By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning content writer and author who specializes in writing for nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
“Your content is too general. Choose a story angle and be more specific.” That editor’s rejection letter hurt. Worse, I didn’t know how to begin drilling down my story to specifics.
Today I am grateful to that editor for taking the time to scribble that tip — “choose a story angle” — in the margin of my article. He helped me understand the need to narrow a story idea to one that’s saleable or enticing for readers. If you’re a freelancer, a content marketer, or if you own a business and are building your online presence… well, like me, you’d like for your content to engage readers.
But back then, I didn’t know what to do in order to niche down an idea. Instead, I tried to process my confusion with doodling. I flipped over the rejected manuscript and started scribbling.
First, I wrote down what I thought was the theme of the story: leadership. Then I listed, “good leaders,” “weak leaders,” “leaders today,” “leadership principles,” and “young leaders.” Under each of those topics, I jotted down ideas that came to mind.
When I came to “young leaders,” I had an insight. My child’s strong will could be an avenue to develop leadership skills. I had a parenting slant for my story. And I had inadvertently come up with a simple way to find a story angle from a bigger topic.
Your story, article, or blog post is engaging or memorable when it takes a unique slant on a bigger topic. Finding a fresh story angle can take a bit of detective work, but the 1–2–3 process is simple. It starts by (1) choosing a topic, then (2) moving to a sub-topic, and (3) finally, niching down to a specific slant to choose a story angle. Start by looking at the big picture.
A quick study of diamonds can help you to understand the big-picture difference between a story topic and a story angle. Rough diamonds don’t come out the ground sparkling. Instead, they resemble large lumps or blocks of pale-colored glass.
A gem cutter studies the raw stone to see ways they can maximize the number of usable diamonds that can be carved from the original. Then one by one, they make cuts so they have smaller pieces. Then, they work on each usable stone, shaping and polishing its “faces” — facets. A diamond’s facets bounce light throughout the stone to create unique flashes and sparkles.
Your story topic is like a rough diamond. It’s got precious nuggets embedded within. Your job is to assess the topic and pull out separate sub-topics. From those sub-topics, you zero in on just one angle — one facet — to write your story.
You can uncover an endless number of story angles by looking at a topic in dozens of different ways and from different points of view. Like the facet of a diamond, your story angle brings out unique flashes of insight into the topic.
Maybe you already have what you think is a story idea. But don’t start there. Instead, start by identifying the topic. Think big and broad. A topic is a large subject, such as parenting, auto repair, personal finance, travel, health, fitness, education. Remember my rejection letter? A topic is too big to cover in just one blog post, a single article, or even in a book. If you have a story idea, ask yourself this question: what’s the overarching topic?
You’ve got a topic. Now consider its different components. If your topic is gardening, then its sub-topics might be vegetable gardening, flower gardening, commercial gardening, home gardening, gardening with kids, gardening tools, gardening methods…
Let’s work through an example. You’re drawn to the topic of home organization. Your books are neatly arranged on your bookshelf. Your wall calendar is synced with your phone and your spouse’s mobile device. You even alphabetize your spices in your kitchen’s spice drawer. In fact, you operate a home organization start-up and you want to write content that will help your readers and potentially drive traffic to your website.
Home organization is a broad, popular subject. So you brainstorm and make a list of sub-topics or create a mind map (a diagram that links your ideas as you think of them) so that you can write content that’s relevant to potential clients. Each of those ideas is a sub-topic of your main subject.
You get the idea, right?
From your point of view, most people should intuitively put their dresses on hangers, fold their sweaters neatly, and get rid of extra T-shirts that clutter their shelves. But they don’t.
As you look at your home organization sub-topics, you decide that you’d like to dig more deeply into organizing closets. Readers need this information. Plus, once they see that you provide great tips, they will want to buy your closet organizing products.
In order for your piece of content to be saleable or appeal to readers, you need to drill down to one facet of organizing closets. In order to choose a story angle, you need to get out of your own shoes and into the sandals (or sneakers or work boots or heels) of another. Look at your sub-topic of organizing closets from points of view other than your own.
How do different people process this subject? Maybe they’re overwhelmed … complacent … pressed for time … or have never seen the need to organize their closets. Think of all the different ways you can approach the topic. Write down your ideas and then identify the audience for each one. Do that and you’ll have plenty of angles. Here’s a quick list of ten ideas, each one with a different angle.
I use this simple 1–2–3 approach to choose a story angle with every piece of content I write. These days, it’s become intuitive, thanks to that editor who scrawled in the margin of my submission so many years ago.
In fact, finding a fresh angle for a story has become fun. Try it. Start with a big-picture topic — your rough diamond and its sub-topics — and then from there, dig further to find as many angles as you can. You’ll discover plenty of saleable, interesting content ideas. And you’ll be ready to polish each angle with fresh, sparkling insight.
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