It’s the hard part.
The thing about being a writer that isn’t necessarily all that awesome.
Sometimes it’s the part that makes you doubt yourself, doubt your creativity and abilities, maybe even doubt whether this whole professional writing thing really makes sense for you.
“What the &$%# am I going to write about this week?”
– All writers, at least sometimes
Perhaps not all writers. Surely there are some who never face their content deadlines thinking, “This would be the perfect time to fake my own death.”
Like those people who stay magically thin while consuming a steady diet of packaged cookies and beer, I don’t much want to hear from those people. Let’s talk about you and me, instead.
This month, I asked our editorial team for their favorite techniques when they need a writing topic and there’s nothing bubbling at the moment.
Here’s what they came up with:
Brian Clark, Copyblogger founder and Rainmaker Digital CEO
Read. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, and it’s usually better if it’s not about content marketing or even business. I’ll end up finding some interesting fact or idea that I can connect with something I already know. That’s the spark that leads to an article topic.
Chris Garrett, chief digital officer
- Go into Facebook.
- Search for [keyword] groups.
- Join the largest groups and see what people are asking.
- Find an inspiring question.
- Write a long-form answer.
Jerod Morris, lead podcast cheerleader
I podcast instead. 😉
Seriously. Some of my most useful articles have come out of preparation for a podcast. The process of prepping for the podcast, by either writing a script (which for some reason always feels less intimidating to me than writing an article) or preparing bullet points, almost always presents me with something that can become an article.
With a script, the work is almost totally done. It just needs to be reworked to be read instead of heard. And if it’s bullet points, then I use the process of recording the podcast to flesh out the ideas verbally before refining them into an article.
Loryn Thompson, data analyst
If I can, I’ll talk to people in my audience — just casual conversation about what’s on their minds. That usually surfaces a few things that I might not have thought of, or reframes things in a different way.
Another tried-and-true tactic is to just start writing anyway, even if you don’t know what you’re going to write about. Sit down at a keyboard, turn off all your notifications, and just do a stream-of-consciousness mind dump. Keep going until you hit on something that gets you excited.
Also, for me it helps to separate the idea-generation and the actual article-creation work. They’re different states of mind, and I’ve found I can come up with many more topics when I’m in a free-association mode than when I’m panicking about creating the article I will publish next.
Even if they aren’t all perfect, a list of random, free-associated ideas is a better starting point than the blank page.
Kim Clark, VP of operations
I feel like explaining my favorite techniques for what I do when I don’t know what to write is like asking me about my spirituality. It totally makes sense in my head, but when I try to type it or say it out loud, I sound like an idiot.
But here it goes … this is where my obsessive and anxiety-driven personality is an asset. I sit and constantly think.
This can work against me in many ways, but usually I spend a good amount of time thinking of really stupid things to say. I know this because my husband gets one of those looks on his face that says, “What are you thinking? … Please don’t say that.”
Most often, this dilemma solves itself around 3:00 a.m. when I have amazing ideas. I really should be sleeping, but my brain thinks: “No, this is the time to actually solve everything at once, including what to write about.” So I try to write it all down.
Somehow, when I sit down to actually write, the words come out. Usually they make sense. A lot of times, there are extensive edits that need to be made.
But I do have to say, some of those 3:00 a.m. ideas are brilliant. I just wish my brain would want to sleep when my body needs to.
Stefanie Flaxman, editor-in-chief
I like writing about this topic!
Here are three posts about finding ideas to write about. The first one is the most recent and includes a story about a bird that kept waking me up at 4:00 a.m.:
- The Best Place to Consistently Find Winning Content Ideas
- This Is How You Become a Writer
- How to Write 16 Knockout Articles When You Only Have One Wimpy Idea
My bonus tip is listening whenever other people talk.
It’s easy to zone out — especially after work when you’re tired — but staying present and curious about what other people say enriches your creation process. It helps you connect the dots between ideas that lead to more interesting content.
For example, I recently had a seemingly pointless conversation about how the construction of standard toilets has more or less stayed the same for decades, while advancements in cell phone technology have skyrocketed over the last 10 years.
That concept might show up somewhere in future content I write. Maybe it just did. 😉
Kelton Reid, VP of multimedia production
When I don’t know what to write, it’s usually not a matter of not having done enough research or frantic scribbling of notes in a notebook. For me it usually means I haven’t given my initial thoughts and ideas enough air, and by that I mean I haven’t let my brain do some of the important work for me.
I’ve found that before I can have critical insights into what I need to write, the ideas need to incubate, just a link in the chain of the creative process.
Einstein named it “… combinatory play … the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words ….” (I mentioned it here: 21 Productivity Hacks from 21 Prolific Writers.)
I put my phone in sleep mode, put on the headphones, dial up some ambient music (wordless is best), and go for a run around the park. With my phone strapped to my arm, I can’t check email, get notifications, or do anything other than run and daydream.
Having had a break from the busy, those ideas tend to solidify themselves. With a renewed vigor, I’m then ready to grab them from the ether and get them onto some paper or into a rough draft in a doc.
Sonia Simone, chief content officer
It’s sort of my job to always have topics to write and podcast about, but that doesn’t make it (at all) easy.
I’ve been known to use just about every technique mentioned here, but my go-to, year-in and year-out, is to capture the ideas as they’re flying past, so I have them when I need them.
My creative journal has evolved from a collection of notes in Evernote to a physical object stuffed with drawings, washi tape, colored pencil doodles, and lots and lots of ink.
Once I find a scrap of an idea that seems worth working on, I have a strong set of processes that I rely on to take that scribbled idea and turn it into a solid piece of writing or recorded work. Those processes are probably directly responsible for allowing me to keep what remains of my sanity.
Is it easy to find a topic when I need one? Not particularly. I have to sift through doodles and arrows and ink blots and random circled words.
But it works. I’ve been producing content nearly every week — including, at varying times, blog posts, podcast episodes, and educational content for paid communities — since around 2008. Every week I wonder if I’ll be able to do it again. And every week I do.
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