How To Excel at Idea Management in Writing
Online writing is all about idea management.
When I first started writing regularly on Medium and otherwise, I was on fire.
The first few weeks were pretty exciting. I had all these things in my mind to write about and life was good. I’d wake up every morning, make a cup of coffee, bang some keys on the keyboard, and voila! I had a 1000+ word article in a couple of hours.
I was all set to publish regularly, I thought. I read a lot of posts on how to make money on Medium and there was one advice that was screaming at my face —
Write more, write better, repeat forever.
And this made a lot of sense to me. Fortunately, I didn’t fall into the trap of finding magical unicorns that would build my readership. Or paying hundreds of dollars for books and courses that outline the ‘secret’ of making money on Medium even when I hadn’t written more than five posts.
My mind was right. My attitude was right. I knew I needed to publish a lot to build a readership.
But after a couple of months, I started feeling uneasy.
There was a dreading sense that I would run out of ideas. And I’m sure if you’re a writer, you can empathize. When you first start blogging, you have a lot of things to talk about. Most of them are crap. But hey, at least you have something.
After the first few months, you run out of that crap to write about. This is where the real struggle begins. And this is also where a lot of people fall off the journey.
But once you push past this stage, there’s a certain sense of conviction that encompasses your whole being. You gain unbreakable confidence.
Finally, you start to see the future clearly. And you see yourself as someone who can make it in the online writing space.
Let’s see how.
Ideas = Freedom
Most writers fall off the horse in the first few months, not because they’re not seeing results. (Yes, sometimes that can be disheartening).
But more than that, deep inside, they know that they cannot go for long if they don’t hear cha-ching every day (or every week).
They know that their creative juices are about to end and if they don’t earn money now, there won’t be anything to motivate them further.
Then they start reading a lot of “How to Make a Full-Time Living on Medium” posts only to lament their small following and the hard work that lies ahead.
Yet, the way to fix this is not to quit or searching for ‘hacks’ to make your readership explode overnight.
The way to fix this is to have more ideas.
The more ideas you have, the more excited you are about writing. If you already have an idea about what you’re going to write the next morning, your mind automatically links thoughts in your sleep.
As a result, when you sit down to write, you’re not thinking how hard it is to fill the page, but you’re banging the keys and getting your best work out.
Ideas keep you going. Ideas provide freedom.
The more ideas you have, the more confident you become. You know it in your heart that you cannot run out of things to write about. You can go on for months and not burnout.
Why? Because this is how creativity works—
Creativity creates creativity.
The more you use it, the more you have it. And so once you’re on this wave, you just have to keep riding it.
Dan Kennedy, the famous copywriter, spent one hour every day filling his sales pipeline. He had so many clients that he could never get to them. Yet, filling his funnel gave him the peace of mind and the confidence that he can go on for months even if his sales aren’t working well.
Similarly, if your writing is not getting traction (and in the beginning, it will not) you know that there are many more shots to take. The shots are only limited by the number of ideas you can generate. And truly, there’s no limit to ideas.
This, at least for me, is a life-changing insight. If I can only work on one thing, I’d work on generating ideas. Because once that’s done, other things will take care of itself.
But if the ideas aren’t there, nothing will happen.
Make Time for Generating Ideas
To have more ideas, you need to generate more ideas. The words are important. You don’t have ideas, you generate them.
When people talk about ‘having’ ideas it seems like it’s a drop from the heavens. Or as if we were born with a few ideas and we spend them. Whatever it is, you need to stop thinking that having ideas is out of your control.
Think not about having, but generating ideas. Generating is active. Having is passive.
How do you generate ideas?
First, you make time for it. This is why I love James Altucher’s “ten ideas a day” practice. I use them for generating ideas for posts as well as other things in my life.
And the best part is that it’s straightforward. Just take a piece of paper and write down ten ideas about anything. 10 headlines, 10 ways to improve sleep, run faster, get slimmer, lose weight, build muscle, earn more money, etc.
Most of your ideas will be crap. But you have to find the gold coin in the mud. Repeat this process every day and within a few weeks, you’ll find yourself coming up with more ideas than you ever thought you had.
Next, feed your mind with different ideas. Use any medium you like — interviews, podcasts, documentaries, books, audiobooks, movies, etc.
In other words — live your life and learn every day. Ideas don’t always come when you’re sitting at your desk. You have to live your life and keep the idea-search on at the back of your mind to find more things to write about.
