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Ali,

I wonder at what point in time you are planning on explaining to your readers how it is that you manage to come up with so many bright ideas. It seems like your mind works like a computer and you can fire off ideas with the speed of a bullet.

(Archan Mehta, in a comment on Copywriting Essentials from A to Z, Copyblogger)

I’ve been guest posting a lot over recent weeks, and you might well have seen my name popping up around the blogosphere. Archan’s not the only person to wonder how I do it.

In fact, this is a question which comes up again and again in the writing world, and I imagine that every prolific writer gets asked the same thing: How do you come up with so many great ideas? (And how can I do the same?)


To me, ideas are like a spark, formed by the friction between two things:

  • The external world
  • Your internal world

The external world can give you a starting point for an idea. You might read a book that you love – or hate. You might overhear a conversation. You might see something which captivates you – or which scares you. Something tragic or wonderful might happen to you.

That’s not quite enough, though. The idea itself doesn’t come from somewhere in the world – even though writers are often asked “where do you get your ideas from?” The idea comes from you: your memories, your thoughts, your insights, your fears and hopes and dreams and loves.

Two writers can look at the same painting, or hear the same piece of music, and create pieces of writing that contain completely different ideas. Those ideas won’t necessarily have an obvious connection to the external stimulus. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of following a train of thought, where one thing in the external world makes you think of something else, then something else, until you wonder hang on, how did I get to here?

You’re Creative Too

I firmly believe that we are all creative people. However uncreative your life or job might be, you’ve got the capacity in you to come up with wild and wonderful ideas, and to bring those ideas into life.

Maybe you wouldn’t describe yourself as “creative”. That’s okay – I don’t describe myself that way either. (I think “writer” covers me pretty well.)

The important thing is that you can come up with ideas, lots of them, if you want to.

Before I give you some techniques for quick idea-generation, there are a couple of things which you need to know not to do:

#1: Don’t Judge Your Ideas

I’m sure you’ve had ideas which have made you think that’s stupid.

As soon as you start judging your ideas, you make it harder to come up with more. If you’re saying “nope … no … stupid … rubbish …” to your ideas, you’re going to end up stopping trying altogether.

I’ll let you into a secret. I use around a quarter of the ideas which I come up with. The rest, for one reason or another, aren’t quite right for me. You might think that sounds horribly inefficient – but it’s only by coming up with the ideas which I don’t use that I can come up with the ones I do use.

#2: Don’t Wait for Lightning to Strike

Sometimes, an idea will suddenly appear out of nowhere.

More often, though, you’ll find yourself coming up with ideas when you deliberately sit down to do so – or when you’re mulling something over while going about your day.

Inspiration rarely comes as a bolt from the heavens. Several of my recent posts – including Eight Secrets Which Writers Won’t Tell You and How to Write Thousands of Words Every Single Week – were example ideas that I came up with while drafting material for my next ecourse.

So, with those two out the way, let’s get on with some idea generation:

Three Simple Ways to Come Up With Ideas

There’s no “right” way to create ideas, and different writers will have different techniques. Having said that, these are three techniques which work for me and many others – they’re well worth trying.

#1: Write a List of Ideas

This is as simple as it gets, but also very effective.

When you’ve got a few minutes to spare, grab your notebook and start writing down ideas for a particular project. I often do this for guest posts, jotting down ideas for blogs like Problogger and Daily Blog Tips – and while I don’t use all the ideas, I always have a few good ones.

This technique is really effective if you aim for quantity and speed, rather than quality. You want to start tapping into your subconscious mind – rather than letting yourself self-censor your ideas.

Try it:

If you’re staring at a blank page, take the title of a popular book, blog post or article, and come up with several different versions of it.

You might want to start with just changing a word or two, and gradually work up to more diverse ideas.

Example:

I’m using the title “10 Effective Ways to Get More Blog Subscribers” from Copyblogger.

  • 10 Effective Ways to Get More Words Written
  • 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve Your Next Blog Post
  • 10 Simple Ways to Get More Money for Your Writing
  • 5 Easy Ways to Find Your Writing Voice

#2: Use Someone Else’s Words

I started this post with a quote from a comment by Archan. This isn’t the first post that’s been prompted by a comment, either; often readers will ask great questions or provoke ideas which I want to address.

You could use someone else’s words by:

  • Taking a quote from a book that you’re reading
  • Running a survey on your blog to ask readers what they’re struggling with
  • Finding two opposing points of view about a contentious issue
  • Writing down a snippet of overheard conversation

Any of these could spark off an idea.

Try it:

Read several blog posts in your area, or pick up a book or magazine. Is there anything which makes you want to explore a particular area? Is there anything which you totally disagree with? What questions does the material provoke?

Example:

I’ve just grabbed the top book off the stack teetering near my desk – Michael Bungay Stanier’s Do More Great Work. This is aimed mainly at employees, so brings up ideas for me like:

  • What’s the distinction between “good work” and “great work” for an entrepreneurial writer?
  • Can fiction be someone’s “great work”?

#3: Find a Gap

If you’re writing with a particular market in mind – like a magazine or a blog – then a great place to look for ideas is by finding the gaps.

What topics hasn’t that magazine covered recently, or at all?

What categories are looking pretty thin on that blog?

You may well have expertise in a particular area which you could use to help plug that gap. (Or even if you don’t, you might be interested in researching it.)

Try it:

Pick a blog or magazine. Read through the recent articles, and look out for anything which hasn’t been done – or anything which you could bring a new angle to.

Example:

Here on Aliventures, there are quite a few areas I’ve not covered recently or in much depth:

  • Writing fiction, specifically
  • Writing poetry (I’m no poet – but this could be an interesting subject to tackle)
  • Pitching to editors

 

Ideas are plentiful. You can’t “run out” of them. In fact, the more ideas you come up with, the easier it gets – because one idea often sparks off several more.

You can find the next part here: Ideas #2: How to Choose and Develop a Great Idea

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