12 Sure-Fire Ways to Find Great Ideas for Your Writing

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Image from Flickr by JogiBaer2

Do you feel as though you never have enough ideas?

If so, you’re not alone. Ideas and inspiration were a major concern from writers who responded to the Aliventures summer survey.

Often, it feels like all the good ideas are already taken: every article or story you can think of seems to have been written before.

Don’t forget that there’s no copyright on ideas. Of course, you want to be original – but some basic plots, or articles, can be written over and over again by different authors. What makes yours valuable and unique is your point of view and your voice.

Here are twelve ways to find ideas for your writing:

#1: Write About Something That Matters to You

We all have particular topics that we care about. Perhaps you’ve got strong views about politics, the environment, society or education. If so, write about them! You might do this in the form of a story, or even a poem, rather than an aggressive, argumentative article.

What you care about, of course, doesn’t have to be at all “worthy”. Perhaps you love good food, or rock music, or clothes shopping. The inspiration for my novel Lycopolis came from my enjoyment of storytelling and online games.

#2: Use Writing Prompts

There are plenty of websites and books offering writing prompts – and these can be a great way to get going. If you’ve been struggling to write for a while, try tackling a new prompt each day – give yourself 10 or 15 minutes and write as much as you can. This is a great way to get unblocked.

You can use almost anything as a prompt: an image, lyrics from a song, an overheard conversation on the bus, a line from a novel…

#3: Draw from Real Life

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you can use your life experiences. Even if you think you’ve had a boring or uneventful life, little details of your day-to-day routine could be fascinating to someone from across the world.

Taking inspiration from your life might mean writing about a particular event, or about your progress in a specific area – this can work very well for a “How I did it” style article. In fiction, you can use your current experience to imagine your way into a very different situation. You’ve experienced plenty of emotions – fear, joy, anger, pride – that you might use in a dramatic way in your fiction.

#4: Enter a Competition

Many writing competitions will have a particular brief – anything from the subject matter (“boy meets girl”) to a starting line, or even a line you have to use mid-way or at the end. Thinking up ideas that would fit the competition criteria – and trying to go beyond obvious ones – is a great way to exercise your creative muscles.

You might worry that the competition requirements will limit you too much – but constraints make us more creative, not less. If I say to you, Tell me a story, your mind probably goes blank. If I say, Tell me a story about a boy who runs away from home, you probably start coming up with ideas straight away. (How old is the boy? Why has he run away? Where’s “home”?)

#5: Work Out What Interests You in Fiction

These great exercises come from Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! novel-writing kit. (Available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.)

Your assignment is to brainstorm all the elements you love in novels. Be as specific or broad as you like, and write each one down … as they occur to you.

Then…

Jot down everything that bores, exhausts, or depresses you in novels. Again, feel free to be as specific or wide-ranging as you like.

This is a great way to start thinking about what stories you might want to tell, and how you might want to tell them. (You could use a similar technique for writing an article or a non-fiction book: what do you love in similar articles or books? What do you dislike?)

#6: Take an Old Idea and Give it a New Twist

Some ideas seem to have been done over, and over, and over again: the recent trend for vampire stories is a good example. But there’s still mileage in these old ideas … if you can find a way to give them a twist of your own.

Ask yourself what the usual conventions and clichés are – then think of ways to subvert them, and how those changes will affect the way you tell the story. (For instance, if you want to write about vampires who are afraid of the dark, that might work best as a children’s book…)

#7: Use a Seasonal or Current Event

Different times of the year can provide rich material for both stories and articles. Christmas is obviously a popular one, along with the summer holidays … but Valentine’s Day, Easter and Hallowe’en are other possibilities. Recently, of course, the Olympics have had plenty of attention.

You don’t have to write a story or article that’s completely focused on a particular event: you could use it to add depth in a more subtle way. In a novel, think about the time of year that you want to set your story: the weather, and any calendar events, will have an effect. (It’s no accident that Lycopolis opens the day before Hallowe’en, and the sequel-in-progress encompasses Valentine’s Day…)

#8: Tell the Story You Need to Tell

Some fiction-writers find that there’s a particular idea bubbling away in their mind that they keep coming back to. You might find recurrent themes coming up in different stories that you write – redemption is one of mine. You may also have recurrent character types or scenes. Look back to your writing from a few years ago: you’ve probably forgotten some of it, and you might be surprised what’s there.

