How to Come Up With Lots of Great Ideas for Your Writing [With Examples]
This post was originally published in May 2011 and extensively rewritten in June 2021.
Where do you get your ideas?
Whether you’re a blogger, novelist, short story writer, or poet, this question comes up again and again in the writing world.
It might seem like some writers just magically “get” writing ideas, out of nowhere. And maybe you’re wondering if you’re missing out on some magic trick.
Here’s the good news: all writers can come up with great ideas.
How Do Writing Ideas Come to You?
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 something n the external world makes you think of something else, then something else, until you wonder hang on, how did I get here?
You’re Creative Too
I firmly believe that we are all creative people. 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” fits me better.)
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 no more than a quarter of the ideas which I come up with, both for blog posts and for fiction. 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 for your writing will suddenly appear out of nowhere … but that’s rare.
I find that fiction ideas do come out of the blue (but even then, I can trace their origins — to a song I was listening to or to an experience I had).
With non-fiction, like my blog posts and freelance pieces, I come up with ideas when I deliberately sit down to do so.
Inspiration rarely comes as a bolt from the heavens. Don’t wait to “get” an idea: go out and hunt it down.
So, with those two out the way, let’s get on with some idea generation:
Five Simple Ways to Come Up With Writing Ideas [Plus Examples]
There’s no “right” way to create ideas, and different writers will have different techniques. Having said that, these are five techniques which work for me and many others.
#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 the Aliventures blog or for my guest blogging – 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.
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.
I’m using the title “Do You Recognize These 10 Mental Blocks to Creative Thinking?” from Copyblogger to create a list of potential ideas for Aliventures:
- Do You Recognize These 10 Mental Blocks to Writing Faster?
- Do You Recognize These 10 Common Editing Mistakes?
- Do You Recognize These 5 Pieces of Bad Writing Advice?
- Do You Struggle With Any of These 8 (Solvable) Writing Problems?
#2: Use Someone Else’s Words
Sometimes, I’ll start off a blog post with a quote from a reader comment, or with an inspiring or encouraging quote. Fiction authors also occasionally use quotes at the start of books or chapters, setting the tone or raising a question.
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 (thanks to everyone who filled in the recent Aliventures survey)
- 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.
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?
I read Becca Syme’s Dear Writer, You Need to Quit a couple of weeks ago, which is aimed at self-publishing authors. It brought up lots of great food for thought, but it also helps me come up with ideas I might write about on Aliventures or even in a story:
- What assumptions do bloggers (or freelancers) commonly make … and are these correct? (If you’ve come across Becca’s work, you’ll know she’s very big on “question the premise”.)
- What common mistakes do freelancers make … and what should they quit doing?
- What happens when someone questions an assumption or received wisdom? How do people around them react? (This could be the germ of a story idea.)
#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.)
Of course, you want to make sure your idea is still relevant: sometimes, a “gap” might actually be a topic that a particular publication simply doesn’t cover. For instance, here on Aliventures, I don’t cover academic writing.
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.
Here on Aliventures, there are quite a few areas I’ve not covered recently or in much depth, but that might be a good fit:
- Writing action scenes in fiction
- Writing poetry (I’m no poet – but this could be an interesting subject to tackle)
- Pitching to editors and agents, or even traditional publishing in general
- Marketing your books
#4: Turn to Other Types of Art
While writing ideas can often come from reading, they can also come from different forms of art. I find this particularly helpful for novels and short stories.
Pay attention to what captures your attention, resonates with you, or even sends a little shiver down your spine.
Perhaps it’s a particular lyric, a situation between two characters, or simply the feeling you get from a haunting melody or a dramatic use of colour and movement.
Could this be the jumping-off point for a new story?
Immerse yourself in something you enjoy. That could be music by your favourite band or in your favourite genre. It could be something new to you: I normally listen to metal, but I’ve been enjoying dark country music recently. It might be art, film, anything you want.
There are plenty of stories that have been inspired by art or music, such as:
- Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier) – this takes its title (and main character) from the famous painting by Vermeer
- Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInerney) – this takes its title from a classic blues song by Jimmy Reed
#5: Use a Writing Prompt or Competition Theme
If you’re still struggling for an idea, writing prompts or competition themes are a great way to spark ideas.
You might think that having a specific prompt or theme would restrict you too much … but creativity thrives on restraints.
If I tell you to “write a story about anything” then you might struggle to get started. If, instead, I ask you to “write a story about a 14 year old who runs away from home and meets a dangerous ally” then you’re probably starting to come up with ideas already.
There are hundreds of lists of writing prompts out there. Some that I particularly like are Take Three Nouns and these fiction writing prompts divided by genre.
If you’re looking for non-fiction ideas, try these blog writing prompts.
My story “The Birthday” was based on a Writing Magazine competition prompt (it had to start with the line “Is that what you meant to do?”)
