Twenty-Five Ways to Come Up With Great Ideas for Your Writing

by Ali on February 1, 2012

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Image from Flickr by Sean MacEntee

You want to write … but you don’t seem to have anything to write about.

Whether you’re writing blog posts, fiction, articles, or a book, try these ways to get a creative spark going. There are fifteen general tips, plus five for bloggers and five for fiction-writers:

Any Type of Writing

#1: Read – a lot

To be a writer, you need to read. You should be familiar with what’s happening in your chosen genre or field – but you’ll also want to read outside your comfort zone so that you have a wider pool of ideas to draw on.

#2: Take a walk

I find that walking is a great way to daydream guilt-free (at least I’m getting some fresh air and exercise…) If you can head somewhere inspiring, even better – but a simple stroll around your local streets can help the creative cogs to turn.

#3: Flick through magazines or newspapers

As well as being a great idea-generation method, this is also a nifty way to put procrastination to good use. Browsing through magazines and newspapers can throw up all sorts of ideas, from the lurid to the tragic.

#4: See the world

Travelling has so many benefits for writers: you get out of your usual routine, you try new things, you have plenty of “waiting” time to sit and write in a notebook (on trains, in airports, etc), and you’ll often find your pre-conceptions challenged.

#5: Use your hobbies and interests

If you’ve got a strong interest, write about it. I blog about writing because it’s something I love and a central part of my life. You could write an article, start a blog, or even use an unusual hobby as the basis for a novel.

#6: Listen to music

Music can throw up ideas and get you in the mood to write. You might want to choose music that evokes a particular atmosphere, ideally one that ties in with the tone of your writing. Sit and listen; see what thoughts bubble up. Lyrics (and misheard lyrics!) can also be a great source of inspiration.

#7: Go to an art gallery

Like music, art works can inspire writing: William Carlos Williams’ poem Landscape with the fall of Icarus is about the painting of the same title by Bruegel. You don’t have to write the story of a piece of art, of course; you could simply take one element of it that sparks off an idea.

#8: Free-write

This is a great technique if you’re stuck part-way through a longer work. Sit down with a pen, or at your computer, and simply write. You can make notes, write about the struggles you’re having, write a section of your project – anything you want. You’ll be surprised what comes up.

#9: Carry a notebook and pen

You’ve probably heard this advice before: keep a notebook with you, so you can jot down ideas as they occur. Inspiration often strikes in odd places (on the bus, in the queue at the post office, during a dull meeting) – and ideas fade all too easily if they’re not captured.

#10: Connect two unrelated things

Creativity revolves around making new connections. If you can bring together two unrelated concepts or items, you’ve probably got a new idea. That might be an article like “The Homer Simpson Guide to Blogging” or a short story that pits two very different characters against one another.

#11: Write in different places

Your environment makes a difference. If you normally write at home, try other places: cafes, libraries, friends’ houses, holiday cottages, pubs, parks … anywhere you want. The head-space that you gain will help you be more creative – plus your surroundings may throw up all sorts of new ideas.

#12: Collect inspiring materials

Some writers like to collect objects, photos, and other materials that inspire them. You might try items that help you get into a creative mood (e.g. candles) or ones that spark off thoughts, like interesting photographs or postcards.

#13: Break the rules

Most forms of writing have certain rules, often unwritten ones that are silently agreed on. Blog posts, for instance, are almost always prose not poetry; fiction is rarely written in the second person (“you”). Try breaking some of the rules in your chosen field, for a short piece of experimental writing.

#14: Create a mindmap

Mindmapping is a great way to develop an idea … but it can also lead to new ones. Get a piece of paper (or use software like XMind) and write your key topic in the centre. Add ideas around the edge, drawing links between them where appropriate.

#15: Join a writing group or class

Being around other writers, and working on exercises or critiques, can help spark new ideas. Look for a local writers’ circle, or an evening class. If it’s hard to commit to attending a group at a specific time, try online courses, classes, or forums.

 

Mainly for Bloggers

#16: Ask your readers

Some of my most popular post have been the result of questions or suggestions from readers. Ask your readers what they want, and you’ll end up with plenty of ideas. You could run a survey to find out about different potential topics, or simply invite comments at the end of a post.

#17: Write a big list of ideas

Once you start coming up with ideas, it gets easier to generate more. Instead of struggling to write down just the first four or five ideas, keep going until you have twenty, thirty, or more. Don’t judge your ideas while you’re making your list; nothing is too silly or too bland at this stage.

#18: Tweak a borrowed title

Go to any popular blog, pick a title of an existing post, and create your own spin on it for your blog. This is a great way to come up with an idea, because it gives you a ready-made title, and often suggests a structure.