Listen to what your subconsious is telling you. If there’s a story that you need to tell, get it out onto the page. It might not be the story that you think will win great literary prizes or popular acclaim … but it’s the story that you were born to tell.

#9: Give Yourself Enough Time and Space

If you sit down to write, telling yourself that you have to get an article done or a story drafted in the next two hours, it’s easy to end up feeling creatively paralysed. No wonder many writers end up staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper for long stretches of time before giving up and doing something else.

You need to deliberately allow yourself the time and space to find ideas. That might mean sitting down first thing in the morning and writing whatever comes into your head. It might mean taking a long bath … with a notebook at the ready. It might mean getting out of your usual writing place and going to a coffee shop or a park.

#10: Use Your Dreams

All of us dream – and I love this quote from Nigel Watts, in Teach Yourself: Writing a Novel and Getting Published

“I’ve got no imagination.” – Try looking at your dreams if you think this is true.

Dreams tend to be a bit chaotic, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get a coherent narrative from one. You might get a little idea-seed, though – something that can grow into an article or a story. Nightmares, of course, can provide especially rich material for fiction (some compensation for having to suffer through them).

#11: Combine Two Unlikely Elements

One common creativity trick is to combine or juxtapose two very different things: this can help you see them both in a new light, or draw interesting connections. In article-writing, you might try a piece like 10 Great Copywriting Lessons … From Heavy Metal. (If you want to try that one, be my guest!)

With fiction, throwing two very different characters into a situation together can be a great way to get conflict going. Be a little bit cautious about combining elements from two completely separate genres: you might struggle to write and sell a horror-romance, for instance – though that’s not to say it can’t be done.

#12: Just Write … and See Where You End Up!

Sometimes, you might think that you don’t have any ideas … but once your fingers start moving on the keyboard, or your pen starts moving across the page, your subconscious gets in on the action.

You don’t even need to have a writing prompt to do this: just open up a new document, or turn to a blank page of your notebook, and begin to write. You can start with anything you want (some writers begin with “I don’t have any ideas” or “I don’t know what to write”) – the aim is just to keep your pen moving on the page, following your train of thought wherever it goes.

 

Ideas are obviously an important part of the creative process, both for non-fiction and fiction writers. I think you’ll find, though, that they’re not so rare or elusive as you might have been led to believe. Ideas are all around us … and it’s easy to generate new ones.

Give one (or more!) of the above methods a try this week, and see how you get on.

 

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26 thoughts on “12 Sure-Fire Ways to Find Great Ideas for Your Writing

  1. These are fantastic tips for anyone who can’t think of any good ideas. My problem is opposite! I have too many great ideas! I have learned I have to prioritize my ideas. I have learned that I need to first do the idea that I know the most about, that I am enthusiastic about, and if it can be attached to a current event, so much the better!

      • Donna, those sound like great ways to prioritise — when I have too many ideas, I usually go for the one that I can do most easily (which is generally the one I know the most about) and which I really *want* to write.

        Furries, I know a lot of writers find the ideas stage really good fun … I guess your challenge now is to find ways to make the writing and editing fun too. (Or at least to push yourself through it until it becomes more fun!)

  2. Like Donna Brown, I have so many ideas that I have a difficult time deciding which ones are worth exploring. But I specifically wanted to comment on #7: Use a Seasonal or Current Event.

    I used to work at a military museum, and I cried every day because I would get into wonderful, amazing, heart-breaking conversations with veterans that came into the museum. If I sensed that the vet “wanted to talk,” I would ask two questions: “Which theater of war were you in?” (a non-invasive question) and “Do you remember your last Christmas of the war?” The Christmas question was magic—and usually the answer included much more than the last Christmas of the war.

