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Here’s How to Come up with a Tremendous Amount of Writing Ideas

by | Nov 23, 2020 | Writing

Having a writer’s roadblock can stop your flow.

I suffer from this problem all the time. I sit down to write, and then…BOOM! I have nothing to write about. I try to fire up my mind’s engine and get nowhere. I sit there staring out the window at my concrete wall view.

There are many ways to release your mind’s blockage and start writing again. I’ve spent the last six years getting good at this practice. The first strategy is to follow James Altucher’s advice and become an ideas machine. Write ideas down wherever you go.

Always be ready to write an idea down when you least expect it. The best ideas smack you in the face when you’re on the toilet, in the shower, waiting to sit down at a restaurant, or while reading a book. Here are a few more ways to come up with writing ideas like Ms Harry Potter Rowling.

Start with a headline and subtitle only

Thinking about an entire story is overwhelming. Trying to imagine each point, choose the cover image in your head, think of clever quotes, half write subheadings, and choose the voice you’ll write in is way too much work. I start with the plain vanilla idea of a headline and subtitle.

A writing idea is just a headline. Nothing more. Don’t complicate a simple process of coming up with writing ideas. Do you know what the best headlines are? A statement.

Write a headline that makes a bold statement.

Collect and admire headlines as you progress through the week. After a while, your entire world starts to look like a headline. When I make an online course, the first thing I come up with is the course title (headline). When I write a social media post, the first thing I come up with is the first sentence (headline). When I put together a Powerpoint pack for work, the first thing I do is name the deck (headline).

Headlines are all around you. You write headlines even when you don’t realize you’re writing headlines. When you meet a person for the first time, you tell them one thing about yourself (another headline). When you pitch yourself in a job interview, you drop a one-sentence headline to the recruiter to make them remember you.

The world is full of headlines. See the headline and you’ll see an idea.

Ditch “Algo Thinking”

The worst thing you can do as a writer is fall for algo thinking. Algo thinking is where you worship a social media platform’s algorithm and try to stroke its ego for some sexy time. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Obsessing over trends.
  • Trying to recreate viral articles that won’t become viral.
  • Choosing topics because they’re popular.
  • Binging on noteworthy news that will impress an algorithm, but never become glorious evergreen content.

An algorithm doesn’t determine whether an idea is a good one to write about. Your creativity and imagination do that.

If you want some inspiration from a non-algo thinker then take a look at Sean Kernan. His example will help you come up with quirky ideas you never thought you were capable of giving birth to (he knows Navy Seal fight sequences though, so be careful — step away from the sad face emoji).

Get lost in a Twitter Thread

Twitter Threads are hidden writing inspiration. Because a Twitter Thread is nothing more than a blog post without all the calories.

Read a Twitter Thread for inspiration on what to write about. Take a single tweet and turn it into your own masterpiece. A Twitter Thread in a lot of ways is just a listicle with 280 characters per point.

If you can write a succinct story that fits nicely into a Twitter Thread, then you’ve got the basis for a full-blown blog post.

From a writer’s point of view, Twitter is an app for the forced publication of early drafts — Paul Graham

Pick an unknown person to write about

Everybody is writing about Jobs, Musk, Buffman, Bezos and Zucks. A great way to come up with writing ideas is to make a list of unknown people that the average joe has never heard of.

When I was stuck for writing ideas I wrote about Kevin Swan. Kevin has a rare disease called ALS and is immobile with the exception of his toes and eyebrows. Kevin uses eye gaze technology on a tablet to be a writer. You think you’ve got it tough as a writer who has to come up with ideas until you meet Kevin. The bizarre thing about Kevin is he hasn’t learned how to see tragedy. All he sees are opportunities to do things that dead people cannot.

On another day, I was stuck for writing ideas again. I came across a 17 year old from Europe. He quit school to become an entrepreneur. I learned about his approach to life. I came face to face with my bullshit excuses about coming up with writing ideas. It was hard to feel sorry for myself when I was getting beaten by a smiling 17 year old in a tracksuit, working from a bedroom his parents still paid for.

Writing about unknown people is an untapped goldmine full of ideas. Trade well-known for unknown and watch the ideas come flooding in. You may not be able to get an interview with Elon Musk, but you can probably get an interview and a bunch of great ideas from a local hero who nobody has ever heard of. Musk has enough lunch appointments already.

Take a quiet unknown genius out for lunch instead and interview them.

Phone a friend

A friend can easily give you writing ideas. I was stuck for ideas recently and Michael Thompson said to me, “write an article that is the opposite of billionaire worshipping porn.” So I did. I remembered how happy I was earlier in my career making $60,000 a year. They were uncomplicated times surrounded by great colleagues who became lifelong friends.

Your friends know you really well. Let them give you ideas for free. Shout em a coke if one of their ideas gets you a book deal.

Write about a niche topic when everybody is following the mainstream

Niche topics are the antidote to writer’s block. Topics all start to sound the same after a while. But a niche topic is idea heaven. Think about a topic you’ve already written about and then see if there is another story you can write where you go narrow rather than wide.

Collect listicles

I collect the writer’s devil: listicles. I freaking love them. A listicle is a compilation of ideas I can riff on like Carlos Santana. Take dot points from different listicles and patch them together.

Visit these websites

Ya’ll writers love super practical tips. Use these websites as inspiration for ideas. (This is my personal collection.)

  • The Atlantic
  • Human Parts
  • The New Yorker
  • Oliver Burkeman’s “This column will change your life”
  • Slate

Final thought

As a writer, you have lots of ideas trapped inside your soul. All you have to do is pry open your mind and extract the ideas. Coming up with ideas isn’t hard. Don’t get romantic about coming up with ideas. Instead, make it a habit to take down ideas without judging the quality of them.

If you judge ideas before you note them down then you’re spoiling their potential life-changing magic. How can you possibly know if an idea is a good one or a bad one until you’ve written about it? You can’t. An idea is a good one after the fact — after an idea has been helpful to a reader, then you know if it’s a good one.

Dare to keep track of all your ideas and then curate them later.

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