Ideas #2: How to Choose and Develop a Great Idea

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(Image from Flickr by erichhh)

This is the second post in a two-part series about ideas. You can find the first part here: How to Come Up With Lots of Great Ideas.

Thanks for this post! I don’t have trouble coming up with ideas; it is more about whether the idea is actually good or not and whether it fits within my blog niche. Guess I need to work on #1 and not judge my ideas!

(Kalyn, in a comment on Ideas #1: How to Come Up With Lots of Great Ideas)

Kalyn raises an excellent point: how do we figure out whether an idea’s worth pursuing or not?

This is an issue that I face every day. Like I mentioned in the last post, I use around a quarter of my ideas – the rest, for a number of reasons, get discarded.

Use or Lose? How to Sift Through Your Ideas

When you’re deciding whether or not to use an idea, you’ll want to consider:

#1: Does it Grab You?

If an idea leaves you feeling uninspired and bored, then it’s probably not worth pursuing. Don’t write something because you feel like you should.

If you’ve got an idea that you think you do want to stick with, even though it doesn’t interest you, look for an angle that makes it more attractive.

#2: Can You Write It?

Some ideas are interesting and engaging … but they might be a struggle for you to write. I ditch any ideas that require too much research (yes, I’m lazy!)

Keep your ideas: you might find that, one day, you’ve gained the writing skills or the subject knowledge to tackle the hard ones.

#3: Will it Find an Audience?

This isn’t always a consideration – but if you’re writing for money, then you need to keep in mind the market potential of your idea.

When I’m deciding what to blog about or what to create my next ecourse on, I look at what resonates with my readers. Sometimes I run surveys to find out which of my ideas will be most popular.

 

It’s worth keeping in mind that your ideas aren’t generally “bad” or “good” – they’re right for you and your audience or they aren’t.

Once you’ve picked an idea that excites you – and that’s going to suit your audience, if applicable – then it’s time to turn it from an initial spark into a plan.

Developing Your Idea

There are plenty of ways to flesh out ideas, but these are three of my favourites – they should work for fiction and non-fiction writing projects. If you’re writing something short (like a blog post or a short story) you can pick one of these method and plan out the whole thing. If you’re writing something longer (like an ebook or a novel) these methods will give you a good starting point.

#1: Draw a Mindmap

A mindmap can be as simple or as complex as you want. I usually draw mine on paper, putting the core of my idea in the centre of the page and jotting down thoughts around the side.

Mindmaps are great ways to bring the right side of your brain – your creativity – into play. A mindmap lets you look at different possibilities, form connections and come up with more ideas as you’re working.

Try it:

Get a piece of paper and flesh out one of your ideas. Or, if you prefer, use a piece of software like XMind (the basic version is free).

Example:

In the last post, I came up with an idea, 5 Easy Ways to Find Your Writing Voice. This is my expanded version:

#2: Ask Questions

If you’re struggling to come up with the sub-points for your blog post or the plot points for your story, then start asking questions.

For non-fiction, you can ask questions like:

  • What does the reader already know – and what do I need to tell them?
  • Why is this particular topic important?
  • How can I break this down into simple steps for the reader?

For fiction, you can ask questions like:

  • Who’s the hero of this story?
  • What obstacles are standing between the hero and his/her goal?
  • How can I make the reader really care about the outcome?

As you ask questions, you’ll find that your idea becomes clearer in your mind.

Try it:

Pick one of your ideas and start asking yourself questions. You can use the ones above to get you going, if you want.

Answer the questions in writing – don’t just think through the answers. You’ll be pushed to think more rigorously, and you’ll have a record of your ideas.

Example:

One of my ideas last time was “What’s the distinction between “good work” and “great work” for an entrepreneurial writer?”

Some obvious questions come up for me when I look at that idea:

Will my readers already be familiar with the “good work” and “great work” terms?

Not necessarily – I’ll need to explain these, probably by quoting from Michael Bungay Stainer’s book “Do More Great Work

What’s “good work” for a writer?

Writing that’s fairly routine and humdrum – maybe it pays the bills.

Twitter, emails, Facebook … all the fun but distracting things which go along with being an entrepreneurial writer!

What’s “great work” for a writer?

Depends on the individual. Mention Pace and Kyeli’s “World-Changing Writing Workshop”. Writing that ties into your core values, projects that push you a step further in your career (rather than ones which keep you where you currently are).

As you can see, I’ve now got a clear idea of what I might include in the post.

 

#3: Create an Outline

Some ideas are fairly straightforward. You might have a clear(ish) picture of what to include already. If that’s the case, a simple outline might be enough to flesh your idea out.

An outline is just a linear list, in order, of the main points that you want to cover. These key points can often become your subheadings or chapters.

Your outline can be very high-level (e.g a list of ten chapters for an ebook) or very detailed (a list of subsections for each chapter with several bullet points for each).

 

Try it:

Choose one of your ideas and create an outline: write down three – five key points that you want to cover, in order. (Don’t worry too much about the order being exact: you can always change it later.)

