One of the biggest questions I used to get asked by aspiring writers is how I get ideas. This tapered off after I wrote “the one process post to rule them all” (which was the goal, so… good), but the topic still pops every so often.
To be honest, the “idea” question often seems a bit odd to me.
It’s like asking, “when you’re hungry, how do you decide what to cook?” Like, I don’t know, man. You just do.
The answer is: whatever you want. You write what’s in your head; what matters most; what you’re thinking about; what is begging to be put on paper; whatever is hanging on you as you try to go about your day or whatever is pulling you away from what you should be focused on; whatever is tripping you while you walk; whatever is distracting you from everyday life; whatever is THERE. I mean, damn — if you don’t know what to write, then why the hell would you want to be a writer?
But. That aside, I get that this is a popular topic…
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has written about it, saying “I often have lots of ideas, but there are many times when I have none.” His tips include a running list of ideas, reading other content, asking readers, looking around him, and looking inside.
Josh Spector suggested content consumption, capturing ideas as they come, talking about things, asking questions, studying the opposite opinion, solving problems. He’s also one of the few to blatantly suggest, “regurgitate what you consume.” Which, sure, that’s a thing.
Shannon Ashley wrote a great piece about how she decides what to write about, including: things that happened to her, things that have been on her mind, things she wish people would talk about, things readers ask about, etc.
So, a lot of folks are talking about it.
As Babauta wrote,
“When you run out of ideas, it’s scary… you get a little panicky… Fear stops us from figuring out the best course of action.”
And I agree with him when he ends with the advice,
“Start by calming down… relax… life isn’t about to come crumbling down.”
It’s just writing. It should be light and easy at least sometimes. Here’s how I get there…
1. Get the right mindset
Physical trainer Max Posternak of Gravity Transformation said,:
“99% of the battle is in your mind.”
He meant fitness, but it’s true for writing too — because it’s all human nature. No amount of “process” or “inspiration” can overcome the wrong mindset — in the same sense that no fitness plan can overcome it. So: do you wanna write, or don’t you?
As Posternak added,
“You have to take responsibility… Nobody will take responsibility for you.”
2. Write for the right reasons
I’ve been writing since I was old enough to know how, and when I had a blog in my 20s, I had like 8 followers. Many writers have similar stories. You have to value yourself, and your own voice… You have to write for you.
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
“If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it… if you have to sit for hours…searching for words, don’t do it.” — Charles Bukowski
“It’s no accident that bad writers also have nothing to say. Having something to say seems to inspire people.” — Robert McKee
“There are two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. While the one have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, the others want money.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
3. Get in tune with yourself
If you are coming up “dry” with “no ideas,” you’re probably dodging something.
As Heidi Priebe wrote,
“99% of the time when a piece of writing or creating or whatever is not working for me, it’s because I’m not telling the truth… Whenever I’m really f*cking stumped on something, I just sit back and look at it and ask myself ‘what is the truth’ and then that’s what I create. Everything else is a waste of time.”
4. Understand it is work
I always quote Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. In her TED talk on “creative genius,” she said, of her “process:”
“I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.”
Sometimes the ideas are harder to dredge up from the bottom. Sometimes it be that way. Just keep moving.
How to get ideas
A loose and fast checklist I use:
- What’s bothering me? What am I ranting about to people in my life? What did I talk about for four minutes straight over beers?
- What am I thinking about? What content am I consuming? What books, what subreddits? Why? What am I looking for and, more importantly, what am I discovering?
- What answers do I feel I have to others’ questions? One of my favorite topics is peoples’ “demons” — things that plague them in life. Myself included.
- What do I have something new to say about, that others aren’t saying? I’m not as interested in posting the 300th article on waking up at 5 am. That is so boring.
- What’s honest? Don’t bullshit here. Write something real.
- What’s on my mind? Every so often (not a lot, but sometimes), I just start writing what I’m really thinking about, kinda stream of conscious, and release it into the world. Sometimes it goes okay.
- Does this solve a problem (or at least propose to?)
- Does this offer some other kind of value?
- What inspires me? Go engage with it — films, music, other writers, etc.
- How can I shock my system? Go engage with something that will stimulate a reaction — good or bad.
- I write in the margins of books — I absolutely destroy books, but I don’t care. I love jotting notes and making marks, and I often come back to these to pull quotes when they inspire a piece.
- I use my phone — Like Shannon Ashley, I too use my phone if we’re out or I’m in bed— because I always have it with me, but also…
- I use gmail drafts —I know, 1999 called and wants their technology back. But I don’t care. I don’t need another software where this one gets the job done, and I can easily pull my draft up on desktop.
- I also have drafts in Medium — but not too many…
- I keep the number of drafts to a bare minimum — I once hired a coach who called drafts “writing baggage,” saying it can weigh just as heavily on us as emotional baggage, and it’s changed the way I’ve looked at it since. Either ship it or scrap it. Move on.
- When something inspires you to write, make a note of it. Keep track of these, and come back to them! I have books, music, films, and writers that I come back to time and again, because they always spark something in me. Wring ’em dry.
And when all else fails: just keep writing! It doesn’t have to be perfect to ship — it’s all an evolution. Just keep moving forward, and you will get better at the “idea” muscle over time.