- Michael Thompson
My biggest challenge isn’t coming up with ideas, it’s fighting to find the best ones. When I started writing four years ago, I never thought this would be the case as publishing 10 posts felt like it might as well be 8,732.
But it’s true what they say — “The more you write, the easier it becomes!” — as much like our verbal conversations, the doors our written word open can take us down endless rabbit holes.
The key is starting.
And then waking up each day and starting again.
I’m a big believer that my friend Jake Daghe is right — not having a smartphone for a good chunk of my life gives me a massive edge over younger writers as my curiosity took me all over the globe before technology began to take everyone’s attention.
That being said, as still a relative newbie to the creative world, to get inspiration, I still have to cheat. In fact, I cheat a lot. And I do that by doing any one of the 31 things below.
Set a goal for publishing only one article a week
I’ve been doing this for four years. Sure, sometimes I get out more than one post a week, but my goal has always been and will always be just one.
This is for the simple fact that unless I’m in a serious rut or I get hit by a car, I should find a way to write at least 600 words in 10,080 hours. Plus, with two young kids and a lot of other interests, it keeps me from burning out.
The number one problem I see with writers is they terrorize themselves — “I’m not as fast as Tim Denning!” they say. “I’ll never make a living as a writer!”
No offense to Tim as he’s a seriously talented bloke. But just because he can sit down like Mozart and make consistent magic on his Mac doesn’t mean that’s how all of us best operate.
Your primary job as a creator is to forget what every other writer is doing and find your pace and own it.
Just a few years ago, if you published 52 articles a year you were considered prolific. Today, writers consider themselves slow or even stupid. This is ludicrous. I’d be willing to bet the only person who’s putting pressure on yourself to publish every day of the week and twice on Sunday is you.
As soon as you hit publish on your weekly article — whether that’s first thing Monday morning or 11:59 on Sunday night — congratulate yourself for doing what 99.9 percent of the population can’t do.
Whether you see it or not, you’re already winning.
Get a job that covers your basic living expenses
Some people say we should burn our boats and go all-in on our passions. If you clicked on this article and consistently struggle to come up with ideas, worrying about paying your bills probably isn’t going to help you create the work you want to make.
We live in a new world. There have never been more ways to monetize your words than there is today.
But don’t forget every gold rush in history has quite a few more casualties than winners.
Sit down and get clear on the exact number you need to make each month to live. Then work to identify how you can hit that number as quickly as possible each month without using up all your brain space.
Knowing that I can support my family with my consulting and coaching work not only keeps me from flipping out. Getting out into the world also energizes me as I’m yet to find a source for article ideas — despite being an introvert — that’s more effective than consistent human interaction.
Keep a breathing document of micro-stories
Whether you struggle to come up with article ideas or not, this is a no-brainer. Our job as creators isn’t only to make stuff, but also to collect stuff.
If I come across one or two interesting things a day that can at some point make their way into an article, I’ve won.
What interesting thing happened today?
What interesting thing happened yesterday?
What about the day before?
A great deal of the text below is geared towards helping you uncover and even create those moments. But if you aren’t collecting them you’re sabotaging yourself because the pros I know who type for a living collect everything they find.
Keep a quote book of what people say to you
“My favorite thing about today is nobody bit me!”
“The fastest way to get what you want is by hanging out with people who already have it!”
“The saddest part about getting older is seeing how intellectually dead some of my friends have chosen to become!”
“There isn’t a lack of beauty in the world, most people just stopped looking for it!”
All of these thoughts that sparked an article came from people in my life.
Work hard to be a better listener and observer. Write down the stories and brilliant thoughts of others. If you’re going to write about the human experience it sure helps if you like the people who make up the collective human experience.
Write about a time you turned into a tomato
For a few years when I was a teenager, I had “backme” and this embarrassed the hell outta me. Around the same time, I was invited to a pool party and the girl I had a crush on was set to be there.
So as any clever kid would do, I put calamine lotion all over my back to cover up the pots. Needless to say, when I jumped in the pool, some of the water turned pink, and when I got out of the pool my face was as bright as a tomato.
That wasn’t so hard.
Now you go!
Keep a quote book of people you don’t know
Much like collecting your own thoughts and what people you know say to you, collecting your favorite quotes from stuff you read is a must.
I have a growing list that I read a few times a month that consistently spark ideas and I’m always cruising through the best quotes from interesting people.
Just do yourself a favor and read wider than Dale Carnegie and whatever Stoic has risen from the dead to drive claps in 2021.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather read a less common but seriously interesting quote you came across than one that’s played out on Pinterest.
Plus, despite Carnegie sharing a lot of wisdom in his day, doesn’t mean all of it is applicable for today.
Do this thought exercise
Close your eyes for 20 minutes and in roughly five-minute increments choose either one theme in your life or one person and think back to your first memory — then move through your life until today while trying to focus solely on that theme or person.
