I once read that when someone asked Willie Nelson where he gets the ideas for his songs, he replied, “Ideas are everywhere. All you have to do is reach up and grab one.”
Finding ideas for writing—whether writing songs, novels, blog posts, or essays—might not feel quite that easy for some of us, but Willie’s description of the process is accurate. How else could you describe the process? (Maybe the impossibility of explaining that process is why one of the questions writers most hate to be asked is “Where do you get your ideas?”) We may not know exactly where ideas come from, but we can learn how to grab them when they arrive.
Alex Strike wrote this piece on practical ways to increase your chances of coming up with great ideas for writing for Helping Writers Become Authors, a site geared toward fiction writers. However, Strike’s approach to idea generation can work just as well for nonfiction writers like me. And since I need a blog post topic for every single day this year, I read everything I come across that has to do with writing ideas.
Strike begins with this definition of an idea:
An idea is a connection. Any idea, even the simplest one, is an association with your previous and already known ideas. Our minds constantly form such connections, often spontaneously and unconsciously.
It’s the spontaneous and unconscious aspects that make the explanation of where ideas come from so difficult to describe. The key to capturing writing ideas lies in being ready to latch onto them. To do that, Strike offers these six tips.
1. Expect the appearance of ideas.
Get rid of the self-limiting belief that you’re not creative. Expect ideas to come to come to you.
2. Greet all ideas, even those that seem stupid.
Don’t judge ideas right away. Save that step for later.
3. Be open to new experiences.
Read. Travel. Try new things. The more experiences you have, the more material your unconscious mind has for generating ideas.
4. Save your ideas immediately.
Carry a notebook with you or use a recording program on your smartphone to get down all ideas as they come to you. Get in the habit of doing this. Don’t count on remembering your ideas. You won’t.
5. Be grateful for ideas.
If you develop this mindset, your mind will repay you with more ideas.
6. Realize ideas come and go.
Strike writes, and my own experience confirms, that ideas tend to come in clusters. This is another reason for you to write them down. If your mind starts generating a lot of ideas at close intervals, there’s no way you’ll be able to remember them all to write down later. Write each one down as it comes along. And don’t be discouraged if no new ideas arrive for a while. Idea generation ebbs and flows. Trust the process and remind yourself that more ideas will come.
Read Strike’s full explanations of how these tips work. Once you start noticing, honoring, and recording the ideas that come to you, you’ll feel more comfortable with the process.
This piece by Jory MacKay is a good follow-up to Strike’s piece (above) because it explains what to do with all those writing ideas.
MacKay writes down his ideas in a Notes document. You can read here how I use Scrivener for that task. The particular method you use doesn’t matter. The important point is to develop a system of recording ideas that works for you.
The tool that MacKay then applies to his ideas is free writing, what he calls the “dirty work” of getting “your ideas, key points, and raw materials down, so that you can come back later and polish.” He offers these five tips for the free writing process:
- Just start writing (and don’t stop).
- Set out a block of time to work.
- Write how you think.
- Follow your thoughts.
- Find your happy place.
MacKay then explains how he used a marathon free writing session to write 20 blog posts in two days. He admits that this marathon session was strenuous, but he notes that the method will work whether you’re writing 20 pieces or one.
In the article above Strike noted the importance of writing down all ideas as they arrive without judging them. Here, MacKay discovered that his free writing helped him discover which ideas were worth pursuing and which should be discarded:
I also found that free writing a large group of topics like this is an amazing way to weed out bad ideas. When you’re struggling to write for 5 minutes on one topic it’s a safe bet that you should drop it from the list and move onto the next one.
Read MacKay’s full explanation and see if his system might work for you.
Conor O’Shea borrows a term from software engineering to judge the writing he publishes on Medium:
For those of you who don’t know what an MVP is, it stand[s] for Minimum Viable Product. In the software world, MVP is essentially the minimum number of features your product can have while still remaining attractive to potential users (would still give you a successful launch). I’ve always thought this was a lovely way of thinking about something, especially if you’re someone who suffers from perfectionism (as I have in the past).
He then offers three different ways you can start treating your writing like an MVP:
- Keep It Simple
- Keep It Clean
- Keep Improving
Although O’Shea is writing specifically about publishing on Medium here, his advice pertains to any piece of writing. I plan on using his discussion of those three points as ways of evaluating posts I write for my blogs.
We’ve been talking about writing here, but in this piece Matt Richtel discusses recent research suggesting that in some cases oral communication may be better than written:
New research shows that text-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer or, perhaps, close a deal.
This recent research builds upon “previous research showing that the cadence and intonation of voice allows listeners to do a better job of gauging a person’s thoughts than the same information communicated in writing.”