26 ways to generate ideas
Published: December 1, 2006
|You plop into your chair ready to tackle a new writing project. The computer whirs to life, and you open a new file, poise your hands over the keyboard and ... nothing. Nada. Zip. The idea cupboard is bare. Does this sound familiar? Every writer will have an occasional down day. The next time you catch yourself staring at that blank computer screen, use this guide to get the ideas flowing again.|
Browse your library's copy of Chase's Calendar of Events. This hefty resource contains thousands of holidays and event anniversaries. Events with "magic number" anniversaries (i.e., 10th, 75th, 200th) are often popular subjects with editors. If nothing jumps out at you, pick an unusual holiday and brainstorm related stories.
Medical, technical and scientific breakthroughs make big news. Find a unique angle and net yourself a winning story. You can keep up with the latest breakthroughs by simply going online. Try Medical News Today (www.medicalnewstoday.com), Science Now
(http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org) and, for the techie in all of us, www.technicalnews.com.
Tap into your family's background or dive into another culture. Start with festivals, foods, traditions or superstitions and follow where they lead. You might pen an article about the German tradition of hiding a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree or write about why one Spanish superstition claims you should stay home during a full moon.
Dust off the old.
Old ideas never die; they just crawl into corners and collect dust. You knew those files of old essays, articles and notes would come in handy one day, didn't you? Today is the day. Dust them off and sift through them for ideas that can be updated, expanded or given a new slant for a different market.
Are you overlooking the experts in your life? The trainer who conducts your strength-training course might be good to interview about stretching exercises. Maybe your father-in-law is an expert at keeping squir-rels out of bird feeders. List your experts, then brainstorm story ideas.
Look around for new trends. Fads may come and go, but people love to read about them while they're hot. Fads have spawned specialty magazines on topics as diverse as Japanese anime, Beanie Babies, skateboarders and poker players. What's hot in your city or state? Find an angle; write a story.
From the publication of statistics and studies, to history and housing, government offices provide a wealth of infor-mation to spark ideas. Start at the Federal Citizen Information Center (www.pueblo.gsa.gov). Here you can find links to government publications, an answer hotline, the official government Internet portal and more. A few clicks can lead you to literally thousands of ideas for service articles.
Do you have a foolproof method for staying organized? Do you throw killer parties? From stain-removal tips to troubleshooting computer problems, chances are you know, or would like to learn, a skill that can be translated into a how-to article. Make a list!
Did you have a really great idea last week but, darn it, you just can't remember it now? Your idea book is the place to corral those nuggets so they don't get lost. Buy a spiral notebook just for this purpose, and-here is the important part-keep it with you.
Don't laugh. Many local businesses send fliers, menus and other promotions right to your mailbox. Before you toss them in the recycle bin, ask yourself: Is there a company profile lurking here? A new restaurant review? Would the local paper like an article on bathroom remodeling options?
Think of a keep file as a compost heap for your writing. To start one, all you need is a file folder and an eye for interesting tidbits in newspapers and magazines. Clip the ones that interest you and stow them in your file. Store related items together and attach notes about different approaches, new audiences or story-expansion ideas. The next time you need a spark to get you going, the idea as well as preliminary research and possible angles will already be in your file.
Learn something new.
Take a class, attend a seminar, start a new hobby. By broadening your horizons, you expand the number of topics that immediately come to mind when you need a new idea. And don't forget to make notes about finding your class, seminar or hobby. You can write about those experiences, too.
Visit the library and peruse a year's worth of issues of one magazine you would like to write for. Pay attention to the topics covered in the departments as well as the feature articles. Ideas will occur to you as you read, so be sure to keep your idea book handy for jotting them down.
Play the numbers game. Publications constantly seek numbered lists: The Top 10 Gifts on Everyone's List, The Five Best Remedies for the Common Cold, 15 Places to Spend Spring Break. Do you know 10 ways to keep kids occupied on a rainy day? How about five things every car owner should check before taking a long trip?
You've got opinions, don't you? What burns you up? What makes you want to cheer? You might want to blow off steam about the state of education in your hometown. Maybe you think the next president should be elected using a format like American Idol. Maybe you should be writing these down and sending them out to your local newspaper.
Phone a friend.
Writers need lifelines, too. Sometimes the best way to get out of an idea drought is to brainstorm with someone else who writes. Even if you can't call another writer, a conversation with a friend can steer you toward new ideas. For example: A pal's experience taking his dog to obedience school may get you thinking about pet articles.
Fill a jar with your favorite funny or inspirational quotations. Use them as jumping-off points for articles, opinion pieces and essays. For access to even more quotes, just type "quote of the day" into your favorite search engine.
Read something new.
If you always grab the same magazines and news-papers, break out of your reading rut. Visit the newsstand or library and choose three titles you've never read before. As an added bonus, you'll be learning about a new market for your work.
Check out New This Week, the free weekly e-newsletter from Librarians' Internet Index at www.lii.org. A recent issue included links to 48 sites on topics such as fingerprint identification and Styrofoam craft products.
Tour your town.
Visit new places that open in your town. Heck, make time to revisit the old ones. Strike up conversations with the owners and employees. There might be a travel article, restaurant review or human-interest story right in your own backyard.
Colleges conduct studies and host events. Students and professors win awards. All of these things can lead to article ideas and paychecks for you. To learn about them, look for press releases. The best place to start is a university's Web page. Look for a "News" or "Media Relations" link.
Visit the nonfiction section.
Take a leisurely stroll through the nonfiction stacks at your library. Pause often to thumb through titles that interest you. Be sure to make notes about subjects that catch your eye. (Remember your idea book?) These may be the seeds for your next piece.
Write outside your comfort zone.
If you normally write feature articles, brainstorm filler ideas. Instead of service articles, think about essay topics. Heading in a new direction may be just the spark you need to get ideas flowing.
X=10 (in Roman numerals, at any rate).
Try this brainstorming game: Write 10 topics you are interested in across the top of a sheet of paper. Beneath each one, write 10 subtopics. Example: If one of your topics is aquariums, you might list these subtopics: saltwater, freshwater, size, cleaning, etc. Turn each of the subtopics into the headings for a new sheet of paper and repeat the process. Keep adding subtopics until you can't think of any more. Choose 10 subtopics to write about.
Let your fingers walk you right to your next story idea. Career counselors? How about an article on surviving unemployment? Landscaping? Write a piece about what to plant in problem areas. Trapeze school? Well, you get the idea. Best of all, you can compile a list of interview sources as you go.
If you've worked your way through this guide without getting a new idea, consider a break. It may sound silly, but sometimes the best way to get new ideas is to stop trying. Take a walk, clean the house, draw a picture, stare off into space-anything that doesn't involve writing. Maybe you're having a down day because you are in need of some downtime. Give yourself permission to take some time off.
Barbara A. Tyler
Barbara A. Tyler is a full-time freelance writer with 14 years of experience in generating fresh concepts for articles. In a typical week, she comes up with 50 new query ideas. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Family Circle, FamilyFun and Highlights for Children.
--Posted Dec. 1, 2006