The Writing Magazine competitions are great ones to enter as they almost always have a theme or prompt to write from.
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.
Want more writing ideas, encouragement, and motivation? Make sure you’re getting the Aliventures newsletter. It comes straight to your inbox every Thursday, with an exclusive short article about writing. You’ll also get the weekly blog posts to your inbox each Monday.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
Can You Call Yourself a “Writer” if You’re Not Currently Writing?
The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.
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Thanks for sharing. I think this is a top-notch post: value-added, useful, down-to-earth and you cut to the chase.
If a person is interested in developing “ideational fluency,” I would recommend the following:
Try to be a voracious reader
Cultivate hobbies and interests
Talk to people from different backgrounds and cultures
Brainstorm (generative thinking)
Focus on your niche without being restricted by it.
Step out of your comfort zone every once in a while.
Travel: it will give you new insights and angles.
Try to be fully engaged with life. Your subconscious mind will then engage with “associative thinking.” It will make associations between seemingly disparate elements or variables and create a new idea or result into a new picture. This has happed to me several times.
My conscious mind shuts off when I am dwelling on a problem. I just cannot find a solution. Then, I go out for a walk in the outdoors: lo and behold, I am able to find a solution. And it appears suddenly, out of nowhere. At such times, your mind is an antenna that receives signals from a mysterious source. Many people have reported similar experiences. So, you have made an excellent point about the subsconscious mind. Cheers.
Thanks Archan – fantastic tips there, and I completely agree with them. And thanks for being the inspiration behind this post, too!
Judging your ideas is the best way to get writers block! When i write, I let everything flow and tell the editor inside of me to a break while I allow my words to come out.
Thanks Ariana! I agree — it’s best to turn that internal editor off when you’re generating ideas.
Great post, Ali – I like using Evernote to capture ideas.
Jeff Goins’s last blog post ..Weekly Reading- Finding Motivation- Creative Community- & More!
Great post Ali!
I get great ideas all the time, sometimes it’s just a headline, sometimes a quote, sometimes a cool business idea, I got lots of ’em.
Sometimes I imagine them as butterflies hovering above my head, some stick around for a while, and some are fleeting. I sometimes say to myself, that’s a great idea I’ll write it down later…and then later I forget what the great idea was.
I wish I had a net to capture all those elusive thoughts and ideas, so my advice is…
Always have a capture device, and the tools you need to capture the idea or thought
1. Always carry a writing device, a pen, pencil (I carry a couple)
2. Always carry a capturing device a notepad, iphone, text to yourself, write on the back of a receipt
3. Always carry a highlighter to highlight anything you read in a newspaper article or book
I think I’ll turn this into a blog post on my own blog, what a great idea!
Zac’s last blog post ..One Of The Best Self-Help Books Ever!
I love the butterflies image … and your advice on carrying a “net” 🙂 I try to keep a pen and small notebook with me whenever I’m out (and I’ve been known to jot ideas on all sorts of things around the house…)
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! 🙂
I think that the idea generating comes first – then the idea assessing! Maybe I’ll cover that in the next post…
I am always blog hopping and come across a lot of your stuff. I agree with Archan that you seem to have an endless stream of great ideas 🙂 Thanks for sharing what works for you. I thought this was a great post and definitely plan to put many of these things to work.
Thanks Sibyl! Good luck coming up with lots of your own great ideas 🙂
Excellent Post and ideas! Everything we see, hear, read or consider can transform into writing ideas, fiction and non-fiction alike.
Gene Lempp’s last blog post ..Swamp Visions
Problem-what happens if a great idea comes to me right when I’m about to fall asleep and my notebook isn’t at my bedside? Most of the time, I’m too tired to get up and walk to the next room, I’m lazy like that when I’m tired. and when I wake up, most of the time, the idea is gone, but I’ve got a shadow of what it used to be. And I carry around my journal most everywhere, leaving it at random spots around the house, so it’s not garunteed to be where I want it, I always find it though…so any suggestions? Thanks for the tips, now I’m really gonna carry my notebook around everywhere.
Keep your notebook by your bed? 😉 (Maybe have a small, spare notebook that you keep in your bedroom.) For the sake of your sleep, it’s probably not a great idea to get up and start wandering the house looking for your notebook, so I don’t think you’re being lazy!
Be warned, though … sometimes I think I have great ideas in the middle of the night, and in the cold rational light of day, they’re … well, not so great as I thought 😉
Strangely, new ideas pop out when I’m not thinking what to write next, and I quickly note it down on paper or in my head so I don’t forget! It’s great to get ideas, but that’s just half the fun — writing with your idea, before it runs off is another important step.
Thank you for your insight. I actually enjoy the writing but worry that I will run out of ideas. You have given me many and I will reread this posting. Karleen Hubley http://horseflynet.com/blog