Finding the perfect idea is the holy grail for every writer. It’s the hope for a magical gift of fame and prosperity bestowed upon a lucky few by a fickle muse. Millions of aspiring authors have thought “if only I could find the perfect idea, I, too, could be wealthy and famous.”
It’s complete bull, of course, but the belief persists. Tomes have been written (and will forever be written) and sold on the best ways to find million-dollar ideas. Writers line up to pay for the snake oil, willing participants in the farce. I admit guilty participation over the years, too.
There are two reasons we engage in this charade. The first is the belief that the perfect idea exists, that it’s hiding out there waiting to be discovered. This notion is completely false. Besides, it’s common knowledge there are no new ideas, only the re-hash of old ideas. Every possible topic has already been covered so you should quit trying to reinvent the wheel. Once you have accepted that the perfect idea is a myth, it makes overcoming the second reason easier.
The second reason is human laziness. We do not want to do any more work than is required to achieve the desired result. Finding good ideas takes a lot of work and can be quite difficult. We often put off doing the work in exchange for a several hour diversion on Google searching for snipe. Once we acknowledge there is no such thing as the perfect idea, however, it makes sitting down to the work of finding good ideas much more palatable.
The search for the ultimate idea is thus reduced to just another slog that must be done as part of each writer’s daily life. The methods in which writers engage to accomplish this task vary from serendipitous blundering to the systematic. There is no one right way. Getting the job done is what matters.
Some methods are more productive than others. I believe my method works well, and I will share it with you in a moment. Before I do, I want to make sure you understand my goal with regard to idea formation.
When I write I try to deliver a message worth sending. This is different than some writers. Some deliberately write toward a financial goal, or in a quest for approval and popularity. This practice is ethically questionable. Your work should not be deliberately designed for the acquisition of fame and financial gain. Art should convey your message for the value of the message itself. If the world likes it and chooses to reward you for it, that’s a bonus.
I search for the idea nugget, not the complete, fully-planned idea. This means that my ideas are often short phrases rather than catchy titles, or references to other ideas I have had. They never include any kind of outline or specific notes on how I plan to approach the topic. They are just seeds.
The “seed approach” becomes powerful when used within the framework of my daily idea ritual. Every day, including holidays and my birthday, I do the same thing. I work on ideas for twenty to thirty minutes. More if the work is going well. Here’s how it works.
I keep a spreadsheet on my Google Drive account for my ideas. Any record keeping method will work, though. Its form is irrelevant. The goal is to keep the ideas somewhere you can easily work with all of them.
For each idea you will record the seed thought, the date you created it, the date you wrote about it, the date it was published, and the word count. You may want a note field if you have some extra data you want to keep tied to the idea. Sometimes I use the notes to record references to other material or people so I can jog my memory when I’m scanning my list. Most of these data are self-explanatory. The seed merits more discussion.
When you record the seed, be careful how you word it. You should not be thinking about an article title, SEO, or where it may fit into your blog’s focus. It’s just a basic idea at this point, a hazy thought that may be worth pursuing. Consider this example: “20 Sure-fire Ways to Come Up With Instantly Publishable Writing Ideas”. This is an article title. It looks like something you would see on the cover of a tabloid magazine. This is not what you should be doing. Instead, consider “List of ways to come up with ideas”. Understand the difference? The seed captures the essence, not the details. The seed is broader than your final topic refinement. It exists to get you going down the right path.
You may wonder “what does it matter how I word it?” The importance of writing it in vague language is there are often several ways you can use each seed. If you write it like a title, you’re likely to only think of the idea in that tightly defined manner. Give yourself some leeway to reconsider or expand upon your ideas later by keeping them vaguely worded. More than once a broad seed has yielded numerous great ideas for me.
When you do the idea ritual every day, a neat thing happens. Over the course of days and weeks, you develop a substantial list of idea seeds, more than you can write about in a single day. Think of this list as your idea bank. You make deposits every day. You may or may not make a withdrawal every day. Just make sure you add more than you take, just like your bank account! I try for five seeds per day. That usually keeps me well ahead of my consumption and allows for the unavoidable duds to be culled from the list.
The true power of this approach is apparent on days when you just can’t come up with a good idea to save your life. At such times, you can go to your idea list and select from the hundreds you have already recorded. You will always have good ideas you can use.
One last piece of advice: try not to think about the ideas as “good” or “bad” while recording them. Your job is to think about topics that interest you without judging them or trying to forecast their writeability. Later, when it’s time to write, you deem the idea as “worthy” of your time, or not. It’s never good or bad. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Some of your seeds will just plain stink, which should be expected. When you’re mining for gold you have to move tons of dirt to find a nugget.
This method has worked extremely well for me in many areas of my career, not just my writing. The targeted brainstorming approach can be applied to any endeavor. Give it a try. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.