#19: Respond to something you disagree with

Perhaps there’s been a major new publication in your field, one that you fundamentally disagree with. Whether it’s a book or a blog post, you can offer your own take. That might mean responding point-by-point to a particular argument, or simply presenting evidence for the other side.

#20: Think like a beginner again

If you’ve been involved with and writing about the same topic for a long time, you might have forgotten what it was like to be a beginner. Think back to those early days, when you were excited but knew almost nothing. What questions did you have? What did you find confusing? Write about that.

Mainly for Fiction-Writers

#21: Choose an object

Physical objects can make great starting jumping-off points for fiction. Mundane ones work well. What’s around you right now? My (cluttered!) desk currently has two empty mugs, a glass of water, two notebooks, a pen, some business cards, my passport, a couple of books… any of these could spark a story idea.

#22: Write from a prompt

There are plenty of books and websites that collate writing prompts: lines of dialogue, scenarios, photos, quotes, or other snippets to help you get started. Here’s one: A character arrives at work to find her chair missing. What happened to it? (from The Pocket Muse: Ideas and Inspirations for Writing)

#23: Use a starting line from another story

Sometimes, the hardest part of fiction is the first line. So cheat! Grab a book from your shelf and use the first line of that, either as narrative or dialogue. (You can always change or delete it later.) I just picked up The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas; the first line is “You now have one choice.”

#24: Ask “what if…”

Some great stories come out of what if… questions. These don’t just have to be sci-fi (“What if we could travel through time?”) or fantasy (“What if magic existed alongside the modern world?”) – you can also ask questions like “What if an almost-forgotten secret came out on a young woman’s wedding day?”

#25: Interview your characters

If you’re not sure how to begin a story, or if you get stuck part-way, it might be because you don’t know your characters well enough. You can “interview” them – ask questions of them, in writing, and have them answer – to bring out new ideas and plot points.

 

Try out at least one of these techniques today, and see what you come up with! And if you decide to develop your idea into something more, read The Four Essential Stages of Writing for advice on planning, drafting, redrafting and editing. 

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikki February 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Some great ideas – thanks for sharing them with us, Ali.

I realized last night I haven’t been reading as much fiction as I used to and invested in a few titles ordered online from Amazon. Hopefully these will chivvy along some inspiration for future blog posts.

I also need to start carrying a notebook and pen everywhere with me… iPhone apps are all well and good, but there’s nothing quite like scribbling down an idea on the go. I’m more likely to come back to it later that way.
Nikki’s last blog post ..a manifesto for extraordinary women

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Ali February 2, 2012 at 8:31 am

I struggle to read much fiction these days — though once I get into a book, I race through it! I’ve always got a pen with me, and usually a few scraps of paper if not an actual notebook…

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Nikki February 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Yes, the back of a receipt works almost as well ;)
Nikki’s last blog post ..shyness: how to divide + conquer

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Archan Mehta February 1, 2012 at 4:31 pm

A fab post, as usual, Ali. Please keep up the good work. I always read your notes for inspiration.

Comedy can help too: the theatre of absurd can lead to new ideas. Look at the world in a different way, topsy turvy way. That can lead you astray, but it can also lead to new insights.

Synergy is also good, that is, the idea that 1 + 1 = 3!

By combining two or more ideas, you can come up with entirely new products and services. Or, it can lead to social engineering, such as delighting your clients or customers. That is the power of getting heads together and it is a process and it is social. In management, breaking down walls between various functions and departments can lead to synergy.

Many times what happens is that the people in marketing never interact with the people in human resources…who in turn never interact with the people in accounting…who in turn never get to meet the people in customer service…who in turn never meet people on the front-lines…and the CEO never meets anybody else!

When you break such artificial barriers, however, and meet across the negotiating table, interesting things can happen and miracles can occur. We are social animals, after all, and need to develop empathy. Empathy can lead to new collaborations and joint ventures because now we try to understand each other rather than playing the blame game. Pointing fingers won’t lead to solutions. In any field, solutions are about creating win-win partnerships. Thanks for the timely reminder. Your tips can work in any sector. Cheers.

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Ali February 2, 2012 at 8:35 am

Thanks Archan, and I completely agree on synergy and on interacting with people at all levels of a company/organisation. Yep, while the tips were aimed at writers, most creativity advice applies to plenty of other fields too…

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Lee Miller February 1, 2012 at 7:11 pm

This is a great post, Ali. Lots of valuable food for thought. Thanks!
Lee Miller’s last blog post ..Cease Striving

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Ali February 2, 2012 at 8:35 am

Thanks Lee, glad it was helpful. :-)

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Deborah H February 1, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Ideas gush out of my brain like a broken water pipe. My problem is scooping them up, sorting through them, and determining which ones are worth exploring further. I have three solid novels ideas: one that is ready for the second draft, and two that are well-outlined and partially researched, plus a half-dozen romance novels simmering on the back burner. Invariably, I sit down to work on my second draft, and some character from a romance novel will show up and say, “Hey! What about me?”

