Ten ways to generate writing ideas
If one could teach you how to write better in 750 words, we could save tremendous amounts of money in high school and college courses. But, as one who has published thousands of articles, editorials, columns, features and news items under one name or another over the past 25 years, I will presume to make a few suggestions in fewer than 2,000 words.
I know that that seems to be the other side of writing, but I doubt that there ever has been a decent writer who did not do a passel of reading first.
One of my favorite anecdotes recalls a time that I was serving on a panel of four writers at a high school writers’ conference, when one of the participants asked me what I had enjoyed reading as a child. I answered that I had spent more nights than I could count under the covers with the Hardy Boys. The two other male writers on the panel began laughing and said that it also was true for them. The woman on the panel looked at us as if we were mad.
It doesn’t have to be the Hardy Boys. In fact I have moved on, but the more one reads and the more variety one reads, the more gear he has in his toolbox.
But wait, there’s more.
Newspapers in particular. There are several reasons for reading the newspaper. One is getting news. Another has to do with becoming familiar with a writing style that is more linear than fiction and more succinct than nonfiction. But there is more than news in a newspaper, and there are more reasons to read all of it.
I believe that good writers are passionate. Maybe not demonstrably so. They might be passionate about knowledge, passionate about a specific subject, passionate about a person or a cause, passionate about money or passionate about passion. Only one of these probably won’t work.
Those who are motivated only by the thought of making vast amounts of money will probably be disappointed unless they also are passionate about something else. Either their writing is listless or they lose interest because they don’t have the passion for writing. So we will concentrate only on those who are eager to write for reasons other than profit.
Where do ideas come from?
If you are anything like me, you probably don’t often get through a newspaper without becoming exercised about something. That’s good. Here’s what to do with that:
- Be an active reader, engaged in whatever you are reading.
- Read critically, not everything. Goodness no; you’d never get through the paper.
- Read the newspaper as do those who claim to read five or six newspapers a day.
- Read headlines.
- If the headline interests you, read the first paragraph. In the old days, the first or first and second paragraphs answered the questions, who, what, when, where, why, and sometimes how. Now, you’re lucky if they are all answered in the entire article. So read as far as necessary to decide whether you are interested. If not, move on to another headline. If so, read it again and ask yourself questions as you go.
- · When you find an article that piques your interest, clip it or print it out and either
- Start writing a draft while the spirit moves you, or
- Save it in a folder or notebook where you keep story ideas.
If you are really organized, you might keep a list of these ideas for when the mood strikes.
- Don’t skip advice columns. They often have letters that seem to beg for a backstory, as a book or in short story form.
- Classified ads and comics also might give inspiration. Why is someone eager to sell a diamond ring for “best offer?” Why is someone seeking a handyman to repair holes punched and kicked in a wall? Actual ads can be far more original and intriguing than these feeble examples.
- Obituaries can be a source. How did that VIP or celebrity get to there? I recently read the obituary of a man who was best remembered for committing a bizarre crime. Story!If you are reading about politics when your blood pressure shoots up, or you find yourself sputtering aloud, redirect that passion into an article or op-ed.
- If you are reading a news item about a crime, ask yourself what motivations and circumstances might have culminated in this crime. Better, still, try a few scenarios. Ask yourself how it might resolve, or how you would like it to resolve, and then tell the story with fully-developed characters, with motivation, personalities and all. Have fun with it, and then rewrite and revise again and again until you are happy with it.
- News items that make you shake your head in amazement at how stupid people can be might make a good humorous short story or book. Don’t only tell the story, but also tell how others around the main character view him and his actions.
Of course, you might see something on television news or the Internet, or even in life.
Be aware. Be very aware.
When I started writing, I noticed that I started to notice. I became more aware of what was going on around me. In the beginning, I was writing a weekly opinion column, and I found that I suddenly became more conscious of what people around me did and said, and how I reacted to it. Needing a new topic every week meant being always alert for a story. Whatever I was doing, whatever I encountered, I asked, “What is the story here?” And the stories never failed to surface in such numbers that I had to select from them the ones that I most wanted to write.
