“You know the good thing about writing class?” my middle step-son asked me one evening shortly after the school-year began. “You can write whatever you want.”
I considered the alternative–being forced to write about an assigned topic I knew nothing about–and decided he was correct. Writing about anything you want does present the better option. Sometimes.
For many writers, however, the wide open field of topics to choose from leaves them paralyzed. My youngest step-son falls more firmly in this second camp. On the evenings he brings home a writing assignment, he usually pulls out his notebook from his backpack, carefully selects a pencil from the office caddy in our kitchen, settles into his place at the table, and asks, “What should I write about?”
“Choose something from the list you made,” I suggest, remembering the 50 writing ideas he painstakingly recorded as a homework assignment during the first few weeks of school.
“I don’t want to write about any of those things,” he usually says.
Often, I look at my writing idea list the same way. So how does a writer regularly generate new ideas?
1. Notice What’s Around You
First, I find fodder for the page by noticing the world around me. I look around not just for details and descriptions, but ideas that pique my interest. When I see something that causes me to pause or prompts me to ask a question, I jot it down on my idea list.
2. Notice What Others Are Doing
Also, when I listen, I hear the questions others are asking, the songs they are singing, and stories they are telling. These sounds sometimes give me answers, but often, they lead to more questions, and more ideas to write down on my list.
3. Notice What You’re Already Doing
Then, I consider what I already am writing and the things I am reading and the ways I spend my time. In other words, I mine my own life for the gems waiting to be unhidden through my writing, for the ideas only begun in earlier works, for the rest of the story.
Who knows, the subject of your next writing assignment might be laying right at your feet. Literally. Our dog, Tilly, has been the subject of more than one writing assignment when my son could think of nothing else.
You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
4. Notice What Only Interests You
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that “people love pretty much the same things best. A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”
“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands?” Dillard asks. “Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” (Dillard 67-68)
Of course, “how to generate ideas for writing” is a topic that most writers love best, and in fact, one that many have written on. A quick Google search on generating ideas for writing makes that crystal clear.
So, how do you keep the ideas flowing? Share your best tips in the comments. Or, if you are struggling to know what to write about, tell us about that, too!
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