Poets and Writers Toolkit: 4 Ways to Generate Writing Ideas

“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!

Photo by Visual  Panic. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig. 


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  1. says

    I love all your ideas, Charity!

    I much prefer to be assigned a topic or person I know nothing about and dive in and try to make it interesting to a general audience than to come up with something on my own. I slave so much over my little 800-word columns that I have to generate each month.

    • says

      Megan – I think you are right that the ability to research and interview and explore really opens up almost any topic to a writer. Sometimes, however, I struggle to make a personal connection to an assigned topic and my writing feels stale. Do you have any tips for how you “make it interesting” to your readers? And how do you ultimately come up with the ideas for your 800-word columns?

  2. says

    Hmmm. Just this week, I realized I need to turn something in at The Curator. It’s a wide-open deal.

    So I thought about what’s been on my mind: that we are starving our senses by too much time spent online and indoors and not touching things and the loved-ones in our spaces.

    Then I let it percolate for a few days and nothing. And nothing. And nothing. Then I started telling myself what I believe: a writer can write any day. Nothing. Nothing.

    My daughter started talking about Physics yesterday. Hmmm. Physics is cool. The idea led me to thoughts about forces. Hmmm. The wind is a force. Trees have died without it (read the Curator article for that tidbit). And astronauts lived without the force of gravity and…

    well, you see. Next thing you know, I was researching Biosphere 2, astronauts and osteoporosis, and it folded into my morning walk and the force it exerts on my senses. Beads on a necklace. Like the ghazal. And, each one needing attention and interest.

    Long and short of it: reach inside, yes, but reach outside to intriguing aspects of the world, history, science, cool quotes. String it together, bead by bead.


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