• Jack El-Hai, independent writer 
  • [Note: Randy Dotinga was also scheduled to speak but was unavailable.]

By Ruth Nasrullah

Finding and developing story ideas can be challenging, especially for freelance journalists. At Health Journalism 2023 in St. Louis, writer Jack El-Hai presented at a session targeting this challenge.

During the session, El-Hai, an independent journalist, author and creative nonfiction instructor and podcast outlined systems for identifying story ideas and developing them into meaningful, focused articles.

“What is a story idea? It’s the germ of a story, similar to how an egg can become an omelet,” he said at the start of his presentation.

He encouraged attendees to seek ideas even in seemingly unlikely places. His suggestions included legal notices, overheard conversations and even social media posts and Craigslist ads. He also recommended a state of mind that can help writers identify potential stories. For instance, he suggested that time spent doing household chores can result in a frame of mind that facilitates inspiration.

El-Hai incorporated several exercises into the session. In one, he asked participants to write down all the communities they belong to — personal, professional, social or other —  and begin thinking of ways those communities are sources of ideas for articles.

After exploring the process of identifying story ideas, El-Hai turned his attention to developing those ideas into workable subjects. He advised attendees to experiment with different story structures, suggesting alternatives to the traditional inverted pyramid.

Such alternatives include “the circle,” in which the story ends at the beginning, and “the braid,” which follows a main thread but weaves other narrative threads into the piece. His accompanying presentation included a graphic which used a rollercoaster to illustrate how to develop the course of a story’s narrative.

He then provided methods of judging ideas to help identify the most promising ones. He suggested includes identifying qualities such as “challenging,” “instructive,” “personally intense” and “career-intensive.” He provided a formula he uses based on those qualities to rate the ideas and select ones to pursue.

“Subjectively appraise each story idea, use some math, and you’ll come up with your score,” El-Hai said.

He went on to describe methods for saving and categorizing story ideas. He uses a database to categorize story ideas into groups such as timeliness, quality scores and sources.

“Most important is to tag your story ideas well,” he said. “Doing all these things is how you become an idea machine.”

Ruth Nasrullah is an independent journalist based in Houston. She was a 2023 AHCJ-Texas Journalism Fellow.