The first lesson I had to learn as a serious writer is that inspiration isn’t something you wait for. I always assumed that writers got their new article ideas from some mystical force of nature.
I imagined Hemingway sitting in a dark cafe in Paris. I thought of Bukowski who was drunk half of the time. It seemed like those writers got their inspiration from traveling, drinking, or whatever you think generates inspiration.
We’ve all stared at our word processor, waiting for inspiration to strike and finally get us typing. But my experience taught me it’s a foolish strategy. It’s a waste of time to start writing an article or book from a blank canvas.
Instead, I always make sure I have something to say, which makes writing easier. In this article, I explain my complete process for coming up with new ideas for articles. I’ve used this process more than 400 times and counting.
Step 1: Always collect good material
As a writer, your primary job is to produce words. That’s the output you need to measure yourself on. You know this, but it’s important to stress. If you don’t have good input, you will also have good output.
Writing is like dieting. Garbage in, garbage out. What happens if you drink too much on Friday evening? You wake up with a headache on Saturday. If you overeat junk food today, your gut pays for it tomorrow.
Your job as a writer is to treat your mind the way an athlete treats their body. And you do that by consuming good material: Great books, articles, podcasts, videos, etc. But it can also involve personal experiences.
Just try a lot of things in life. Every experience serves as material to you. I took a corporate job just to experience it.
Based on my experience, I wrote this piece on cold hard truths about the workplace. I’ve received hundreds of emails and messages from people who said it was the most useful thing they’ve read on the topic. If I thought I was too good for getting a corporate job, I wouldn’t write that article and many others.
Step 2: Always record your ideas
Collecting input is only step one—everyone can do that. To make sure you always have enough ideas to write about, you must train yourself to think in article ideas.
- Did someone stab you in the back at work? That’s an article!
- Did you experience a nasty breakup? Article!
- Did you launch a successful business? Another one!
Start seeing articles, books, podcasts, and art everywhere. I probably have 20 ideas for books that I want to write. I will never write all those books. But it’s about the practice of regularly recording ideas.
Here’s how I do that. I always start with a title. For instance, I came up with the idea for this article when I was talking to Amy Shearn about my Medium column, the Stoic Letter.
We were just talking about some ideas I have for upcoming letters. Then suddenly, my brain was, “Hey, that’s an article!”
So, I immediately opened my primary writing app, Ulysses.I wrote the headline: “How To Come Up With New Ideas For Articles.” Below the headline, I placed; “Explain my process. Research. Don’t stare at a white screen.”
When you record your ideas, think about your future self. That person doesn’t know what you’re talking about because we’re forgetful. So write down your ideas as if you’re explaining them to a friend. Place some notes there that may help your future self remember what you originally had in mind.
When I came back to my note to write this article, I knew exactly what to say.
Step 3: Research, research, research
In my writing class, Effective Writing, I’ve dedicated a few lessons to teaching my students how to do better research. Some people find it odd at first. “Why do I need to research? Aren’t you going to teach me how to become a better writer?”
But to become a better writer, you need to become a better researcher first. As a writer, we merely assemble the best words, findings, and ideas that will resonate with our readers.
That realization changes everything for my students. “What a relief! I don’t have to come up with everything myself. I can do my research and then write about what I’ve learned.” That’s the key to writing good non-fiction.
The perfect example of this strategy is the books of Robert Greene. The 48 Laws of Power contains hundreds of historical stories and interesting anecdotes. You can only learn about these stories by doing research.
I noticed something about Robert Greene whenever people ask him about his writing process. His answers are mostly about his research process, not the actual writing. It just shows how important research is.
Step 4: Pick topics you’re passionate about
I find it difficult to generate article ideas about a topic I have zero interest in. I’ve tried writing articles for SEO purposes in the past. But I just found it the most soul crushing type of writing in the world.
However, when I write about productivity, mindfulness, investing, and many other topics I’m curious about, I just can’t stop writing. All of a sudden, writing turns into an intellectual practice. As I write, I learn more.
You can be the most skillful writer in the world and produce zero words because you have nothing worthy to write. So make sure you write about topics you actually love. Things you want to say and talk about.
That way, you also protect your sanity. Even if only a handful of people read your work, you’re still okay because you’ve turned writing into an intellectual pursuit. And you can never go wrong by doing that.
All the best with writing new articles. Or rather, doing research and assembling the words!