 

Example:

One of my ideas last time was for more posts on Aliventures about writing fiction. This is a big topic – too much for a single post – but I could write a series. Here’s a potential outline:

  1. Basics of fiction (different forms)
  2. Can I Get Rich Writing Fiction? (answer: probably not)
  3. How to Develop a Character
  4. How to Write a Story Outline
  5. Ten Tips for Revising Your Fiction

 

So – what ideas have you developed? I’d love to hear about yours in the comments! And if there’s an idea that I’ve fleshed out above which you’d like to see me write, let me know… 🙂

 

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

19 thoughts on “Ideas #2: How to Choose and Develop a Great Idea

    • I think the main thing is to find techniques which DO work comfortably for you (while remaining open to trying new things) — sounds like you’ve already got the hang of that, though. 🙂

  1. Ali,

    Thanks for sharing. Once again, this is a great post. You have rolled up your sleeves on this one–good work.

    It is important to read biographies and autobiographies of famous people, even celebrites. Readers want to know how they achieved success and wealth. That’s because it is human nature to want to be like your icons or idols.

    For example, let me contribute a few names here: Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sultan of Brunei, Bill Clinton, Dhirubhai Ambani, Napolean Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, Ted Turner, Howard Hughes, and others.

    Each story needs to be treated on a case-by-case basis, because each and every individual is unique here–just like no two snowflakes are exactly the same.

    Your job should be, as a writer, try to find out the similarities in their sagas. Nobody had it easy: their lives were full of challenges. There were ups and downs, both personally and professionally. How did these people overcome obstacles? How did they convert a losing hand into a winning hand?

    You are bound to find some common ground here. They all used certain techniques and skills to overcome challenges; they fought against the odds and won. Once you find that, maybe you can write a guest post like–“12 techniques VIPs use to reach their goals.” Feel free to change the title. The important thing is to get my point.

    Henri Juntilla of Wake Up Cloud excels at this game. After all, he was a poker player once upon a time. He knows how to gamble and win against the odds. There can be variations on this theme, of course. Cheerio.

    • Some great names there, Archan — thanks! And I agree, it’s inspiring to hear about people overcoming the odds, working hard and achieving their goals.

  2. Hey Ali,

    Been reading your blog for a few weeks now, and I have to say it’s pretty motivating. I’m currently preparing one of my own; it’s probably in great part thanks to you 🙂

    I currently study art at Paris (learning to be a contemporary/post-contemporary artist); mind maps are one of my favourite creative mediums (I create huge introspective mind maps on 100*70 cm sheets of paper – those ones aren’t just tools, they’re actual artworks in and of themselves). Thus, I am starting to enjoy mind mapping a lot.
    I’ve discovered that one of the few things that frustrate me a lot about mind mapping softwares is the impossibility (at least as far as I know) to link elements without obeying hierarchy. Each element has a parent and, sometimes, children; it cannot have two parents. I find this aspect… limiting? From my point of view, the main advantage of mind maps is their ability to create new “idea sparks” by combining elements from different branches of the diagram (through a visual link), effectively removing the need to remember the actual source (initial term) of the mind map – you end up with a web of sorts. I call this kind of interconnectedness rhizomatic connexion (as an homage to Gilles Deleuze’s rhizome theory).
    To sum things up… my current opinion about mind mapping software (based on my experience so far – I’m asking to be proved wrong on this one!) is that they don’t go far enough.

    Incidentally, I am enjoying this series of posts about ideas a lot. Thanks a lot for sharing these tips!

    Kalista

    • Thanks Kalista!

      Yes, I’ve had the same problem with hierarchy — and I tend to mindmap on paper if I’m doing anything more than outlining a post.

      Glad you’re enjoying the series! 🙂

  3. Great post! I’ve really enjoyed this mini-series, what a wonderful resource. I think the fiction series would be a big hit, while there is a plethora of articles and books on the subject I do find that each writer that has approached the subject has been able to add something new. After all expanding our knowledge and skill at craft is the key to well-presented content that others will want to read so how could there possibly be “too much” on the subject.
    Gene Lempp’s last blog post ..Blog Treasures 05-21

    • Thanks Gene! I’ll have a think about the fiction series … there is indeed rather a lot already on the subject, though I guess there’s always the chance to voice things differently.

      • It took a combination of 5 books and dozens of articles to get everything together in my head. Everyone of them was valuable. Some refined earlier concepts, some deepened them, others brought in a new angle or approach to explaining an idea. Together, just as in fiction, they combined to a full understanding in the end. Just a thought to consider.
        Gene Lempp’s last blog post ..Blog Treasures 05-21

  4. that’s a very Interesting Post Ali
    you just connected all the important elements together neatly.
    when i write i try to find a combination of 1) an idea that is inspiring 2) one that is easy to write about 3) one that i know about well

    thanks for the insight 🙂

  5. When I’m writing blog posts, I’ll write them in bullet points, and then expand each one to make the entry coherent. If I’m doing a short story, I’ll write a single line for each plot point, and then write the “connecting sections”. That’s normally how I develop those ideas. Now, I had an idea on Saturday night for a “what if?” character and before I knew it, I’d done the mind mapping in my head and have a new idea for a novel, too. Sometimes an idea will just consume you and you know it’s the one to pursue because it almost seems to develop itself!
    Icy Sedgwick’s last blog post ..Photo Prompt 34

    • Yeah, I know what you mean about ideas just taking over! I find that I do less planning with fiction projects than non-fiction ones (or, rather, I *do* try to plan, but I inevitably veer off in some different direction after a couple of chapters … my characters never turn out to be quite who I think they are!)

  6. Ali,

    I’m glad I could join the conversation!

    I’m always looking for topics within my niche that my readers will find interesting. If a person is really passionate about their topic, sometimes all it takes thinking about past experiences. I usually start there for the brainstorming process.
    Vic’s last blog post ..A New Awareness On Bullying

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