Once you’re done with the first round, keep your eyes closed and start with your most recent memory and move backward to your first memory.
When you’re finished with the first “back-and-forth” round, jot down a few notes of what you saw and then do the exercise again while consistently asking yourself if you saw anything new.
If you struggle to pick a theme, try starting with your birthday and think about what you were doing and how you were feeling during each year. Then move to the people you’ve kissed or even the biggest victories or successes you’ve experienced.
This will hurt as we all know sitting still isn’t much fun. But when done consistently, it may very well be the key to uncapping a never-ending fountain of stories.
Do a survey
I was asked by an editor to write a post about what women want. I was hesitant to pursue it, but I’ll be damned if collecting data for that post wasn’t one of the best times I’ve had in recent memory besides every waking moment I have next to my wife.
Pick an interesting topic. Go up to people and say, “I’m writing an article about X and I’d love to know your thoughts.”
You’d be surprised by how many people get a kick out of this kind of stuff. Plus, in today’s “Look at me!” world, a lot of people enjoy telling their friends they were interviewed for an article.
Spend your time with generous people
Some of the ideas for my best-performing articles weren’t initially mine. People like Amardeep Parma read something I wrote, and instead of only thinking to himself that it was interesting, he slid me a message saying the idea was something he’d like to read more of.
Maybe some people are so good they can make it as a creative without any help, but I’m not one of those people.
So instead of putting all the weight on your shoulders, get some friends.
Then ask them to cruise over a few of your articles to see if they spot some little ideas that could easily be expanded into larger articles.
10. Take something that expands your mind
Kidding. Just making sure you’re still with me.
Re-write some of your favorite old stories with a new twist
A few weeks ago, I ran a post about a blueberry pie-eating contest. In the end, the person who won used a fork to take consistent small bites instead of diving head-first into Miss Mary’s delicious blueberry pies before running out of steam.
To anyone who hasn’t seen the movie “Stand By Me” or read any old wise tales in the past, this may have come across as pretty creative. But in reality, all I did was merge a portion of one of my favorite movies with an old proverb about two men chopping down trees and added in some new details.
Re-read your favorite stories or watch your favorite movies. A good part of the tone and language I used came from the fact I’d just watched Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” as it inspired me to channel my inner Southerner.
Don’t be like Roald Dahl
Did you know that when Roald Dahl thought of the basis for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he was sitting in his car and since he didn’t have a pencil he wrote the word “Chocolate” on his dirty window so he’d remember it?
Study Roald’s work, but don’t act like Roald, and make sure you treat your notebook as your million-dollar paycheck.
For me, inspiration rarely strikes sitting in front of a computer.
A good taco.
A bad taco.
Wandering phone calls.
Fonts on old adverts and buildings.
These are the things that move me and when a spark hits for an idea, it’s my job to get it down as our minds have a funny way of acquiring holes in them — this is especially if you lean into point #10.
Write about what someone has taught you
I was walking up the steps of my apartment one morning and I found my son in his tent playing dinosaurs and laughing to himself. As someone who has a tendency to wake up negative and stressed, my son, seeing the world as his playground, really hit me and it motivated me to write an article about how to wake up smiling.
Maybe you don’t have kids, but what about a high school teacher, mentor, or friend?
You’ll never run out of ideas to write if every day you sit down to ask yourself — “What have I learned?”
Write about an old pain
Speaking of high school teachers, one of mine made fun of my stutter during lunch one day. After I gently slapped him and said not to do that again, he body-slammed me before dragging me out into the hallway where he took off his glasses and told me he was an ex-Marine. The last thing I remember him saying before the potential fight got broken up by another teacher was —
“I’m gonna end you!”
I was petrified to go into the school the next day. I was a quiet kid. I didn’t want the older students to know I stuttered. To my surprise, a group of girls was waiting for me by my locker and said — “Are you the guy who punched Rud? You’re cute!”
I wish I could say that was the last time someone gave me shit. It’s not. And these stories aren’t easy to write about. But I’ll be damned if they aren’t the ones that create the strongest and most lasting connections.
Write about the times you flat out lost
My ex-business partner’s dad stole my house in Costa Rica. Literally. He changed the deed with an eraser and pencil and sold it out from under me.
13 years later, I still haven’t received a dime out of the $250,000 he stole from me.
That experience taught me a lot. But fortunately, we have platforms like this one that allow me to write about that story as a way to get back some of the money.
Take a random object in your house and write down what it means to you
As a communication coach, I do this a lot with people who struggle to find inspiration.
Just this past month, while visiting a client in Barcelona, we talked about a rock he has on his desk. Instantly, I was transported to 21-year-old Ricard sitting on a boulder in Central Park on his first trip to NYC.
To the normal person, when walking by his desk, you’d think it’s just a rock. For Ricard, it represents the first time he bet on himself and we ended up flushing out a pretty solid introduction for an upcoming presentation.
