When you have to write every day for a living, or even as a hobby, coming up with consistently engaging and relevant ideas and angles can be difficult. There’s little more intimidating than staring at a blank page that you have to fill when you don’t have the first idea where to start.
Maybe you already have a topic, maybe it’s just a vague inkling, or maybe you have no brief at all — no matter what the situation, you’ll always need to find some sort of inspiration — and it’s always helpful to have some strategies to get you going.
Create a narrative and find the drama
People like stories. They say they like facts, data and bullet-points — and they do — but they like stories more. If I walked up to you and told you a joke, would you think it was funnier if I just told you the set-up and punchline straight out or crafted a clever narrative around them to draw you in? The latter, obviously.
We’re hardwired to learn easily through narrative structure. The entirety of our lives (barring any out-of-body experiences) are spent, one moment to the next, living our own personal story. When someone gives us pieces of information that link to each other in a thread, telling us as much through context as through basic content, we find it very simple to organise and remember. It’s that simple. All of those early-childhood years of bed-time stories weren’t for nothing, you know.
What’s that got to do with idea generation? Everything.
When you start writing, think about the story you want to tell. Think about where, in whatever you have to write, you can find a nugget of narrative. It doesn’t have to be the inspiration for the entirety of your piece, it doesn’t even have to extend past the introduction. Just starting with a story is a useful strategy to get you thinking about how you can approach your writing task and is also an immensely powerful way to engage your audience.
Now, it’s all well and good to say “start generating narrative ideas”, but if the problem is that you can’t come up with any ideas at all, that’s not going to help much. I’ve always found the easiest way to find a “narrative in” to any writing task is to think about where the drama is. What element of whatever you’re writing about is going to provoke a strong response. Shock, anger, surprise, happiness, sorrow — it can sound a bit grim, but these are all grist for the writer’s mill. Find an emotional connection, work it into a story and get yanking on those heart-strings. It might seem a bit mercenary, but you won’t find many more effective ways of generating engaging ideas to write about.
When you get good at generating narrative ideas, it will become a natural process. Whenever you sit down to write, you’ll start thinking about what story you want to tell and how you can tell it. Just let your creative juices flow.
Draw on what you know about your audience
Okay, so in that last section I suggested provoking a reaction from your audience and crafting a narrative that draws them in. Great advice if I say so myself. But how do you go about doing that? Answering that question requires thinking about your audience, something I shoehorn into every blogpost I write for good reason.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it a few hundred times more, but you really can’t think about your audience enough. And that’s not just because it will help you write more engagingly and effectively, either; it’ll also help you come up with great ideas about what to write about. When you’re coming up with that narrative hook or trying to decide what sort of emotion or atmosphere you’re trying to arouse, really get to grips with who you’re writing to and for.
Writing, particularly professional writing, is often by nature informative. If you’re selling something, you’re telling someone what your product or service does. If you’re promoting your business, it’s who you are and what you do. If you’re writing about the mating habits of elephants, you’re telling people how those great grey giants get nasty. Whatever the goal, it’s going to involve imparting something to someone.
Fortunately, pretty much nobody forgets that. What writers do sadly forget, however, is that whatever you’re telling people has to be framed in a way people will want to read. Before you start planning and writing, think hard about who your intended audience is and what they’re going to want. By constantly evaluating your writing against the mantra “is this relevant/useful/interesting”, or the “so what?” test, and getting into a headspace where you’re focused on delivering something worthwhile, you should find the idea generation process much more satisfying and effective. After all, once you know what your audience wants, you know what you have to write.
Raid media and the minds of your colleagues
Throughout our schooling we’re told that plagiarism is the height of evil and that stealing an idea is akin to stealing candy from a baby. Maybe that’s true. But stealing part of someone’s idea, unlike robbing a child of its sweets, is often one of the best ways to get inspired.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the next time you can’t think of what to write or where to get that big idea, you simply go out and take it from someone else. Just regurgitating someone else’s content is lazy, disingenuous and generally reserved for clickbait sites. What I mean is that inspiration is around you all the time — you just have to pay attention.
Just the other day, I started working on a blogpost about the sort of feckless content creation I described before: poorly written, quickly hatcheted together pieces about whatever is trending. It would have been easy to just start slagging people off, but why would anyone else care? Instead, I tried to find an evocative image to start out with and on the front page of The Guardian, I found it. A story about tonnes of waste caused by those ridiculous Loom Bands. Perfect. Literal landfill and intellectual landfill made for perfect symmetry and my introduction pretty much wrote itself.
Other people are also a good source of inspiration. I’m lucky enough to work with some delightful and very talented people, and I’m rarely more thankful for that than when deadlines are approaching and I’m fresh out of ideas. Getting the chance to sit down with someone else, or even a few people, and throw thoughts back and forth is an excellent opportunity to generate some quality ideas. Not only will you get the benefit of another perspective, you’ll also have someone to talk things through with. I can’t count the times I’ve had what I thought was a great idea only to have the first person I tell about it remind me of at least one or two glaring omissions or issues I’d never even considered.
If you can’t talk to someone else, talk to yourself
If you’re a solitary writer and don’t have the chance to bounce things off other people, all is not lost. There are a number of strategies you can use to turn yourself into a one-person idea generating machine.
My personal favourite is the florilegium, which is basically a fancy word for a swapfile. A medieval Latin word, literally meaning “a gathering of flowers”, a florilegium is somewhere to store inspirational snippets and excerpts that you come across. While traditionally a book (smartphones weren’t big in the 15th century), your florilegium will likely be digital (at Rocksalt, we’re fans of Evernote, Draft, Feedly and Pocket) but I know just as many writers who prefer to keep physical notepads.
Whatever your choice, the goal is to create a wealth of resources for you to plunder when you’re at your least creative — somewhere for you to fill your head with good writing and good ideas to get you started with. Whether it’s the way a sentence is constructed to introduce a complex concept, a particularly useful way of phrasing a metaphor or even a pithy turn-of-phrase, you never know when you’ll find the perfect use for that passage you scribbled down in haste a few months ago.
Another useful strategy is the much-maligned mindmap. While their coming into fashion unfortunately coincided with my high school years, meaning I had to churn them out until my fingers bled, I can’t deny their efficacy in the right situation.
Similar to “idea sun bursting” popular in the 1970s, mindmaps look something like a spider web, with a central focus in the centre and associated thoughts, words and concepts branching out into an interweaving structure around it. While you likely won’t use everything to write down, you will certainly use some of it, and it’s an excellent way to make sure you’re considering every angle. Drawing your attention away from your central idea and instead onto peripheral considerations can often lead to unexpected inspiration and your completed mindmap will also make a rough plan for whatever you continue to write.
Writing at all will help you write more
A lecturer of mine once told me that writing is epistemological; that is, writing is an activity centred around knowledge and its pursuit. What she meant by this, at least I think, is that the more you write the more you know. Even without the fancy Greek word that sounds nebulous, but it’s not as useless advice as it sounds.
When you’re low on ideas, sometimes the best option is to just start writing. It’s basic logic that the more writing you get done, the less you have to do, but people are so often paralysed by the thought of not having an idea that’s “good enough”. I’ll talk more about that in a coming blogpost, but suffice to say, nothing any writer has ever started with was good enough from the beginning. First drafts are a time for exploration, when you can chase a wacky tangent or try out an original approach to a topic. The more you let yourself run free, the more likely you are to come up with something truly special.
If you need any help coming up with consistently engaging and relevant ideas and angles for your blog articles, give us a shout.