In a recent survey, writers ranked “lack of ideas” number four on their list of biggest hurdles. Sometimes people label this writer’s block, but I’m separating writer’s block from lack of ideas. Writer’s block can occur even when a writer accumulates files full of ideas, so let’s save that hurdle for another day.
Today let’s focus on how to generate ideas for writing.
I’ve compiled numerous ways for generating ideas. If you experiment with these methods, you’re sure to find least a few things to write about next time you open your laptop. I hope you generate more than a few, though—I hope you end up with a heap of ideas to work through over time along with confidence you can generate even more the next time you run out.
Whether you need ideas for blogging, essays, creative nonfiction, poems, short stories or novels, ideas abound. These suggestions can inspire many genres, including fiction, but people writing short stories or novels will benefit from a few genre-specific approaches, which I’ll include toward the end.
To have ideas, you’ll need a steady supply of input and inspiration from such sources as images, stories, and the limitless data available during this Information Age. Without input and inspiration, the inner well can run dry; the mental shelves can be emptied. With regular input, however, we’ll have a well to draw from, a mental library packed with ideas. Where do we find input for our creative writing?
Read: You know this, but I have to say it. Read widely, both within and outside your preferred genre (e.g., if you write fiction, read not only fiction but also poetry).
Artist Dates: Feed your creativity and fill the library of your mind by going on Artist Dates. Enchant yourself, Julia Cameron says. Woo your creativity. Play. From Cameron’s website: “The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you … think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration … ask yourself, ‘what sounds fun?’ — and then allow yourself to try it.” Slip into an art gallery, visit a fabric store, eat at an ethnic restaurant, attend a free concert, play a new game.
Curiosity: Writers who are naturally curious, lifelong learners ask questions and dig for answers. They wonder how things work; they research and try new things. When writers say yes to new opportunities, they gain new sensations and build new memories. Have you climbed a rock wall yet? I haven’t. I plan to say yes next time I have the chance. What new activity could you attempt? What piques your interest? Explore it.
Interact: Talk with people. Sounds simple, but sometimes we have to intentionally reach out and chat with others who engage us intellectually and creatively. Interacting stimulates our thinking and generates ideas. Find people to talk with about books you’re reading, issues you’re grappling with, activities you’re attempting. Call someone. Vox them. Have them over for coffee. Discuss.
Sometimes we don’t have to do a lot of hard work to generate ideas—sometimes ideas are right in front of us, and all we have to do is notice. Writers grow more confident and prolific as they work on the idea-generating habit of attentiveness. In our distracted culture, we may need to actually practice slowing down and noticing.
What’s New? Pretend you work for a newspaper and your editor expects you to come up with a feature story idea each week. Keep your eye open for events and incidents around your area, or watch the national news and figure out a local or personal connection to bigger stories.
Periodic Reflection: Train yourself to stop periodically throughout the day—during a Pomodoro break, for example—and take note of some of the following (type or write responses into one main storage place; see “Collect and Store” below):
- What have I observed or seen that stands out?
- What have I been thinking about in the last hour or so?
- What did I read that engaged me most, that I’d like to keep pondering and exploring?
- What interaction(s) can I record?
- What experience in the past few hours sticks with me strongest?
Use your responses to these questions as writing prompts. For example, if earlier in the day you witnessed someone yelling at a waiter while you were out for lunch, you could recall and capture that, then spin it into several new writing possibilities: a poem; a scene in a short story; a magazine article about public displays of anger and entitlement; a personal essay weaving together that tableside argument with recollections from your own work as a waiter, broadening it to explore the humility required to work in the service industry.
Spinoff: Suppose something you read in a newspaper, blog, magazine or literary journal caught your attention. Write in response to that. You can disagree with it, expand on it, or tell your own story inspired by that poem, idea or event. Copy out a passage, phrase, or line that stood out to you and let it launch at least one related idea of your own.
Evening Reflection: Mike Pesca of The Gist interviewed professional storyteller Matthew Dicks, who shares a daily exercise useful for training attentiveness and generating ideas. At bedtime, Dicks says, think of the one story from the day that has the greatest meaning—something that made that particular day different from all the rest. Take just one to five minutes to write that story down. This refines our lens, he says.
He writes the stories in a spreadsheet, stretching the column about three quarters of the way across the screen and limiting himself to that space. The people who fail at the exercise and give up tend to write too much. Do it daily for only five minutes or less, though, and you’ll have material to last a lifetime. I’ve begun this practice, and it trains me to be attentive as I faithfully reflect on and record the most meaningful event of the day. Not only do I have ideas to write about—I end up with a succinct record of my days.
Understanding your audience and their needs can help you produce relevant ideas.
Who’s your audience — Journalism 101 used to introduce students to using the 5 W’s and 1 H to form questions when reporting on a story. It helped gather and communicate key information. Writers of all kinds can use these questions to think through ideas for articles and stories (though perhaps less with poetry).
- Who: Use it to determine your reader—Who is reading your work and words? Who do you want to be reaching? Use it to determine your fictional characters—Who is this story about? Who are the main characters the protagonist will interact with?
