How to Find Killer Nonfiction Stories

Here’s a dirty little secret: You don’t have to be an exceptional writer to be successful in the nonfiction writing business. (It helps, of course, but rest assured that many of the folks who nab bylines in top national publications are far from virtuosos.) The real coin of the realm is the ability to find amazing stories. After all, the only rule in nonfiction writing, from newspapers to magazines to memoirs, is that what you’re writing about has to be real. So find an incredible real-life tale and professional doors will open for you, editors will eagerly respond to your pitch, and you’ll find yourself moving up the publishing ladder.

The question is, how exactly do you find great stories? I can say from nearly two decades as a professional nonfiction writer that there are many dark days when it feels like the well has run dry, that there are no more stories left to find. The good news is I always manage to prove myself wrong—but it takes some work.

What’s funny is that while there are endless books and articles about various aspects of the craft of nonfiction, there’s very little material devoted to how to find stories, even though it’s the key part of the process. So like most working writers, I’ve had to figure out how to do so on my own. Here’s a synopsis of how I do it, distilled into three basic tips. There’s no guarantee they will land you a Pulitzer, but more likely than not, they will help you discover a real-life tale that’s dying to be told.

  1. Ask “What’s up with that?” I stole this idea directly from my time as a staff writer at Westword. Every week, we had to show up at our staff meeting with a list of “What’s ups”: “What’s up with all the road construction these days?” “What’s up with all these fidget spinners?” Any topic, local or national, was fair game. The idea was simply to force yourself to constantly ask questions about the world around you. And when you stop taking everything for granted and insert a little skepticism and wonder into your daily life, it’s amazing how many stories present themselves. Sure, not every “What’s up” offered at our staff meetings ended up producing a story—but a good chunk of them did. Now, for all of my writing classes, I require my students to come to class each week with a list of “What’s ups.” The assignment always produces amazing stories.
  2. Think “story,” not “subject.” This might be the most important piece of advice I can provide to aspiring nonfiction writers: You have to look for stories. Stories are about people doing things. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. And more often than not, a story focuses on one character in particular. This advice might seem like a no-brainer, but lots of writers—including many working journalists—write about subjects, rather than write stories. And if you want to get published in bigger and bigger publications, you have to find and write stories. A subject, for example, is Denver’s struggles with homelessness. A story is the gonzo lawyer who’s suing Denver over its homeless sweeps. A subject is the state’s growing heroin crisis. A story is an intimate look at the lives of several individuals caught up in the epidemic. Stories, in other words, are a far more interesting way to explore a subject. It’s almost like you’re fooling your reader into learning about something important.
  3. Find interesting people and take them out to coffee. The Internet is a sprawling, fascinating, and often bewildering place, but it’s not the best avenue to find stories. It’s far better to opt for the old-fashioned approach: Talk to folks face to face. Find interesting people, either folks you know or maybe read about in the local paper. Then e-mail them and politely ask if you can buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain for half an hour. Keep these meetings short and sweet. Ask them what they’re working on, what they’re interested in, and what sort of developments/surprises/controversies are currently populating their world. Save the most important question for last: Ask them who else you should be talking to, who they find truly interesting. Then set up a meeting with whoever they recommend. If you can, try to make these coffee dates a weekly thing. It’s unlikely the first person you sit down with will have a killer story. But eventually you will be referred to someone who does. And once you do, take it from me: All of this work will be worth it.

Joel Warner is teaching our 8-Week Nonfiction Workshop: Sharing and Refining Your Craft starting August 14.