangered California condors fly free, and lifted binoculars in some of the country’s most famous birding hotspots. I’m lucky to do what I do, and I look forward to sharing stories from those assignments here.
Along with my own story ideas, at times I take on a writing assignment at my editor’s request. Recently I wrote a feature on the 20-year history of the Heritage Fund, which gives up to $10 million a year in lottery dollars to the management of nongame wildlife.
It’s pretty easy to write a story when your own creative mind produced the original concept. It can be tougher when the idea comes from someone else. I’ve coached freelance writers who accept an assignment, only to hit a block when it comes to execution. How do you ignite a fire that will send fingers dancing across the keyboard, when you didn’t spark the idea in the first place?
When I have a hard time getting started, it helps if I imagine my ideal reader. It’s someone who wants and needs to hear my news. What I’m writing about affects that person’s life or something he or she cares deeply about. I tell myself, “You can find the words to connect with that reader, and he or she will be glad you did.”
Before I started the Heritage Fund story, I imagined my eager reader. It wasn’t hard: Heritage dollars fund dozens of programs that make a difference for wildlife and habitat statewide. My reader cares about those places and the animals that live there, and wants to know the resources are being conserved. Once I had that reader in mind, writing the story was simple.
Keeping your reader’s needs in mind is important no matter what you’re writing about, of course. Imagining that person can be an especially helpful exercise when you’re having trouble getting started. If it helps, think of that person’s face lighting up when they see your story. Picture them nodding as they read, content to be absorbing what you have to say. Yes, it can happen. The spark that lights the fire doesn’t always have to be yours.