By feeding quality ideas to your brain even passively (like listening to a podcast while doing laundry), you are getting input. The brain will then form unique combinations based on your past experiences, learnings, thoughts, emotions, etc and you’ll have yourself a new insight!
Feed the cow and then milk it. How can you milk it, if you don’t feed it?
A simple tip — Put more ideas in your brain, make time to generate ideas, and your brain will do the rest.
Dump Ideas Regularly
Write down your ideas at least once a day. The regularity is important.
Creativity is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets.
But if you’re like most people, you haven’t been using it that much. Thus, it’s atrophied and it’ll take some time to get it back up.
And even if it’s working again, you have to keep using it, lest it becomes dormant again.
Keep a notepad or phone with you at all times to note down random moments of inspiration. Apart from that, have a dedicated routine where you deliberately try to come up with ideas.
Pick Your Favorite Ones
Once you’ve made idea generation into a habit, you’ll have a lot of ideas coming to you.
You’ll eventually have more ideas than you can write about. And while that’s a good thing, now you have a (good) problem to solve. You have to decide which ones you need to pick and which ones to leave for now.
It’s not just about separating ideas into good or bad. It’s about deciding which ideas are right to execute now and which ones need to ripen before you can write about them.
I often come up with investigative article ideas that would require a lot of research. Plus, I may not be familiar with the subject matter or it may be completely outside of what I’ve written till now.
Whatever the reason may be, you need to pick the ripe ones and run with them.
Your decision can also depend on many goals — selling, expanding readership, personal satisfaction, trying out new things, relevancy, SEO potential, etc.
Pick one or two of these factors you want to focus on and then work with the idea that makes the most sense.
Outline Your Key Ideas Beforehand
One of the best changes I’ve made to my writing routine is to outline the ideas before I work on them. When I first started generating ideas, I had a lot of witty, catchy headlines. But I didn’t have the meat to write about them.
When I sat to write, I had to struggle between research and writing which made me not only a bad writer but a lousy thinker.
I now at least write the subheadings for an article beforehand. This helps me to know the structure of the article.
So when I sit to write, I can just start writing. I don’t have to think about what my next idea will be. I’ve already thought about it. This is the best hack to avoid procrastination as a writer.
If you don’t outline your ideas properly, it will take a lot of willpower to stick to your routine. Every new browser tab you open will be a distraction and an invitation to procrastination which will take you away from one thing that matters — writing.
Combine this tactic with using a distraction-free writer like Cold Turkey, and you’re off to the races.
A lot of time’s lost in starting and stopping. If you don’t separate your ideation and research from your execution, you’ll not enter a flow state and ride the waves of momentum.
Detach Yourself From the Results
You’ll inevitably think of certain ideas to have huge potential. You may even think they’ll go viral. But let me tell you this — you can never predict virality or the success of a piece.
All my viral articles have been the ones that I wrote with the least expectancy of success. It’s ironic but true.
The more I attach myself to the result or success of the idea, the more pressure I feel. This pressure often gets in the way of the creative process.
Detachment is a necessary skill, not only for writers but in life as well. Moreover, these ideas don’t represent your skill as a writer so don’t attach your worth to them.
No one actually cares about how good or bad your ideas are. It’s just one part of your work. And if it’s bad, no one is going to remember it! Not in the online writing world, at least.
If it’s any comfort to you, people will always see your best work and judge you on that. This is how we judge others and how they judge us. We highlight our failures and others’ success more than we should. Thus, it’s best to detach yourself from either praise or blame/judgment.
This is the crucial attitude I’ve adopted (to a certain extent) in my writing experience.
After you hit ‘publish’, let go and move on to the next idea. This is how you produce more.
By not caring about what was, or what will be. Only caring about what is. What you’re working on right now is important. Everything else will take care of itself.
Here’s everything you need to know about idea management:
- Make time for generating a lot of ideas and record as many ideas as you can. It’s an active process that you have to kickstart by consuming quality information and then letting your mind connect the dots.
- Regularity is the most important part of the practice. Your idea muscle atrophies if it’s not used.
- Have a good system of recording ideas. I use Trello and a good-old notebook.
- Pick your favorite ones and leave the ones that need time to ripen
- Outline your key ideas beforehand to get started as quickly as possible when you sit down to write. Don’t let yourself get distracted in the name of research.
- Detach yourself from the success of your ideas. They don’t define your worth as a writer. Even the best writers have terrible ideas.
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