Use Edison-Inspired Brainstorming to Produce Viral Writing Ideas
What does it take to produce one game-changing idea? A Baylor University professor has the answer
The more I read At Work with Thomas Edison: 10 Business Lessons by America’s Greatest Innovator, the more I realize that Edison’s methods offer inspiration not only for inventors and businesspeople, but for writers as well.
Inventors tend to see their inventions as their offspring. Seen that way, the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and motion pictures could be thought of as Edison’s “babies.”
We writers tend to view our articles, stories, and poetry in a similar light — in a way, they are our children. Also like Edison’s inventions, they all began with an idea.
Edison left behind extensive journals of his creative techniques. Dr. Blaine McCormick, the author of At Work with Edison and Professor and Chair of the Department of Management at Baylor University, teaches his students how to utilize those techniques in their own lives. Let’s examine one of his lessons and see how we can adapt it to writing.
An Edison-inspired brainstorming session
McCormick, in the classes he teaches, leads his students through a brainstorming exercise. He gives them a problem that is well defined, and to which there is no one “right” solution. He breaks the students into groups and tells them they will have 20 minutes to brainstorm. Right before he tells them to start, however, McCormick drops the bomb.
They have 20 minutes to produce 40 different solutions to the problem.
That’s 30 seconds per solution! Needless to say, this draws gasps from the students every semester.
Once the shock wears off and they get started, though, the students find that producing 40 solutions is not as difficult as they first perceived. Once they build momentum, the ideas start rolling in, and many groups go well past 40, some reaching the 60s.
After the time is up, McCormick asks each group to read off the solution they thought was best, and the number it was in the list. The numbers are almost always high numbers — close to 40 if not above.
The point of the exercise, McCormick concludes, is to demonstrate that “creativity is having 30 bad but interrelated ideas that launch you to a 31st great idea. So don’t just brainstorm. Brainstorm and go for the high numbers.”
How to apply this as a writer
Imagine the following scenario: You’re in college. By the end of the day, you have to submit a 5-minute article (or 3-minute, 7-minute, whatever your typical length is) on a particular topic. (Picking a particular topic sets boundaries for your creativity, which was another one of the keys to Edison’s success.)
This is the only assignment for the semester in the only class remaining for you to complete. If you don’t complete this assignment, you don’t graduate.
Furthermore, before writing time starts, you have 20 minutes to brainstorm writing ideas for your selected topic. You must come up with at least 40 ideas. Your article must be about the idea you like the best out of the 40, or it can be about a combination of two or more of those ideas.
You think you can do this? Sure you can! Put 20 minutes on your phone’s stopwatch app and… On your mark! Get set! Go!
Don’t throw away the rest of those ideas
One of Edison’s core beliefs was that inventions were interrelated: For example, the cylinder phonograph was a result of Edison’s earlier work on improvements to the telegraph and telephone. Similarly, writing ideas don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen in clusters.
Look at the top writers on this platform — how often do you see an article by them that is 100% original? Not very! Oftentimes they will use a previous topic as a springboard for a new one, or they will examine a previous idea from a completely different point of view. (Edison himself did that. What’s your cowcatcher?)
Those unused, “bad” ideas led to your one “good,” usable idea. Who’s to say they won’t lead to others later on? Don’t throw them away.
I keep a note in Evernote called, appropriately enough, Ideas. This started out being a space just for ideas I was reasonably sure might become future writing topics. My study of Edison, though, has broadened my approach to that note. Now I put anything in there that could be
- An idea that could lead to a writing topic
- An idea that could lead to another idea that could lead to a writing topic
Using that strategy, it’s common for me to come up with 10 new additions to my Ideas note a day, and sometimes as many as 30. Once a week — typically Sunday, my day for administrative work related to my writing — I go back through the Ideas note for review.
If Evernote’s not your jam, you can collect ideas in a different note-taking or workflow app like Trello or Notion, or you can go old-school and keep your written ideas in a physical notebook.
I have to admit, prior to reading about McCormick’s brainstorming assignment, I had some resistance to advice like “If you don’t have an idea, just sit down and write for 20 minutes.” I didn’t see the point. It sounded too much like a meaningless assignment I’d have to do in school, so the teacher could say she gave us something to do in class.
It works, though! The precursor to a game-changing idea — whether you’re inventing or writing — is a whole lot of bad ideas. As Charles Kettering, a founder of Delco and an inventor associated with the automobile almost as much as Edison is with the light bulb, put it:
The only time you mustn’t fail is the last time you try.
Don’t throw away those unused, not-the-best ideas, either! Even if they never see the light of day on a published page (or screen), they inspired one workable idea, and so they have the potential to inspire others. Put them away for safekeeping, and refer to them when you need inspiration.
Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Writers, here’s another article on drawing inspiration from Edison: