How do you keep ideas flowing? How do you create a wealth of ideas to choose from? How do you make sure you get to the one killer idea that will make your advert, novel, article or blog post really stand out from the rest?
Some people like to wait for inspiration to strike. Most professional writers, however, don’t have that luxury. You need ideas every working day, not just every now and then.
Luckily, there is a formula for producing ideas on a consistent basis. Of course, like all formulas, it has its limits. You can’t constrain creativity, and to only ever use one method for coming up with ideas would be utter madness.
But if you need to produce strong and creative ideas regularly as part of your writing career, then it pays to know the formula, and how to use it.
First of all, what is an idea? Well, according to James Webb Young in his book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’, first published in the 1940s:
“An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”
So how do you combine old elements into new? Luckily, Young tells us:
“The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.”
Young says the ability to see relationships between facts is the most important factor in coming up with ideas. This, he says, is a habit of mind “which can be cultivated.”
How do you cultivate it? By reading widely, taking an active interest in life, the world, people around you, a wide variety of subjects and areas of study.
There is also a formula, however, a five step plan which Young outlined in his book. By adding two more steps, you can complete a virtuous circle with a feedback loop that refines and extends your creativity.
So, the seven steps to having ideas are:
Step 1 – Gather your information
Information is the raw material from which ideas are born. There are two types of relevant information, specific and general.
General information includes just about anything and everything, and gathering it is a lifelong exercise. It basically comes down to general knowledge and education, and can be cultivated through the usual channels: reading widely and having an active interest in life and the world around you, and in particular in people, how they live, what they think and how they behave.
Specific information is directly relevant to the topic in hand. You clearly need to get all the specific information you can lay your hands on. If you’re writing an advert for a product or service, you would expect the client to come up with most of it, although you’ll probably want to do some of you own research as well. If you’re writing a blog post on a topic, you’ll need to gather your information from far and wide.
These days, gathering information is a much faster process thanks to the internet. The down side to that is you’ll need to be judicious, and discard that which isn’t really relevant. Otherwise, you’re likely to get overwhelmed during step 2, where you have to sift the information.
Step 2 – Sift the information
Work over the information, turning it over and around until you see how it all fits together. A direct pursuit of ‘meaning’ might be counterproductive. You may need to try a subtle approach, and sneak up on the topic, looking at things from various angles.
If small snippets of ideas start coming to you at this stage, write them down, even if they seem crazy.
The more you turn and sift the information, the better you understand it, the easier it will be to see and really understand the relationships. And the more ideas you will have.
Step 3 – Let the information bubble
The next stage is to let the information bubble away for a while, keep it on simmer in your mind. You need to let your unconscious mind work on it for a time. It’s a good idea to do something else for a while, to stimulate your imagination and emotions. Try reading, listening to music, meditate, go for a walk, while your mind digests the facts.
Or you could try the traditional approach – take a warm bath and wait for the eureka moment.
Step 4 – Eureka! Let the ideas flow
It’s at this stage that ideas should start to appear, as if from ‘nowhere’. This is where you hope for a ‘Eureka’ moment. The answer to your problem may appear to leap into your mind for no apparent reason.
But what if it doesn’t come? You keep going, writing down the best ideas you can come up with. If your ideas aren’t strong enough yet, don’t panic, because you’ll get to have another go at this part of the process. So take the very best ideas you can come up with, and move on to step five.
Step 5 – Shape and develop your idea
Now your idea needs to be shaped and moulded, turned into something real. This where your writing skills come to the fore.
Step 6 – Share your idea
Now show your idea to others and see what they think. They may be able to add to it and make it better. That may spark new ideas, and so the process becomes ever more creative.
Step 7 – Rinse and repeat
If necessary, use the feedback you got in step 6, and add that to the information you gathered in step 1. Now repeat step 2, sifting the new information with the existing facts. Then repeat steps 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Keep it going, until you have the best idea you can come up with, or you hit the deadline, and have to go with what you have developed so far.
So, the good news is that you can learn to be more creative and have stronger ideas. You:
- Gather the information
- Sift it
- Let it percolate
- Let the ideas flow
- Shape and mould the ideas
- Share them with others
- Put the feedback into the loop; and repeat the process to strengthen your ideas.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, despite what I said at the start about the importance of ideas – and don’t get me wrong they are important – despite that, the truth is that having ideas is the easy part of writing.