Fans often ask successful writers where they get their ideas. In my experience, many answers are less than useful. But I believe there is a definitive, general, and useful answer to the question of how to get great ideas.
I surprised myself the other day when I looked at the number of posts I have contributed to this blog over the last two years. It turns out there are well over 100 posts, going all the way back to 2010. Along the way, I’ve had my doubts, everything from “I’m not sure I have anything to write this week,” to “I don’t know how many more posts I can write before I start repeating myself.” But the fact of the matter is I made an agreement with my editor that I’d do a piece a week, and I have pretty much stuck to it. Along the way, I’ve also gotten more comfortable with how to “get ideas” for posts, and develop them into fully defined texts.
Decide to Write
The first thing that helped me was good, old necessity. I had made a commitment and I felt compelled to stick to it. Precision was also on my side, since I had a specific frequency and an approximate word count that felt like a completed article. The right amount of pressure — not too much, not too little — kept me on track.
Ideas are Born not Made
The mindfulness tradition has a lot to say about ideas. In one of the more popular meditative recipes, the objective is to clear the mind of all thoughts. But as anyone who has tried this has learned, thoughts show up whether we want them to or not. From a creative standpoint, this is great news. We’re having ideas all the time. We can barely avoid having them. So there’s no true lack of ideas. When someone says “I can’t think of anything to write about,” they usually mean something very different.
Critics Need not Apply
The actual problem of “not having ideas” is most frequently a case of judging ideas prematurely. As soon as an idea is recognized, some other part of our mind starts trying to find reasons why it’s a bad idea. Getting rid of bad ideas isn’t a bad idea, but our inner critic is often far too quick to throw away something good. The standard advice is to generate ideas without criticism. And I agree. Also, the longer I write, the better my ability to disqualify truly bad ideas becomes, but more importantly, the more compassion I have for new ideas.
Even though ideas happen all the time, great ideas don’t usually show up when we’re most ready to receive them. Typically great ideas show up in the shower, when we’re driving, or when we should be doing anything but coming up with ideas. That’s just one more reason to have some way to capture them always at hand. Trusting your memory is a sure road to losing some of your best material. It doesn’t really matter if your capture tool is a notepad, a voice recorder, or something that lives in your phone, as long as you use it effectively.
For my part, I have a running document that syncs across my computers and my phone that holds article ideas. Sometimes I write just a line or maybe a few outline elements. The point isn’t to get everything down, but to leave just enough of a breadcrumb trail for me to follow when it’s time to write. I call these ideas my “article embryos” and keep them “frozen” in my list until it’s time to grow them to maturity when I write.
I don’t know many serious writers who don’t have some ritual that keeps them writing. Most writers have a particular time of day, a particular place, and a particular tool set that they use religiously when they create.
My article ideas list helps out tremendously when it’s time to write. I can scan down the list and see which of my ideas has the most relevance or emotion charge for me at the given moment, and then I start working on that one. As long as my idea list has a few items in it, I know I won’t be “out of things to write about.”
Feed Your Head
When I’m trying to write something unlike the 100+ articles I’ve written to date, I’ve found it necessary to look far and wide for new events, ideas, and viewpoints. While the Internet can become a gigantic time-sink for info-grazers, I find this exact behavior (quickly flicking through a large number of pages and posts) useful creatively. I tend to use StumbleUpon and Reddit when I’m looking for a fresh perspective to write about.
Even though ideas come as easily as breathing if we let it happen, there are a few things I find helpful for generating new ideas. The first is unstructured time. I’m sure I’ve developed a number of good articles while being crazy-busy, but I feel that a certain amount of daydreaming helps the process along. Remember staring out the window at school, and getting in trouble for it? Forget what your teacher said. Do that. Just keep your capture tool nearby and know that you’re doing high-intensity creativity.
Anxiety, and especially self-doubt, can block your idea flow or ramp up the inner critic until it will reject every single thought you have. Writing takes a certain amount of quiet faith that a good idea will show up, even though you don’t know how or when it will appear. In this sense, generating ideas is like fishing. You have to hold quiet and still with the expectation that you will get a bite (or an idea). And then it happens.
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