    I can never tell these stories—it would be a breach of confidence. But “the holidays” are heightened emotional and content-rich events (just ask any therapist!), and the smallest tidbit can serve as a creative stepping stone.

    • What a wonderful point, Deborah, about the emotional impact of holidays — and our ability to recall them, often many years later. It’s sometimes easy to think “Oh, another Christmas story…” but these work for a reason!

  3. Thank you.

    I love to write, but I find inspiration difficult. I have so much to say, but I am afraid to. Thank you for your blog. Its helping so much, even if you cant see it now.

    • Thanks Tanis — and I’m so glad that the blog is helping you. If there’s ever a specific question you’d like me to answer, or a particular topic you want me to write about, just let me know. 🙂

    • I don’t believe you EVER run out of ideas, Farouk! I’m sure you don’t need the tips really, but I’m glad you enjoyed them. 🙂

  4. Get an ideas book – or computer file or whatever suits you.
    Get into the habit of writing down ideas as soon as they come.
    If you are a writer or a writer to be I doubt that you don’t get ideas for things to write about, it’s just that you don’t get them when you need them or want them.
    Get into the habit of collecting ideas and I doubt that you will run out of ideas in the long run. You will have your ideas book to turn to.

    • I do this too. This is part of the reason I have so many ideas. I have also started organizing these ideas I have collected so that I can make the most of it.

      • Great tips, Furries, thank you! I think carrying a pen and an ideas book (or at least a few spare scraps of paper) around is always a good idea, too — ideas can strike in the oddest of places!

  5. Ali,,

    These are great ideas, but my favorite is #7. With all the holidays, special observances and news events, there’s no shortage of ideas to kick off a story, blog post or even book. The trick for us as writers is to get in the habit of seeing these things as writing starters and get busy writing in a timely manner.

    Thanks for sharing these with us.

    @Ricardo, I believe the plug-in that allows our posts to appear below our comments is CommentLuv. At least that’s the one I use on my site.
    Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.’s last blog post ..It Takes a Village to Self-Publish a Book to Avoid Losing Your Shirt or Your Mind

  6. Stupendous article, Ali! One of the most helpful on writing I’ve ever read! I can usually come up with an idea but I speak with many writers who are mind-blocked and staring at that ghastly, dire blank page like they’re staring up at their gallows rope. I have a few tips I give them but now I can share this article with them and give them an even bigger jump-start!

    I completely agree with your basic premise, that inspiration is everywhere if we will but notice and utilize it. Some of my best work has sprung from little things I noticed that other people hadn’t spotted or that others simply passed over and I found of interest (ex. a minute spider, dead in its tiny web, in a window — the inspiration for my story “The Sharp, Shiny Leaf”). The greatest resource I’ve found is to EXPERIENCE things; every iota of input from our senses is a potential story if we can make it into something more than a scent, sound, image, or feeling and put it on paper. Deborah did it by listening to visiting veteran’s remembrances, you did it by using your love of storytelling and games, and from such humble things is great literature born.

    • Thanks so much, Stephen, I’m really glad this was helpful — and please do share it, I hugely appreciate that. 🙂

      That’s a great point about noticing things — a skill that all good poets have, I think, and that really all of us should be trying to develop. I know I have a tendency to wander around the world in a bit of a daydream — I need to remember to stop and pay close attention sometimes!

  7. Ali, thank you for all of these tips. I’ve been reading over your blog and you are really knowledgeable. I am brand new to the blogging world and will definitely return for more tips.

  8. Ali,

    Thanks for contributing this post. I enjoyed reading it: it will prove to be helpful to writers and wannabe writers. I usually roam around the world in a sort of trance-like state, but I also find that state of mind conducive to creativity. The imagination takes over when you are in the “zone” and seemingly disparate elements come together to form a coherent whole. And suddenly, you have that flash of inspiration that you were searching for. The subconscious mind needs to be teased for it to work the magic. You have to be able to charm the muse, so the muse feels like coming out to play with you. I am always looking for inspiration, but these days it is rare to find; but the search must go on and it is a never ending quest. I appreciate that reminder: it sure forced me out of my reverie. Have a nice day. Cheerio.

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