Today’s blog post is brought to us by an excellent writer, fellow editor, and good friend of mine, Christi Martin. Check out her byline at the bottom of the post, and join us as we learn about generating ideas for our writing projects, from novels to business essays.
I was infamous in Ms. K’s fourth-grade class for reading during math lessons. I couldn’t help it—the library books I half-hid under the edge of my desk were always far more fascinating than multiplication tables. I dreamed about one day writing something like Redwall or National Geographic. I wanted to be able to captivate readers as I had been captivated—to keep them turning pages, delighted by a world which I could show them.
In school, writing students are given prompts. But when it came to generating ideas on my own, I fell disappointingly short. Whether I was writing an article for the school newspaper, a biography for history class, or struggling with a fictional world, my ideas always seemed far too flat, far too fake, to ever be destined for a life beyond the word processor. Idea generation, I found, is not some mystical practice mastered only by the Mark Twains of the world.
Good ideas, although skittish, are attainable by average writers like you and I, and are more easily generated with practice. How do we as ordinary writers develop this skill efficiently? How can we grab hold of a hazy idea and mold it into something truly unique? The answer is elusive yet simple: read, record, and write!
Fourth-grade me had this one down. I read everything I could get my hands on, even cereal boxes. When I maxed out my library book limits, I raided my parents’ shelves. Reading is undoubtedly the most exciting part about idea generation—and the most diverse. Sometimes all it takes is a mash-up of two very different things, like marriage psychology and Star Trek. For instance, how would a bride of an alien race prepare for marriage? How has the science fiction genre affected modern-day marriage on Earth? Written material is full of inspiring concepts waiting to be discovered or reinvented. Here are a few tips on how to get inspired while you read:
READ TO LEARN. Read about things you have passion for. Make time to research things that interest you. Search engines are a writer and reader’s best friend in the Internet age. If you feel strongly about something, seek out the opinions of people who disagree with you. Try to see life from other peoples’ perspectives. Life and writing are both more interesting because people are different.
READ OUTSIDE OF YOUR FAVORITE GENRES AND MEDIUMS. Dabble with news articles, academic journals, poems, comics, and blog posts (hint, wink). Explore print magazines, novels, and short stories. The more you learn, the more tidbits you will find to put together something all your own!
READ GOOD WRITING. No matter your genre or field, there is the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy. Learn to recognize the qualities of good writing, and mimic them! Not only will you glean ideas from the content you read, you will learn to be a better writer by exposing yourself to many different writing styles. If you are interested in the art of critical reading, check out the famous book by Thomas C. Foster: How to Read Literature like a Professor.
READ INTO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE. Great ideas don’t limit themselves to the minds of great geniuses at work—they can occur to you while washing the dishes, talking with friends, or people-watching at your nearest shopping center.
Great ideas are useless if you can’t remember them. As soon as you have that light-bulb moment—like, what if backpacks were sentient?—write it down! Once you have it written down, you can put it through rigorous testing and development with a prewriting tool. Here are a few examples of tools you can use to record and cultivate those awesome ideas:
DAYDREAMING. Believe it or not, most of my amazing ideas occur to me while I’m daydreaming. Whether you’re taking a break at work or cleaning the house, a little focused daydreaming can enable you to latch onto an idea. Make sure you have a game plan for when that zinger idea occurs to you in the shower. I keep a note saved on my phone specifically for those marvelous concepts that often strike me right as I am drifting off to sleep. Some people use voice-recorders, physical notebooks, or even the back of their hands in a pinch. Capture those genius thoughts. With focus and practice, you could have dozens of puzzle-pieces of a plot taking shape on a page in minutes!
STRUCTURED NOTES. Brainstorming, mind-mapping, story-boarding, and outlining are very practical and universally useful to all writers. Whether you are visual, auditory, or kinetic in your learning style, you can find a tool to work for you. Brainstorming aloud with others in your writing group, scribbling down ideas or facts in lists, connecting intricate webs of logical relationships, or drawing out a scene can mold that lumpy mental picture into a solid idea that you can save for later.
DISCOVER WRITING. This is a personal favorite of mine. Discovery writing involves taking an underdeveloped idea (like that sentient backpack one) and writing a scene about it, free-flow. Free-flow writing is unique because it can help you work out some of the details in a plot without having the entire structure of a piece pre-prepared. If a bulleted outline stresses you out as a writer, discovery writing can help you regain that creative spark of purpose you need to make progress. Beware blank-page syndrome with this technique, however. If your ideas won’t flow freely, use a different tool first to get them out of your head and onto the page.
As you grow in your writing ability, you will also grow in confidence. Don’t worry about the originality of your ideas. If you are passionate about sharing them, then the quality of your work will show in your follow-through. Be bold with your first draft, and recognize that it will be hideous at first. Shakespeare didn’t vomit his words on parchment in perfect iambic pentameter, and neither will you.
Build yourself a stable support system, whether it is through a writing group, writing partner, or an editor to help keep you accountable for self-imposed deadlines. Then, stick to them! Once you have more than scribbles on a napkin to work with, you will be surprised by how accomplished you feel.
Don’t allow new ideas to lure you away from your current projects. As a young writer, I was easily seduced by revelations that seemed far more exciting than what I was working on. As a result, I hardly finished any of the projects I started. Instead of flitting from idea to idea, write them down (so they won’t be forgotten) and persevere with your current project. One of my favorite authors is C.S. Lewis, and his words from Mere Christianity encourage me every time I force myself to write through an inspiration drought.
Generating good ideas, then, requires all three: seeing the truth where it lies by reading, taking the time to record and develop it, and ultimately telling the truth by writing. Once a finished masterpiece, your idea about the sentient backpack might just inspire fourth-graders everywhere.
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An avid blogger and fiction author, Christi Martin is a Christ-centered communicator dedicated to writing as a practical tool and art form. You can find her blog at http://hispurposeprevails.blogspot.com/