- What: Use this to determine your reader’s biggest struggle. What do they want to know or learn? What do they crave? What are they frustrated about? What do you want to share with them? In fiction, use what to unearth What is your protagonist’s greatest desire? What is his or her greatest struggle or hurdle to satisfying that desire?
- When: For nonfiction, you can generate ideas for when the reader needs to receive information or take action on it. For fiction, when is the story taking place?
- Where: For nonfiction, ask yourself where will this piece of writing need to be submitted for publication or where will the reader be when reading it, which may or may not affect the content. For fiction, where is the story taking place?
- Why: Why does the reader needs this information, story, set of instructions? Why does the protagonist struggle with his desire and why does he react a particular way when faced with conflict?
- How: For nonfiction projects, ask yourself how will the reader act on this information? How will he be changed upon reading this? A fiction writer may ask how the protagonist will face conflict or how the protagonist will change when faced with a struggle.
What change am I trying to bring about in my reader? Where are your readers now—what are their struggles, questions, and interests that you can address—and where do they want or need to be? Darren Rowse of Problogger recommends a way to generate ideas for your audience, whether you’re cooking up a single article or creating content for an entire book or blog, fiction or nonfiction. “You want to be changing people,” he says, “take them on a journey… In my writing, what I am always trying to think about as I sit down to write is, ‘What change am I trying to bring about in my reader?’”
When readers begin reading, they are at what Rowse says is Point A. At Point A, they may be facing challenges or questions, and they read hoping to make progress in their journey. As writers, we’re leading them on a journey to Point B, where at least some challenges are addressed and questions answered. We’re hoping to bring about a change, Rowse says, “Whether that be a change in the way they feel, they think, whether it be giving them a new skill, giving them a sense of not feeling like they’re the only one, or a sense of belonging, or some new insight.”
Stand at a whiteboard; sit with a big yellow pad of paper; or, as you’ll see, get up and move. It’s time to think up ideas. One method is to use Darren Rowse’s Point A to Point B technique above, and list all the steps a reader will need to take and skills he will need to master to move from Point A to Point B. Each one of those steps and skills represents ideas for you to write about. Use any method below to do even more brainstorming.
Physical exercise: Exercise such as walking or running stimulates creativity. “Walking is an easy-to-implement strategy to increase appropriate novel idea generation,” say Stanford researchers presenting results of a study in 2014. “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.” Before you sit to brainstorm or as an act of brainstorming itself, get outside or to a gym and exercise. Even “[w]alking on a treadmill facing a blank wall improved creativity,” so don’t feel you must have a gorgeous environment. When you head out, however, bring something to write on, so you don’t lose any ideas you generate during that time.
Mind-mapping: Use this visual method to generate ideas. If you truly have no ideas at all, your central phrase could be broad, like “Ideas for Health Blog” or “Travel Magazine Article” or “Short Story Contest Theme—Loss.” Pick the kind of piece you want or need to write and in the center of a page or whiteboard, write the keyword or phrase (you can also use one of the many apps designed to create mind maps). Let your mind wander to everything you know or have wondered about in relation to that main idea. Write everything, no matter how trivial. If you read an article about it recently, jot that down. If you think of a movie, book, or podcast related to it, add it to the map. Your brain is making connections, so trust the process.
List-making: It’s a basic approach, and for many, most effective.
- What issues bother you? What problems would you like to solve? List them. These are ideas to write about.
- What would you like to convince people about? Make that list. Write from it, tackling them one by one, in whatever genre you work.
- List everything you currently understand and knowledge you have that others around you might not know about. These are all topics to write about (and the writing should come easily to you). Your background as a mechanic, nurse, accountant, horse trainer, teacher, or retail worker is rich with stories and experience others may not have. Capitalize on how your life has unfolded and tap into that content.
- Write a list of how-to posts—some of them ridiculous enough to stimulate your imagination—as you go through your day. As you smack the alarm: “6 Tasks to Tackle First Thing in the Morning” or “How Early Risers Will Save the Planet.” Brush your teeth and add to your list, “What Your Toothbrush Wear Pattern Says about Your Personality.” Get dressed: “How the KonMari Method Saved My Marriage, Got My Kids into Harvard, and Propelled my Book to the Top of the New York Times Bestseller List.” Fix breakfast: “Best Breakfasts for Active Artists.” You can take it from there.
Identify the main topics that interest you. Whether they are personal passions or areas you want to learn more about, you probably keep returning to a few big ideas, themes, or topics. Write those down.
Follow with more lists of specific ideas related to the main topics that come to mind as you write. When you’re done, you could have pages packed with ideas generated by discovering layers of related subtopics.
Let’s say your main areas are “Health,” “Politics,” “Art,” and “Parenting.” Now you can focus on a list for “Art.”
List ideas that pop into your mind related to art, like: Online Art Museum Virtual Tours, Museums in the Midwest, and Seeing Art with Kids.
Then pick one of those items, like Seeing Art with Kids, and make a yet another list: What to Bring, How to Prepare the Kids, Top 5 Kid-Friendly Museums, How to Look at a Painting with Kids.