But nothing jump starts my creative thinking like a road trip. Take me for a car ride (and feed me), and in two hours I’ll come up with three or four ideas.

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Ali February 2, 2012 at 8:37 am

Once I have a novel on the go, I’m usually pretty focused … but in my non-fic writing, I definitely find I have too many ideas rather than too few. I try to have a couple of real priorities, and switch between other projects as needed.

A road trip is a great one; not something we really do here in the UK, but I do find train journeys good for thinking time.

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Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt February 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Great list! Tweeted this!
Sheri

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Ali February 2, 2012 at 8:38 am

Thanks Sheri, much appreciated!

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Bill Polm February 2, 2012 at 2:31 am

Ali,
Good list. Your usual inventive helpfulness and thoroughness.
I like them all.
Thanks esp. for the mindmap software link. A while back I looked around via Google for a good mindmap program unsuccessfully–a lot of too-elaborate ones. So I’m trying it out.

Incidentally, Writers’ Huddle seems to be going quite well.
Bill Polm’s last blog post ..How much grammar is enough?

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Ali February 2, 2012 at 8:46 am

Thanks Bill. I’ve used XMind quite a bit, though I still prefer pen and paper!

Yes, I’m thrilled with Writers’ Huddle; I was expecting to have around 50 members, and we’re not far off 100, plus the forums have been more active than I’d anticipated. Seems like a lovely community is building up. :-)

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Tara @ Startup Freelancer February 6, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Thank you for this list. Some great reminders here!
Tara @ Startup Freelancer’s last blog post ..January Recap and Lessons Learned

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Annie Crawford February 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Hi Ali,

I just discovered your site, and this article. What great ideas!! I especially appreciate the ones for fiction writers (like myself). I never knew there were sites where you could actually get prompts for stories or novels. Thanks for a great post!
Annie Crawford’s last blog post ..S-L-O-W Down

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Ali February 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Thanks Annie, glad you enjoyed it! :-) And I hope you’ll stick around here on Aliventures…

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Sheri Larsen February 9, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Absolutely fabulous! I’m all gooey over #10! That’s a great one. I also find your blogger tips interesting. Thx!

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Ali February 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Thanks Sheri! :-)

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Stephen Thorn February 10, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Some excellent ideas, Ali. Such tips can be priceless to a writer. I would like to add one: observe the world around you. That’s really simple and a bit wide-ranging, but it’s easy, fun, and it works. What I mean is to take the time to absorb, with all your senses, everything around you. You touched on this in #21 but take it further than just objects — what do you smell or hear right now? This morning I heard a bird singing (I think it was a robin, although it’s awfully early in the season for them here) and have carried that line of thought to such things as robins, birds, springtime, worms, fishing with worms, a ‘grandpa’ and his toddler ‘grandson’ sitting on a creek bank with fishing poles, tin cans (with the top cut open for carrying fishing worms), deep sea fishing, salty old sea captains, haunted sailing ships (ala The Flying Dutchman), pirates, and more and more…all from hearing a bird singing! How many of those things could be the start of a story (fiction or non-fiction), blog, memoir, poem, or song?

Think for a moment about scents and odors — hot buttery popcorn, baking bread or roasting beef, gym socks that really need washed, the antiseptic odor of a hospital’s ER, a musty basement, a wet dog, a bouquet of flowers, a beautiful woman’s perfume or handsome man’s cologne, the seashore — any of these could be paths to a great story and you could encounter any of them without ever paying any attention, thereby letting that chance slip by.

Sounds! Consider the feelings engendered by a wailing ambulance or fire siren, the dry buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail, a lonesome railroad whistle in the night, the rain spattering on the sidewalk outside your window, tearing fabric, Independence Day skyrockets exploding, a baby screaming or laughing, wolves howling or an owl hooting in the dark, or the angry complaining of your alarm clock. Certainly there’s a story in one of those, just waithing to be uncovered and written by you.

Look, listen, sniff, feel, and absorb. Those provide endless fodder for writing.

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Ali February 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Great one, Stephen — thank you! I’m terrible at observing what’s going on around me (I spend too much time in my own head…) so this is definitely an inspiration-tip I could do with applying. :-)

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Itopa February 14, 2012 at 8:01 am

T hese tips are beautiful for beginers, and in trying to develop any pieces of writting, one truely need to let the ‘innerself’ speak as u maintain absolut quitness and allowing all parts of your body to work according to its naturality , the inborn ability will pullout the thought that will be so unique like U! another things of importance are light and sounds. Keep them in such a way that u will not be distracted. Have a beautiful writting adventure and never stop exploring…

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Ali February 15, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Thanks, Itopa. Good point about finding inner quiet, too — something that’s often hard!

