How to Come Up with Article Ideas…FAST!

Illustration by Ramiro Roman.

Illustration by Ramiro Roman.

You don’t know true fear as a writer until you hear the words “We need 30 fresh article ideas within the next 24 hours.”

It’s all well and good to wait for inspiration. In a lot of ways, it’s preferable. (It’s certainly more comfortable). Unfortunately, if you decide to turn your writing into a business–rather than just a hobby–you don’t always have that luxury.

Sometimes you’re forced to come up with ideas…FAST!

And, without fail, you’ll be asked for quick ideas when you feel the most “blocked” and least feel like giving them. It’s an unspoken law of the universe.

But, as a professional, you’ll have to deliver the goods anyway. You’re going to have to force yourself.

So here are some tips to get your brain juices flowing in the right direction…

7 Techniques to Come up with Fresh Writing Ideas

These are all techniques I use myself when I get stuck with a “We need ideas NOW!” deadline. You’ll likely come up with your own techniques as you progress with your writing career, but these should help you get started.

1. The Writing Blitz: Let It All Pour Out!

Jack Donaghy shared a lot of wisdom on 30 Rock, but one of my favorite beliefs of his was this: “There are no bad ideas in brainstorming, Lemon.”

Get a piece of paper or open up a blank document on your computer and start writing down everything that comes to mind. Yes, everything. 

This is the stage of the writing process I once referred to as “writer vomit.

A lot of what you write down won’t make any sense. And that’s okay. You can sift through that later. (I like to think of it as panning for gold).

Jot down every thought that flows through your mind. Even if what you write down looks like “writing writing I’m hungry doot dee doo what do I write…” that’s perfectly fine.

For instance, you can extract the “I’m hungry” and turn it into “Meals for Freelancers” or “Staying on Your Diet While Traveling” or “Staying Hungry for Knowledge: Keeping Your Skills Up-to-Date Long After Your School Years Are Over.”

And those might not be the best titles, but I’m going to leave them there for you to look at because I literally just thought of them on the spot. After re-reading the crazy sentence I jotted down. Which was also written on the spur of the moment.

See? I practice what I preach! 😉

2. Get a Change of Scenery, Even if It’s Fictional.

Ideas often come when you least expect them. When you’re distracted.

Now, this is the point most people will tell you to “go for a walk around the block” or “visit a café.” But not this gal. I know that getting out and about isn’t always an option. (And that there’s nothing more aggravating than thinking that’s the only option).

If getting a “real” change of scenery isn’t an option for you—clear your mind with a fictional change of scenery. Watch a movie, catch up on a few episodes of your favorite TV show, or dive into a good book.

Keep a notebook beside you as you indulge in the media of your choice. If you’re lucky, you’ll see an image that will ignite an idea, or a character will say something that gets your gears turning. Write down your idea immediately.

Pro Tip: Set an alarm so you don’t waste too much time. If you don’t have enough (or any) ideas once your alarm goes off, then this technique isn’t working for you. Consider it a lovely break and move on to something else.

3. Open Books.

Chances are you’ve collected some literature on your chosen niche. Or, if you haven’t, get some.

Open a book to the Table of Contents. Read over the chapter titles. Don’t read the chapters. You don’t need to. You already know the information–you just need a little something to jump start your mind.

4. Return to the Past to Create the Future.

If you have an “idea notebook,” now would be a great time to start flipping through it. Got any unused ideas in those pages? Are any of them any good? Use ’em!

You can also dig through your old writing. (This technique works well for both fiction and non-fiction writers!). Look at your old articles or your “Oh wow, did I actually write this?” short stories.

For me, this technique works for 3 reasons:

  1. Even if you’re not feeling like a productive writer at the moment, going back to when you were one can get you back in the right mindset. AKA: You did it once, so you can do it again!
  2. Just like watching a movie or reading a book, in reading your own writing, something you said (or something one of your characters said) may strike a chord with you. Anything that sparks an idea is good.
  3. Old articles and stories can be rewritten. Old articles may have relevant topics but contain stale, outdated information. They’re ripe for a rewrite! And those old short stories? I know you can do better.

5. Word Association.

You say “freelance!” I say “Money! Freedom! Work! Taxes! Business!”

This one’s pretty simple and you’ve probably used word association at some point in your life already…

Write down the topic you’re supposed to be coming up with ideas for. Try to boil it down to one word. Then write that word down (or say it aloud) and then start writing down every word that comes to mind when you read/hear your topic.

What do those words make you think of?

Can you create an article based on the words you’ve written down?

6. Answer a Question.

If you have even a small readership, you’ve probably gotten at least a couple questions. Try answering them!

Check through any comments or e-mails you’ve gotten where you’ve been asked a (relevant) question. This might not always be an option, but, when it is, it’s gold. GOLD!

Here are a few of the articles I’ve written based on reader/subscriber questions:

The thing each of those articles have in common? They just so happen to be my most popular (read: highly trafficked) articles of all time.

Like I said: Reader questions are gold when it comes to generating worthwhile topic ideas!

7. Time for a Holiday?

No, I’m not telling you to take a holiday/vacation! You don’t have time for that. You’re supposed to be coming up with ideas! (Sheesh…).

Look at upcoming holidays. All of ’em. Even the weird, little ones, that no one thinks about.

This is a technique I learned when I was head writer for my high school’s newspaper (Hi, Mr. Davis!) and it was recently recommended to me again by The Renegade Writer‘s Linda Formichelli.

Using the calendar as an idea generator is a great way to get timely ideas. And, yes, there will be a Thanksgiving-related post at the end of this month. 😉

Pro Tip: If you’re pitching holiday-based ideas to a magazine or blog, make sure that you’re contacting the editor at least a month ahead of schedule. Or, if possible, try to aim for three months ahead. Meaning, if you want to pitch a Christmas story, you should write to the publication in September.

Online publications–and especially print publications–work ahead of schedule. Understanding that will endear you to editors and increase the chances of your idea getting published.

BONUS: Common Sense is Key!

Things that “should” be automatic are often tossed aside when you’re faced with a rushed deadline. And that simply won’t do.

Please remember to attend to your basic bodily needs. You know… Eating and sleeping.

Without sleep any ideas you come up with will (most likely) be crummy.

If you don’t eat, quite simply, your brain won’t function properly. Especially if you struggle with blood sugar issues (like hypoglycemia). Your brain needs fuel! It won’t produce great ideas without it.

Forcing yourself to come up with quick ideas can be very uncomfortable. Don’t increase that discomfort by adding physical and mental exhaustion.

Use common sense.

And good luck coming up with ideas…FAST!

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