Words on a Page Writings about writing

Coming up with ideas


Writers need to be able to do more than string words together in interesting and entertaining and informative ways. We need to come up with a constant stream of ideas. If we don’t have those ideas, we have little or nothing to write about!

Some writers are idea-generating machines. Others struggle with coming up with writing ideas. If you’re open to it, ideas are everywhere. You just need to be aware of the ideas that are around you.

I’d like to share a few suggestions that can help you come up with more ideas.

Keep your eyes and ears open

Treat everything you see and hear in the way a writer should: as a potential story idea or as a source of inspiration. If you do that, ideas will come to you from unexpected places.

Take a couple of conversations I had recently with members of a Meetup group I co-organize. One person asked me how I dealt with my fear of publishing my work on my blog — I explained that I didn’t have that fear, and why I didn’t have that fear. During another conversation, a member of the group commented that he hoped he didn’t screw up too badly when he started regularly blogging.

As you’ve probably guessed, both of those conversations inspired posts that I wrote for this space (which you’ll be able to read in the coming weeks). But if I hadn’t been paying attention, if I had just responded to the question and comment then let it pass, I wouldn’t have had the ideas for those posts. And they’re posts that I think can help bloggers both new and experienced.

Listen and see. When you read or listen to the radio or watch TV, focus on what’s happening. Chances are you’ll dig out a nugget that could become the basis for an article or essay or blog post or story.

Use your imagination

One of the writers that I’m informally coaching recently asked me how I came up with ideas. I told her I sit back and let my imagination run wild.

I come up with every idea I can — strange, interesting, offbeat, and just plain out there. As they come to me, I write them down in a notebook. After about an hour, I have anywhere from 25 to 50 ideas.

Then, I let the ideas lie. I go back to them a few hours later or, better yet, the next day. Most of them I strike out because they’re not usable. They’re just too far out or impractical. Having said that, what’s left is generally a good core of ideas for whatever I want to write.

Go off on a tangent

From something you heard or read or saw. Take, for example, noted writer Robert Silverberg. Silverberg read the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Lottery in Babylon” and the following sentence stuck in his head:

For an entire lunar year, I have been declared invisible: I would cry out and no one would respond, I would steal bread and I was not beheaded.

Silverberg resolved to tell the tale that Borges left untold, which resulted in the short story “To See the Invisible Man”.

You’re probably not going to be as audacious as Silverberg, but you can easily find that tangent. I did earlier this year with an essay I wrote. I’d read the news of a company called Nest pulling the plug on one of its connected products. I asked myself what the wider consequences of this were and pulled together an 1,100 word piece on that subject.

As I keep saying, ideas are all around us. You just need to keep your eyes and ears and mind open to them. Once you do that, you’ll never be at a loss for something to write about.

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