Writing by Peter Hilton

Collect writing ideas

How to find ideas to write about instead of planning them - 2 November 2021 #writing

A bee on a sunflower

Anastasiya Romanova

To avoid blank page panic, build a portfolio of unfinished ideas in various stages of development. Nurturing these ideas, by feeding them, replanting them, and growing them, leads to a collection that you can regularly harvest blog posts from.

Like gardening, collecting writing ideas has several steps. Start with the following.

  1. Get a notebook
  2. Keep the notebook with you at all times
  3. Generate lots of ideas
  4. Write them in the notebook

Every writer has their own method, but you can probably use some of this yourself.

Generate writing ideas

You won’t generate writing ideas by staring at a blank page. Like many wrong approaches, the harder you try, the harder you will fail. Instead, step away from the page and engage with the world.

Given the choice, I most enjoy generating writing ideas by talking to people. Discussion and debate prompt new ideas, and other people provide new material to work with. Informal discussion works best when the participants can follow any idea that emerges, without having an agenda to stick to. Coffee, beer or wine often accompanies these discussions, although I don’t know if that helps.

You won’t always have access to people, refreshments, and a lounge, cafe or bar. Fortunately, books contain ideas too, and reading them tends to give you new things to think about. Reading a book has the advantage of a slower pace that gives you more time to reflect on new ideas, and often the benefit of someone else’s deeper thinking on a topic.

Books have the additional advantage of their effectively unlimited numbers, provided you can afford to buy them, or have access to a good library. And even if a book doesn’t reveal or inspire any new ideas, reading a second one on the same topic will at least give you the two books’ disagreements to think about.

Write content ideas in your notebook

When you get yourself a notebook you can use it to capture your writing ideas. You have to carry it around all of the time so you can capture an idea the moment it appears. You’ll forgot the idea if you try to save it for later, or work on it until it becomes more substantial.

When this works well, you capture tiny unformed ideas - small phrases, rather than whole sentences. An idea you write down might capture:

  • an interesting name for something
  • a concept that doesn’t have a name but should
  • a relationship that links two previously-unconnected ideas
  • a good word or phrase to use in a title, or even a whole article title.

When something potentially good occurs to you, write it down without overthinking where. Organisation comes later. And after you’ve done some organisation, you might add a new idea to a list of titles that would make good articles, unsorted ideas on a particular topic, or this week’s ideas.

Plan writing, not idea generation

Planned idea generation doesn’t work; brainstorming sessions fail more than they succeed. Capturing ideas all the time, whenever they surface, means that you don’t have to try forcing them. Instead, you can use planned time for writing - refining ideas you already captured.