You know what muscle you don’t use enough? Well, it’s not the brain, because the brain isn’t actually a muscle. But that’s the focus of my column today – how to get your brain in shape to supply you with great ideas you can sell to editors and outlets.
As any writer knows – or at least the writers who have attended any social event where the other guests know your occupation – the second most-popular comment is “where do you get your ideas?” *The most popular comment is “I have a great idea for a book.”
So, let’s get right to it. Faced with deadlines, family and social distractions, and an empty laptop screen, how do you get the inspiration to fill the electronic paper? It’s as simple as getting your brain used to succeeding. Creativity and ideas can be (and often are) the result of the right preparation.
According to a 2009 Newsweek article, the brain can be trained http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/nurture-shock/2009/12/11/is-the-brain-like-a-muscle-really.html#. Their piece was more focused on children, but it gives some insight into how the brain works. So I’m positing that with a careful and targeted approach, you can train yourself to regularly develop fun, interesting ideas that will appeal to readers.
Start off by telling yourself that brainstorming is fun. It’s not deadline-based and you can trash 90% of your ideas without losing significant time and energy investment. Seriously. All you’re doing is creating a list of topics from which you can flesh out salable pieces.
Locate your muse place
You’ve heard it before, so it might sound repetitive, but finding a comfortable place to write is the first step. Put yourself in a location where you’ve been successful in the past. If you write best at 2AM in a beanbag chair in the greenhouse, then go there to brainstorm.
My favorite spot is the couch. I can flick on the TV without sound and begin my brainstorm. Your spot can be anywhere that’s both mentally and physically comfortable. Many writers do their brainstorming with a notebook on public transportation or while sitting on a park bench. Whatever works for you is fine.
Establish a routine
Once you’ve picked a place, use it every time you are ready to brainstorm. Then pick some consistent actions to get the most from your musings. I find that using a laptop and word-processing program works for me. I have to fight against from drifting over to Twitter and other social media sites, but the upside is that I have the Internet at my fingertips if I need to research a topic or paste in pertinent links.
If you look at my Macbook desktop, you’ll see multiple documents named “xxxxxxNotes”. What I do, when exploring blog post, column and article ideas is open a new document and start banging on the keys. I put down the most simple statement I can for each idea – one that doesn’t get bogged down in specifics, but is detailed enough to spur my brain back to task if and when I decide to write that piece.
*I’m writing this column right now in front of the TV on a couch and for the next two minutes I’ll put down all the article ideas I can think of. And I’ll do it in the format I use when I’m actually brainstorming. Really.
Is household pottery and artwork dangerous to children?
How does the Food Network create new shows and develop the ones pitched to it.
How did we first figure out that we could eat coconuts?
What is the amount of money people spend annually on average on golf?
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could create technology that would mute your TV when the phone rings in the house?
Which spiders can kill you?
What’s Lance Armstrong going to do now that he’s finally retired?
Why are people so afraid of insects?
Are convertibles less safe than full-roof vehicles?
Is the airline industry going to loosen up their baggage and change-fee requirements to meet consumer demand?
What causes shin splints?
Does chocolate really cause a physiological response in humans? Is this response more prevalent in women than in men?
TWO minutes up. Now, if you go back over that list, you might see a couple ideas that could really result in rich, informative articles. I’ll scrap the rest and then try to identify venues that might be interested in them. It’s actually as simple as that.
To break it down, all I did was look around me and let everything I saw stimulate my imagination. If you’re not used to doing that, start practicing.
When you see a stranger in the supermarket, try to come up with a story about them. Better still, create an article idea like “cooking for the single vegan – how to eat healthy and remain on a budget.”
When you see someone walking their dog, you might come up with “how the Westminster Kennel Club influences pet names based on winning canines.”
Still stumped – resources around you
If you’re still not convinced that you can get your mind working in the right direction, then resort to other methods. There are online repositories of blog-post ideas http://www.chrisbrogan.com/100-blog-topics-i-hope-you-write/ . There is a magic thing called the Internet that can lead you in different directions based on what people are talking about.
Both Google and http://search.twitter.com offer up trending topic information so you can stay on top of what people are discussing online. These can both serve to spur your imagination and give you ideas that might resonate with editors.
And when all else fails, look at the calendar. Magazines and other publications are famous for writing the same articles every year at the same time. Go to the library and scour the magazine archives going back a few years. See what your favorite magazines examine every April and see if you can come up with an idea that has a fresh spin. Do the same for each month and you’ll be well on your way to creating articles for these publications.
Finally, listen carefully to your inner voice when you’re living your life. The questions you ask and the conversations you have are probably similar to those an entire population of readers has regularly. Flesh out those ideas and solve a problem, and you’ll have valuable ideas that any editor would be proud to feature.
Brainstorming isn’t all that difficult – and it’s definitely easier than writing a complete article. So, find your happy place, train your brain to take in information from everywhere. Focus on the stuff that has sold in the past and the ideas editors yearn for every year.
You’ll soon have a repository of ideas that you can pull from whenever your muse deserts you. And if all else fails, write an article about how hard it is to brainstorm article ideas. All the people at cocktail parties and social events are a perfect audience for that piece.
For more information about Jeff Cutler, visit him online at JeffCutler.com.