Ugh, how do I tell this story?

Let’s set the scene: you’re planning out the next issue of your magazine, and you have that story to do.

And you don’t want to deal with it.

That story looks different for everyone.

  • Maybe it’s an annual update of the story you did last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
  • Maybe it’s that strategic priority story that doesn’t seem to have a lot of “there” there.
  • Maybe it’s that series of VIP donor profiles your president has been nagging you to write. But you can’t imagine writing more than 10 words about any of them.
  • Maybe it’s a really cool story — a topic you’ve been dying to cover — but now that it’s official, you’re panicking that you can’t make it as good as you imagined.

I’ve been there with you: the retiring faculty feature package, the campaign story, the roundup of alumni in XYZ field.

So how do you tackle it? How do you make it something that your audience actually wants to read?

This is an issue I struggled with for years. I’d procrastinate. I’d complain about it to friends. I’d do a cursory search of the web or post a message on one of the writers’ groups I belonged to in search of a brilliant idea.

And then I mostly just did what I’d done before.

But this started to change a few years ago — and now I rarely feel stuck.

It’s not magic! I’m sharing my exact process below.

Build your “good idea database”

A few years ago, I was having lunch with an editor who always seemed to have creative story ideas and knew just how to package them. Surely, I asked him, he had some sort of go-to list or editor encyclopedia that he could consult to figure out the best way to tell any story?
He said he didn’t have any specific resource that he consulted — but if I was so curious about it, maybe I should just build my own “good idea database.”

So I did! It took some real trial and error. But I consider it one of the most powerful tools in the Capstone arsenal. My team and I add to the database every single month. Here’s just a tiny slice of that database:

A snapshot of the database Capstone uses weekly—if not daily—for client projects.

We use this database to develop and refine story ideas, to serve as a launching pad for talks we give to higher ed communicators across the country, and to write this newsletter. It’s hugely important to us.

Here’s exactly how we did it:

1. Start with as much “data” as possible. Get as many magazines as your budget will allow. I subscribe to more than 20. My current favorites are The Hollywood Reporter, Fast Company, Bon Appetit, and New York. (Not a magazine editor? Do the same for the media you work in most frequently, and adjust the instructions that follow accordingly!)

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Spend a few minutes flipping through the magazines each week, and when you find something that looks interesting — especially if it’s a story that you wouldn’t normally be interested in, but something about the approach drew you in — snap an image of it with your phone.

3. Enter the story into your database. Use a tool like Airtable to store your images.

4. Categorize wisely. Make sure you categorize it in a few different ways so you can find when you need it. I often remember things by the headline and the publication it appeared in, but I also try to note various categories I think I might use it for in the future — a roundup, a story likely to lead to reader feedback, a story that focuses on pairings.

5. Keep it simple. One of the things I tried to do initially was to include a million different categorizations – bylines, dates, notes. But over time, I found that this was more of an annoying obstacle than a useful tool. I wanted to be able to add things to my database quickly, and if I had to spend 10 minutes laboring over each entry, I simply wouldn’t do it. In the words famously attributed to Einstein, “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

6. Use it! Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But make sure you’re carving out time at each part of your story process to review what you’ve collected. Sometimes, a single entry at the right moment can help unlock a story in a useful way. It’s easy to start building these resources and then let them collect dust. Don’t let that be you.
We use our database constantly. While the published story might only look a bit like the template that launched it, you can almost always see its DNA.

For example, when Purdue Alumnus wanted to do a big feature on its “Take Giant Leaps” 150th anniversary, Capstone used this New York magazine story from our idea database to create the Giant Leaps Academy feature package.

We used this Creative People feature as the launching point for Kenyon Alumni Bulletin’s How I Got Into Politics.

Yes, it takes time to build this database, and you have to be consistent. But the long-term payoff is huge.

Do you use any tools like this? Let me know.