The question of where a writer can find ideas comes up quite regularly, but usually only from beginning writers. Most writers who have been at it for any length of time have more ideas than they will ever be able to develop. It is not that you find more ideas once you get into writing, it is that you learn to recognize them. Good ideas are everywhere, the trick is in learning to recognize and evaluate them effectively. When you come up with an idea for a piece, work with it and refine it until you can put it into one sentence that captures the essence of the piece. If you are not able to refine and define it to that point, it is probably not a workable idea.
The world around you—in concert with your brain—is an incredible Idea Factory. That factory needs to be in the business of constantly generating ideas in a conscious, deliberate, and intelligent way. However, like any new factory, you may need to “prime the pump” to get the ideas flowing. Here are a few activities that may help:
- Make a list of five things you know well enough to teach (look in your job history, personal life, hobbies, interests, etc.). The answer to “What do you know?” is the article idea. “Who would want to learn it?” suggests the target audience.
- Read the newspaper everyday, looking for potential stories. The TV news is not a substitute for the paper. It is the details from the newspaper accounts that spark the ideas. Use your own interests as a guide for what to look for. Find at least one article idea in the newspaper everyday to keep your idea generation in full production.
- Look at every magazine as a potential market. When you pick up a new magazine, determine at least one article you might write for that magazine. Look beyond the obvious. Even specialized magazines carry some general articles on topics of interest to most of their readers. Read the Contents page and ask yourself if you could have written any of the articles listed there.
- When you find yourself in strong disagreement with something you see or hear, decide if you can turn that passion into an article, or at least a letter to the editor.
- Talk to people every chance you get. Listen to their experiences, and write articles based on their needs or concerns. Fiction writers should keep a People Notebook that describes the way people look, talk and act.
- Fill your life with “unreproducible experiences.” Be open to those things you have never done before and will likely never do again. Most of us spend the majority of our time doing and seeing the same things over and over again. We see the same people, eat in or go to the same places, attend the same church and civic functions, volunteer for the same jobs, etc. As a writer you want to constantly be challenging yourself to step out of those comfortable places into less comfortable ones that help us learn and grow—the places where ideas are born.
- Skim the classified ads, personal ads, news sections of your favorite magazines, or even the yellow pages.
Every time I have what I think might be a good idea, I start testing it to see if it is “big” enough. In order to sprout into a full-blown article and idea must have enough potential facets to create something full and whole. If I cannot conjure up enough facets in my mind—something like a three-point sermon—then I abandon it. If it does come to full bloom, then I have to ask how many people would be interested in it, and who are they? Most ideas require nurturing—few come fully developed.
The last piece of advice I have about ideas is to always write them down. I would be rich if I remembered all the great ideas that “got away.” Carry a small notebook with you in your pocket or purse, and keep extras in every room of your house and at work. Never assume that you’ll remember the idea later and write it down then. If you are generating a lot of ideas, one seems to simply bump the last one from your mind—never to be seen again.