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Liz March 1, 2012 at 5:25 am

Freewriting has saved me a couple of times. Oddly enough, I have to write my stories and articles on the laptop, but when it comes to freewriting, I work best in pencil (or pen) and paper.

I think I’ll try taking a walk tomorrow, depending on the weather. (Stupid snow!)

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Ali March 1, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I find that I often come up with ideas more easily when using pen and paper — probably because I get away from my desk and put less pressure on myself! It’s odd how simply changing our writing medium can free our thoughts up in a different way.

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Liz May 2, 2012 at 4:09 am

I’ve found that changing my physical setting really helps, too — even if I just move from my desk to the couch or kitchen.
Liz’s last blog post ..How to Make Sales… and Piss Off Your Readers

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Stephen Thorn March 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Rereading this post I picked upon No. 10: Connect two unrelated things. I’ve often joked that this is the method gossip rags use to fill their pages — they have a shoebox containing names of current celebrities written on slips of paper, a shoebox full of spicy and provocative verbs (cheated, boozed, etc.), and a third box with names of exotic or exciting locales, and they pick one or two slips from each box and create a story from the results.

As an example of using this tip I present the TV show, “The Deadliest Warrior.” This program took two famous or legendary warriors (as a group, like the Japanese samurai, or individuals, like George Washington, etc.) who would never meet in real life, examined their weapons and tactics, and then pitted these warriors in computer-generated combat to see who was the likely victor. I’m sure you, gentle reader, could expand that idea to other fields. Perhaps a “Cleanest TV House” contest between June Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver) and Mr. French (Family Affair)? Maybe send Oscar the Grouch (Sesame Street) into TeleTubbie-land and see who influences whom? Send a parrot up in an Apollo-era space capsule (and he comes back speaking pre-history Babylonian!) or plunk a centaur down in 21st century Manhattan (or Atlanta, Boston, Des Moines, etc.) and see what happens? You get the idea.

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Ali March 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Stephen, I love your gossip rags theory — I think someone should create a headline-generator online (though it’s probably been done…!)

And your TV series ideas made me laugh. Odd juxtapositions are especially good for humour, I think. And time-travel stories, of course, will always be a great way to do something innovative with letting *very* different characters/worlds collide…

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Adrian Beckett March 4, 2012 at 8:48 am

Hi Ali,

Really pleased I found your website.

I really enjoy writing and I believe I’ve got something valuable to say as I tutor children Maths at primary level and I’d like to blog as a way of bringing people to my site.

I’m struggling with getting the tone right, not spending too much on writing and with punctuation (which may evident in this comment).

What would you suggest as a good starting point? A session with you, your ebooks etc?

Thanks

Adrian

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Ali March 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I’ve sent you an email, Adrian … looking forward to hearing from you. :-)

Best,

Ali

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Segun Akiode March 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Ali, great helpful ideas you have here. Glad, I found your blog. Thanks for sharing :-)

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Ali March 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Thanks Segun! :-)

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Megan Jones April 5, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I like that a lot of the first 15 tips are basically -live and interesting life and then you will have interesting ideas. The more you expose yourself to, the more different ways you will have to think. I think that exposing yourself to all art forms has the power to make yourself more creative.

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Ali April 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Thanks Megan! Yes, I think ideas so often come from doing/seeing/trying interesting things…

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LycoRogue May 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm

The last advice of interviewing your character made me chuckle. I did just that about four years ago with a Dungeons&Dragons character I created. The interview went on for about 13 pages! I think I’m all set to write her as the lead of a fantasy novel and I haven’t even used her in a D&D campaign yet!

Great advice, and per usual I am using this article to help out someone I’m beta-reading for.
LycoRogue’s last blog post ..Liebster Award

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Ali May 14, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Hah! My characters are rarely so forthcoming. I’m probably too soft on them. ;-) Hope the beta-ing goes well!

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Thalinda November 2, 2012 at 9:55 am

Hello Ali,
This is a really great post, I fount it by accident buy it is worth reading. I am actually going to try a few of you suggestions, like the “What if ” :D. It seems I am already using the list and when I get stuck I check my list.

Have a nice day!
Thalinda’s last blog post ..What is ADHD?

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Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin December 23, 2012 at 11:26 am

Great post…awesome blog. You can be sure I’m subscribing right away!
Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin’s last blog post ..By: Oxygenmat

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Jason McColly February 8, 2014 at 12:27 am

Thanks for the post Ali! This is my first time on your blog and I really enjoyed the post. One of my favorite ways to come up with ideas is to play the “what-if” game. I find a lot of fun throwing around ideas and scenarios during my fury of “what-if” questions.

That one particular question just seems, at least for me, to open the flood gates for new ideas.

Best of luck during your writing.
Jason McColly’s last blog post ..How to Come Up With Story Ideas

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