Sitting in front of a blank screen with the cursor blinking at the top left corner, urging you to start and reminding you that you still haven’t, is one of the most frustrating things for someone wishing to write. Many people struggle with finding the next idea for their article, post, video, or podcast. What most people refer to as “writer’s block” usually means not knowing where to start. Once you have a good idea, it is often easier to play with it and develop it until it becomes a worthy piece of content.
Maybe that is the reason the question “How can I find ideas to write about?” is one of the most frequently asked questions in the context of content development. The common answer is “ideas are everywhere.” And they are. Really. But accepting that ideas are everywhere might not help you notice them, identify them as worthy, and start working on them. To do that, we must first redefine what “a worthy” writing idea is. The common notion is that good content has to be original. And that is why many people find themselves staring at that blank page, waiting for an idea to emerge.
Instead of looking for original ideas, look for authentic ones.
Writing authentically means writing about things you care about, think about, and are connected to. An authentic idea is an idea that makes you think, wonder, and reflect. When you write authentically, you express your own unique voice — your body of work reflects what happens in your mind. And that is the most essential thing you can do to establish a relationship with your audience.
When you come across a potential idea for writing, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I willing to explore this topic as if it is uncharted territory, without taking anything for granted?
- Will writing about this topic make me think, reflect, arrange my thoughts, and possibly gain new insights?
- Will I enjoy writing about this topic?
If the answer to all three questions is “Yes!” you have found an excellent topic for your next piece of content. If you find value in the idea, your audience is likely to gain from it too.
Now, let’s explore three playgrounds in which you can find inspiration for your next authentic writing idea.
Any interaction you are engaged in during the day can inspire ideas for new content.
Any meaningful dialogue with your colleagues, clients, or peers from other disciplines, can produce unexpected seeds for you to develop. Your partners will always have their own view of things. They might have different questions than you have imagined, different concerns, knowledge gaps, or knowledge gems you are not yet aware of. Sometimes you start from a completely different point, looking at things from a completely different perspective. At other times, you are pretty much aligned, but each of you might see different nuances, which trigger further insights.
These differences, which often surface in conversations, are an excellent source for writing ideas. Anything you might be taking for granted or consider trivial can become an appealing topic to explore when you realize other people see it differently. Even if you are 100% sure that your view is the right view (which should seldom happen), exploring different perspectives, what is behind them, and how to address them (or utilize them) is invaluable.
All you have to do is be tuned in to these different perspectives and differences and explore them with genuine interest.
Notice what your conversation partners ask — things not fully clear to them. Pay attention to what they are concerned with — what bothers them. Take note of their line of thought and how they reach their conclusions. Listen carefully, but don’t be passive. When you identify a different perspective, explore it and discuss it with your conversation partner. Either you will change your mind, or you will gain new insights about your colleagues’ views and line of thought. Even a facial expression or an awkward silence can trigger such an exploration, which could quickly turn into a writing idea.
Your own reactions during a conversation are at least as valuable. You might think of questions, be surprised by something someone says, or have some instant insight while engaged in the dialogue. Any of these can be the seed for an excellent piece of content.
The best moments in any conversation are the “a-ha! moments” when either you or your partner (or both) gain some new understanding that was far from being trivial just a second before. These moments are often surprising (and highly rewarding), even if, in retrospect, they seem trivial. When you identify such a moment, cherish it. It is likely to encapsulate a priceless topic to write about. It might require some thought and development, but if you can recreate this a-ha! moment in your audience’s mind, it will be worth the effort.
A different kind of dialogue involves an allegedly silent partner. It is the dialogue running inside your head while reading, listening to, or watching professional material.
There is no shortage of professional books, articles, conferences, podcasts, webinars, and meetups on practically any topic and any domain. These resources are essential for gaining knowledge, staying up to date, and keeping yourself in shape. What many people don’t consider, however, is that these resources can be more than just a source of knowledge and information. The best resources make you think. They evoke response and trigger mental conversations. When you become aware of these internal dialogues, you can easily use them as inspiration for creating your own content.
I often read articles and books I don’t entirely agree with. It is not that I necessarily know better or know best. Some of them are based on the writer’s personal experience and views, which might be different than mine. In some of the texts, data is presented, but often it is open to interpretation or can be seen differently when placed in a different context. I try not to take anything for granted regardless of the professional authority of the writer.
I use the text as a trigger for thinking about the subject and having a dialogue with the writer, even if they cannot physically respond. Sometimes, I realize I am fully convinced (or that the author managed to capture something perfectly aligned with my views on the subject). In such cases, I might use the text as a reference if I ever need it. But when my perspective is not fully aligned with the text, I take special note: this might actually be an interesting thing to write about. My different view or interpretation is not necessarily “the right” one. But this intellectual conflict is a good indication for a non-trivial point to explore. If I manage to capture this tension in writing, it is likely to be relevant and interesting.