Continue down yet another layer and pick a subtopic, like How to Prepare the Kids, and list even more ideas: interview museum staff, research museum websites yourself for the article, show museum websites to the kids, get art books from the library to pick favorites, create visual scavenger hunts. You can see how even just one of those ideas, like create visual scavenger hunts, could become a how-to blog post all its own or serve as part of a bigger article.
Freewriting: Pull out some paper and for about ten minutes, start writing a stream of whatever comes to mind about ideas you’d like to explore. At first, you might start unloading your frustration at not having ideas, eventually running out of things to say about that. Keep your pen moving and you remember helping clean out your parents’ closet last week and as you write you realize you might like to write about your dad’s bomber jacket or interview him about his role as a pilot in the war. Keep writing and you think about dinner and realize you could write recommendations for eating on a budget, and then out of the blue you think of the box turtle you helped across the road last week and suddenly you imagine a story about a turtle that brings a dysfunctional family together again. The mind will take you places if you make time for it to wander.
Writing from prompts can pull up a surprising number of ideas you might not generate from simply thinking on your own. The following prompt sources may inspired your creative writing:
- Join Tweetspeak Poetry on Mondays for poetry prompts.
- Write poetry from art.
- Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg is a book about writing memoir. It’s basically a book packed with prompts.
- Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Wooldridge helps poets and other creative types find inspiration through activities and prompts.
- Collected by The New York Times: “500 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing”
- Purchase the low-cost ($5), year-long program I created, called “52 Creative Writing Prompts,” and have prompts and writing exercises delivered to your email inbox once a week for an entire year.
If you write fiction and the ideas above simply don’t apply to your work, tap into some of the prompts listed below:
- Fiction writing prompts from Writing Forward
- Writer’s Digest fiction-friendly prompts
- What if? This simple question can prompt plot twists, like, “What if … the protagonist is injured by the person he’s trying to help?” “What if the protagonist earns a full-ride scholarship but gives it up to serve as a caregiver to her guardian?” Or, use the question to generate wild scenarios you can write as flash fiction for fun (or money), like, “What if … someone figured out how to bring dinosaurs back to life?” Hello, Jurassic Park. “What if … monsters had feelings?” Monsters Inc.
- Related: See how authors played with “What if” possibilities for alternate histories.
- Give some short story prompts and story starters a test run.
- Writer Igniter shuffles characters, situations, prompts and settings—a fun way to generate a creative writing short story assignment.
- Revise a scene from a famous book.
- Read the newspaper and adapt some real-life stories into a piece of fiction.
- Gretchen Rubin recommends story exercises to spark creativity. For example, “Pick a drama, thriller, or horror film and turn it into a comedy”; or, conversely, “pick a comedy and make it into a drama.” Her example for comedy to serious: “Serious Animal House – Drama about cheating scandal at a small university ends in A Few Good Men-like showdown.”
Writers generating ideas need a place to store all they collect. In fact, the act of recording ideas may stimulate even more.
Commonplace book: These early scrapbooks date back hundreds of years. People collected all kinds of knowledge and information in their commonplace books, including recipes, quotations, poems and proverbs—whatever the keeper of the book was interested in. Readers and writers (and a writer is both) can collect excerpts into a notebook to refer back to when writing, indexing the information, something like the currently popular “bullet journal” (see next item below).
Bullet Journal: Great for people who prefer analog over digital storage systems, the bullet journal works like a commonplace book, calendar, project planner, and to-do list all in one. The basic idea, which people have expanded upon to reflect different personalities and styles, includes a simple indexing system to help find information later.
Files: Using hanging or file folders, set up a simple system of broad categories of interest. Write or type your idea onto a single sheet of 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper and drop ideas into the corresponding broad topic, one idea per page.
Shoebox: Some people write notes on any piece of paper they find, from the back of an envelope to the bottom of a tissue box. Tear or cut out your ideas and toss them in a box to sift through later. You’ll have trouble finding specific information efficiently, but it could be fun to treat as a grab bag of prompts—pluck out a piece of paper and start writingbased on the line from a song you’d scribbled out while at a stoplight one afternoon.
Digital storage: Evernote, OneNote, Google Drive Documents (and Sheets), Word. One advantage of storing ideas electronically is how easily you can search for a specific quotation or excerpt using keywords or tags (that is, if you think of tagging an idea with a keyword or topic when typing it up). Often a desktop app will sync with a phone version so your information is always at your fingertips. Many programs let you take record audio or snap a photo and add those files, making note-taking extremely convenient. After all, if you’re at a mall and want to capture the look of the signage and decor when describing a scene in your novel, why not simply snap a photo to refer to later? Drop it in Evernote and you’re set.
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With this many methods, it’s easy to generate an abundance of writing ideas. Try one method for a while, then switch techniques to keep your mind fresh. When you’ve gathered material to work with, power up your laptop or flip open your notebook. You’ve got things to write about—it’s time to get to work.
Is your writing life all it can be?
Let this book act as your personal coach, to explore the writing life you already have and the writing life you wish for, and close the gap between the two.
“A genial marriage of practice and theory. For writers new and seasoned. This book is a winner.”
—Phil Gulley, author of Front Porch Tales