RSS feeds are a writer’s best friend

By Mark O’Neill

“Mark, where DO you get your story ideas from?”

That question has to rank as the most asked question of all time when people meet me (it’s right up there with “where’s your kilt? I thought all Scotsmen wore kilts?”). Some writers get irritated by the question and snap back “it just happens OK?!”, others shrug and say “who knows? C’est la vie!” while I give the practical answer and say “RSS feeds!”

After weeks of procrastination, I have decided to finally write down (well, type) my methods of finding stories. It’s really not that difficult if you set it up right and you know the right places to look. Anyone who says they can’t find ideas to write about are not looking in the right places.

So let me show you where I get my ideas.

As well as Geeks Are Sexy, I write for four other blogs, so time is of the essence every day. This is why a good RSS reader is an absolute must as it immediately becomes your personal assistant and story researcher. I have been pretty much addicted to Google Reader from the very beginning. Before Google Reader came on the scene, I pottered around with My Yahoo, but when Google Reader came along, My Yahoo didn’t stand a chance (the only thing I miss about My Yahoo is not reading the Garfield comic strip anymore every morning when I open up my browser!).

It’s my opinion that any serious web writer needs to use Google Reader, especially now that add-ons such as AideRSS have entered the scene. And if you use Firefox, you also have the wide variety of Greasemonkey scripts from places like Userscripts and Userstyles. When it comes to personalization, Google Reader beats its rivals hands-down.

Now that you have Google Reader standing by, what are the feeds that you should be subscribing to to find your story leads each day? Well on a daily basis, I look through, on average, 1000 posts from around 350 RSS feeds. That takes up several hours of the day and then I start writing. To get through that many posts, you first need to develop both speed reading and Google Reader keyboard shortcuts skills. The Firefox browser Read It Later extension is also a fantastic writers tool, and I have been helping the developer Nate Weiner to test a fantastic new version for Firefox 3.

Some of the RSS feeds below are common sites that you will immediately recognize, but others you may not. You may find them useful for blogging yourself or just for adding to your RSS reader for reading. A problem that I have found with subscribing to them all is that there is a certain amount of repetition / overlap, but that doesn’t bother me so much.

Digg – the Digg feed is one that I have often unsubscribed from and then resubscribed to later for various reasons. First, if the story is doing well on Digg, I am not inclined to write about it again. Second, a lot of crap is on Digg and I get tired of wading through that crap to find the few good stories that may be there. So Digg is often a bit of a hit and miss affair. But I always end up coming back to it eventually because it is good for browsing if I have a bit of writers block. But instead of the official Digg feed, I use Feeddit, which is the Digg feed but with more features that Digg doesn’t provide, such as number of Diggs, number of comments, name of the submitter, and so on.

Stumble Buzz – Stumble Buzz, to me, tends to lean towards the tabloid side of things, from a journalistic point of view. Stumble Buzz is where you get all the funny YouTube videos, weird photos and so forth, but often, you tend to pick up good news stories too, which is why I stay subscribed to the feed. Stumbleupon itself is a fantastic place to look for ideas to write about. Their search toolbar is great and if I know the subject I want to write about, I just plug in keywords and see what comes up. Human-generated submissions to Stumbleupon beats Google computer algorithms any day of the week. Hotlist – this can be good for hearing about new software and new websites. can sometimes get a bit on the spammy side, so if that happens, I just hit “mark all as read” in Google Reader and move on. But sometimes I hit a golden home run and find some amazingly good stuff which makes this feed a keeper.

Reddit – again, like Stumble Buzz, Reddit can get a bit tabloid-like, but still you can get a few gems from it sometimes. I often find human interest stories that generate a lot of discussion and comments, which is what bloggers like. If you have a cellphone, you might instead want to use Reddit River which I previously covered on GAS.

RSSmeme – a site that tracks RSS posts. You can customize it to only view stories from a certain number of days and also according to how many people shared it on the site.

ReadBurner – partly set up by Adam Ostrow of Mashable and similar to RSSmeme. It is partly integrated with Google Reader and you can view your Google Reader feeds inside the Readburner page if you want to.

FriendfeedLinks – this is a very new one and the jury is still out as to whether it is will survive in the long term. It basically tracks the weblinks being shared on Friendfeed and collects them all together into a RSS feed. The thing I don’t like about it is that it takes you to the link on the Friendfeed page and NOT directly to the weblink itself, so it involves more clicking. Slightly irritating.

LinkRiver – be warned if you do this one. LinkRiver REALLY is a river. It is high density RSS and will deliver a high volume of links to your RSS reader. So much so that I initially unsubscribed from it because I was over-whelmed. But I went back to it a couple of weeks ago. Some of it might be considered spam but there’S also some good stuff in there. Just be liberal with your “read” and “delete” button and you’ll be fine.

Twitter – I actually don’t have this one in my RSS reader but instead in my desktop Adobe AIR Twhirl application (as I like to respond to followers and I can’t do that inside a RSS reader). I have found some good story leads from Twitter followers who post blog posts to Twitter using applications such as Twitterfeed (crediting them as the original source of course). Twitter is the best networking tool for writers that there is. Instead of meeting sources in underground parking garages (Deep Throat style in All the President’s Men), you can now direct message one another on Twitter instead.

Boing Boingjust like Open Culture, Boing Boing is a website I hope never disappears because I love it. It is full of story leads that I often use to write about for various places, including GAS.

Wired – I like Wired because of its emphasis on internet / tech stories. It is Wired that has given me some great story leads which have led to some great GAS posts, for example the MySpace Suicide case just a few days ago.

Many international newspapers have online internet and technology columns – the Washington Post, New York Times, Seattle Times (which is good for Microsoft stories since they are based in Washington state), Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle (which are good for Silicon Valley-type tech news), British Times, British Daily Telegraph, and many more.

I also get ideas from watching the television. For example, I got my idea for the R2-D2 post by watching the German news. I then jumped online and searched YouTube for an available video. So ideas do indeed strike from all places. I used to have an annoying habit of writing ideas all over my hands if I was in the middle of the street without any paper or computer. Now I just use my mobile phone and call my voicemail to leave myself a message “hey you! I’ve just thought of a GREAT story idea!”

Well that’s about it. That’s where I get my ideas from. I am always on the lookout for new RSS feeds to try out, so if you have any good ones, leave them in the comments and I will take a look. Are you a blogger / writer yourself? How do you find your ideas? Let us know.