In short, don’t make it harder than it has to be, and instead of staring at your computer screen take a good look around and write about what you see.
Use social media for its original intent — collaboration
If you can’t get out into the world to do a survey, turn to Facebook or Linkedin. The entire idea of getting unstuck is to identify what you may be missing. A hundred sets of eyes are always better than one when it comes to coming up with something.
Plus, you’ll get instant feedback on the ideas you do have which can save you from wasting a ton of time writing an article that most people have zero interest in reading.
Write as many listicles as humanly possible
I’m sure editors hate me writing this, but I’m dead serious. Take a topic you’re passionate about, get down 3 to 7 thoughts, and ship it.
Over time, as your skills improve, you should be able to take each of those points and expand them into 900-word articles. Or at least 600 words articles.
Plus, people will let you know what resonated with them which makes it a potentially financially beneficial test for collecting ideas and quickly getting feedback.
Make a cheat-sheet of the most important lessons you’ve learned in life
Speaking of lists, this one may be my favorite.
Take a week or even a month, and create a massive document with all your life learnings.
I do this a lot. I get all my ideas out into the world. Observe what hits. Then reshape it as a shorter piece with the strongest points before expanding on each point in individual posts.
In short, I take one thought experiment and get paid to package the information and stories in different ways.
20. Get older
I’m convinced that a big reason I’ve been able to make it as a writer (in addition to not growing up with a smartphone) is that I’ve woken up twice as many times as people half my age.
Write about your last argument from your perspective and then from the other person’s
I love this exercise. Not only does it help me write from various perspectives, but it also helps me to avoid unnecessary arguments.
Why did they get so shitty with you?
Could there be something else going on?
Which words would you take back?
What didn’t they say? And Why?
Get on the phone with your readers
I do this one a lot. It’s fun. I get to learn what drives them while learning about what it is about my work that connects with them.
“I’d like you to dive more into this topic!”
“I really like what you wrote about X. More please!”
If while reading this you’re thinking to yourself I talk to a lot of people, you’re damn right I do. I’m not a big reader. Most books are too long and reading articles in my lane negatively influences my thinking. But conversations with people that other writers aren’t talking to? That’s my way to stand out.
Go for a walk with just a pen
It’s the ultimate test in brevity. After all, there are only so many body parts you can write on without getting arrested. So take a topic and force yourself to write down as much as you can while out for a 30-minute walk and then sit back down and fill-in the blanks.
Set a timer for 10-minutes, put your phone on a high shelf, and do nothing
When the 10 minutes is up, you can either put what you’re thinking down on paper or do the exercise again.
Maybe some days you don’t end up writing anything.
Not a lot of bad things can happen though if you take time for yourself to do nothing as it should sometimes drive you to make something.
Ask people for their best piece of career or life advice
Half my articles are based on a variation of this question —
“Tell me what you know?”
Write about what you’d tell your younger self
Take a week and explore different topics from your past like relationships, work, hobbies, and travel. You can even dive into the mistakes you made again and what you would have done differently.
Richard Branson ran a wonderful series a few years back where he did this very thing. It was good. Richard Branson is cool.
Watch a ton of speeches
I want to be known as someone who tells amazing stories. Making a point to watch one or two speeches a day has helped me to seriously speed up this process in addition to watching a lot of movies and interviews.
You may also find that you have something to say about the topic you just learned more about. Or you could just put it into your own words and explain how it impacted you — good or bad.
Teach me what you know
Much like a Margherita Pizza, this is a classic piece of writing advice for a reason — it works.
Write down three areas of expertise you have and teach me everything you know.
“How to move to a new country on a budget.”
“How to avoid unnecessary arguments.”“How to make a delicious blueberry pie.”
This may sound basic but it will help you to get in your writing reps. Plus, it will help you organize your thoughts while getting your ideas together to run a potential course since that’s what all the cool kids are doing.
Surround yourself with people who see things differently than you
As an American living in Spain, on any given day I’m speaking to people from all over the globe and since my kids go to a school with 31 different nationalities, I’m constantly learning new perspectives, ideas, and recipes.
But you don’t need to travel to experience this. Pick up the phone. Go to an event about something you don’t know a lot about. Talk to people who’ve lived a different experience.
The fastest way to write interesting stuff is to go to places where you’re not boring by default.
30. Do cool shit
Say yes to spontaneity.
Do something you hate
I saved this one for last but it’s quite possibly my favorite.
I don’t know about you, but when I do something that I hate or seriously hurts, I feel the most alive.
Take up a meditation class if you don’t like hippies.
When it comes to writing, all emotions are good emotions and everything you experience is a potential story.
I could easily keep going and maybe one day I’ll add on to this. But hopefully, you’ve stumbled upon one or two exercises that resonated with you.
I hope you write more.
It’s a beautiful thing.
And remember, sometimes the best way to better write your own story is by asking people about theirs.