Simplifying ideas written by others and making them more accessible to your audience is another form of professional inspiration. Often, you will find yourself processing what you read, deconstructing it in your head, or looking for additional examples and metaphors to support the idea. Sharing your own twist on the ideas of others, even when you fully agree with them, can provide new value, especially when your target audience is not identical to the target audience of the content that has triggered these insights.
But maybe the most fascinating aspect of professional inspiration is when you manage to fuse different resources, even resources from other domains, into a new idea. The more diverse the content you consume — the more it spans across areas you are less familiar with — the more exciting and non-trivial ideas you will generate.
When I was deeply engaged in writing The Creativity Operating System, I read Peter Gray’s excellent book, Free to Learn. It is about the importance of Play in the context of education and how Free Play can be the center of meaningful, profound learning. I found Gray’s ideas fascinating in their original context, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about applying Gray’s definition of Play in the context of enabling creativity. As I read the book, I was constantly in a dialogue with it, trying to see how each of the elements of Play could be applied to adults, and more specifically, in a business context. Eventually, Play became an essential part of The Creativity Operating System model, and the practices that promote Play are directly derived from Gray’s definition. I found inspiration in professional content from a completely different domain and fused it into the context I was working in.
Maria Popova has taken the idea of Professional inspiration to its extreme in her blog The Marginalian where practically her entire body of work is based on her thoughts, insights, and commentary on the writings of others. Her internal dialogues with books and people often shed new light on a subject. And although the trigger is always external, Popova’s writing is authentic and driven by what happens in her mind.
A few months ago, as I was taking my morning walk, I noticed a tree in the park. The sun was just rising, so what caught my attention was the long shadow the tree had cast. I remember thinking to myself that if I observe only the shadow, my perception of the tree will change over time based on where the sun is in the sky. I will see something completely different in a couple of hours without changing the tree itself or me, the observer. When I came back home, I started to design an article about The Three Dimensions of Change, one of them being changing the projection on the subject.
This random observation, which was unexpected and external to any writing context, sparked an idea. It took a couple of days for the concept to fully sink in and a bit more to design and write the article. But the idea wouldn’t have crossed my mind without this accidental inspiration.
When people say “ideas are everywhere,” this is precisely what they mean. Anything you see, hear, or experience can trigger an idea, a metaphor, or an association that can evolve into your next piece of content. A random walk is an excellent opportunity to capture such ideas. Any movie, story, or news article can be equally inspiring. All you have to do is observe mindfully, keep your senses and mind open, and take note when something makes you pause and wonder. Fusing such interesting random bits with the theme of your content is not always possible, but in many cases, it is. Even if the inspiration you find cannot be developed into a whole idea that will sustain an article, often you will discover it can be used to spice up your text or connect to a more significant, more profound thought.
You don’t have to explicitly mention the source of inspiration in your content. Maybe the connection is too weak or associative to communicate effectively. Or perhaps it is too specific, and your audience will not find value in recognizing the source. The point of accidental inspiration is just that: to be an inspiration. As often is the case, by the time you finish working on your content, the source of inspiration is no longer important. If you do wish to refer to the origin of the idea as an example, a metaphor, or an anecdote, make sure the connection is natural and not forced.
Ideas are literally everywhere. You can have a casual conversation with colleagues or clients, read a piece of professional text, or simply take a walk in the park and stumble upon a fantastic idea for your next article, podcast, or book. Seizing these opportunities — what you care about and provoke you to think — makes your content authentic.
But here’s the thing: even if you are mindful and aware of these sparks of ideas, they are volatile. As easy as it is to notice them in real-time, it is easy to move on and lose them forever. That is why it is essential that you capture these bits of ideas on the fly, in real-time , even if you are not sure they are worthy.
Always have a voice recorder app, a note-taking app, or a physical notebook available. Whenever a seed of an idea pops in your head, take a couple of seconds to write it down. You don’t need to develop it in real-time. One or two sentences to remind you of the essence of the idea will do perfectly. It might seem awkward at first, but in no time, your voice or textual notes will become the first thing you open when you need an idea for your next piece of content.
Think of something that has happened to you during the past week: an insightful conversation, something you have read, or an accidental discovery. Consider how you could evolve it into an authentic piece of content.
When reading, watching, or listening to a piece of content, try to identify (even if it is only a guess) its origin: how did the content creator come up with the idea?