Writing made me more aware, more engaged, in my own life. I became more aware of the people around me, of trends, and of situations (and people) that seemed a little “off.”
I developed the habit of carrying a digital tape recorder, a couple of pens and a notepad so that I would not forget a topic I wanted to write about or important details or quotations. In fact, notepads work better than recorders for me because I can list topics on the cover, organize them by date, and refer to them more easily than I can manage recordings. Also, I don’t have to keep replaying them because my typing is so much slower than the rate of speech.
When the time came that I was writing for publication several days a week, the story ideas multiplied so that I had trouble keeping up with them.
When all else fails, write
If you cannot come up with a topic you want to write about, start writing and let yourself tell you what is on your mind. Just write:
- You might want to use a composition book for this. The idea is to begin writing with the only restriction being that you will not stop for a given amount of time, maybe three or four minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you are panicking because you don’t have anything to write about, it seems longer. Just keep writing. If you can’t think of anything to say, curse the muses or write about your frustration, but do not stop. Use an alarm so that you don’t have the excuse of repeatedly looking at your watch or following the second hand as it sweeps around the dial.
- At the end of your self-imposed time, put down your pen and read what you wrote. Do you notice a theme or the kernel of an idea?
- If so, begin writing again, for another three or four minutes. Same rules. This time begin with the idea you noticed emerging the previous time.
- If not, begin writing about how you feel that nothing is emerging.
After you have done this three or four times, you will probably have found that something you are interested in writing about has emerged.
Does grammar count?
You might have noticed that I have some sentence fragments here. Sometimes I begin a sentence with a conjunction; sometimes I use only a one-word sentence. Does that mean that grammar doesn’t matter?
No. Absolutely not. It does mean that you should have read enough to be comfortable in your writing and that you should understand the rules of grammar so that you know when it serves your writing to choose to ignore them. You do not want potential readers to toss your writing aside because your grammar suggests to them that you might be wasting their time.
Do you feel a draft?
Finally, what to do if you are struggling through a draft?
You have two choices:
- Struggle on to the end and read it over. Then start over.
- Stop. Give up and start over.
In my experience, when I struggle with a draft that just doesn’t feel as if it is working, either way works as well, because either way, I write a second draft.
If I try to stay with the original, it always feels patched up, so no matter what happens with a piece that I have struggles with, it looks as if I lost the struggle.
On occasion, I have started the same article anew three or four times. Never have I gotten beyond the fourth time before I have produced something I like. Is that because I am sick of it and just want it to be over? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Rather, I think that each time I start, my mind reorganizes my thoughts and by the third or fourth draft, it has all come together.
Are we there yet?
After all is said and done, there is more to do and say. At least, more to do. Reread, review and revise. And revise. It is best to set it aside for a while so that when you reread your writing, you see what you wrote instead of seeing what you meant to write. As I was reading this piece for the “final” time, I noticed that I had written “I doubt that there ever has been a decent reader who did not do a passel of reading first,” instead of writing “decent writer.” I had read what I thought I wrote several times before beginning anew the next day.
I have final in quotation marks, not because it was a quotation, but because final is a relative term. I have published articles that I worked over long and hard, that proofreaders and copyeditors had beaten up and forced into submission before I read it a final time and published it. As soon as I saw it in print, I cringed at the wrong or inelegant word choice, or in one case a factual error (the wrong name of a character in a book) that had slipped past everyone but a relative who had read the piece in a national magazine and said, “You called him….That was his friend.”
That is why it is a good idea to have someone else read your manuscript before you publish.
Similarly, I routinely tweak and revise pieces I have published on line just because I know that no matter how hard I try, what I produce is never as good as it could have been.
For me, the most important principle has always been that I write because I enjoy it. I have opinions I want to express, destinations I want to tell about, ideas I want to share, and it is all as much fun as it is hard work.
Is that all there is?
Now, that might have been ten points or it might not. I don’t know. I do know that the chances that you read this were greater if I said so than if the title were, “Here’s a bunch of stuff that might help you write.”
I’d love it if you would let me know how these tips work for you.