Matt Grant

Miscellany

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How to mine for ideas as a writer

One of the hardest things for me as a writer is coming up with ideas on what to write about. 

There have been countless times I've found a publication or journal that I want to submit to, but was stopped dead in my tracks because I had no idea what to send in. I'm not really talking about fiction stories or novel ideas; I feel like over my lifetime I've acquired enough of those to keep me busy for several years. I'm talking about ideas for subjects on essays, think pieces, cultural critiques, and so on. 

If you're like me, you can get so hung up on "what" to write that you your actual writing output is not where you want it to be. You stall and stall, trying to come up with that one amazing idea that will resonate with readers and editors. But you also probably recognize that sometimes quantity over quality, at least at first, is a better path to success. 

Not every idea, or essay or story for that matter, is going to be a home run. Sometimes you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff. So it's time to stop getting caught up in being brilliant and just put in some work. 

I recently read this excellent piece on Literary Hub on why you should aim for 100 rejections a year, rather than a handful of acceptances. The theory is simple: rejections are bound to happen. So if you're actually trying to acquire rejections, at some point, you're bound to get some acceptances too. Aiming for rejection frees you from obsessing over every idea or piece needing to land perfectly. It may feel at times like you're churning out a lot of crap, but the more you write and hone your craft, eventually, you'll craft a few gems as well. 

Still, 100 rejections a year equals A LOT of ideas. How does someone come up with so many? Here are three ways. 

1. Carry around a notebook (or app) and write down ideas as they come to you. 

When I was an intern at the Onion News Network when I first moved to New York, a fellow intern friend had a comedy YouTube channel. He was constantly stopping in the middle of conversations to take out a little notepad and jot an idea for a video down. It was maddening, but I admired the way he was unapologetic about his craft. 

I've lost count of how many times I thought of some great idea and told myself it wasn't the time or the place to write it down, only to wind up desperately trying to recall it later. Sometimes I was lucky enough to remember it, but more often, it never came back to me. 

Ideas for pieces will come to you at the craziest and most inopportune times, and you have to be ready to capture them. Sometimes, an idea will spring into your head fully formed. But more often, an interaction or observation that you think is mundane or uninteresting can be the best source for a good story, and you won't find that out until you start writing about it. 

Now, when I'm mobile, I usually take notes in my iPhone notes application. It's simple, easy to use, and syncs seamlessly between my phone and computer. Evernote is also incredibly useful to many people. I don't prefer it because it honestly has too many bells and whistles, and I don't like being constantly asked to upgrade to its premium version. But I know a few people who can't live without it. 

Then when I get home, I always copy my ideas down into my Bullet Journal. This is where I keep all of my notes, ideas and lists now. It's great having everything in one simple, easy-to-use place. 

It doesn't matter where you take notes, just as long as you take notes. And take notes on everything. Not just on your own life and experiences, but on other people, interactions, and so on. 

2. Read. A lot. 

One of the things I'm enjoying most in the writing class I'm taking is all of the sample essays the instructor is having us read. We all know that "the writer is first and foremost a reader," but it's crazy how easy it is to forget that. Reading other writers' work is often the best way to get inspiration, not just for how to structure really amazing essays and stories, but also just in what to write about. 

What's more, any editor will tell you that best practice for getting published is to read pieces in whatever publication or journal you want to submit to. Follow these publications on social media, follow their writers and editors, and read everything that you put out. The more you read them, the more you'll have an idea of what they're looking for and match your tone and style to what they want. 

Read modern stuff, but don't forget to read classics too. 

3. Use writing prompts

I have to admit that previously I was sort of negative on writing prompts. I'm not sure why. I think maybe it's because I always felt like I had enough ideas of my own to keep me occupied, but that was back when I was trying to turn every idea into gold. 

But I'm learning that writing prompts can actually be valuable ways to unlock stories and ideas that you might never have thought of before. The other day in class, we were given a writing prompt to write about the worst thing we'd ever done that we never got caught doing. At first I really struggled with it. Again, I didn't have a good idea. But I just started to write - anything and everything I could think of. Eventually, an idea came to me. I didn't like it at first, but the more I worked on it, the more I saw it's potential. I began to see larger themes I could focus on in the piece. I went from having nothing to write about to an idea I'm actually excited about in twenty minutes. 

Now, if this particular idea or story had just come to me as a remembrance, I probably wouldn't have given it the time of day. Even more likely, without prompting, I may not have even remembered it. But since I had to write something, I just ran with it. 

There are tons of places to find writing prompts, but finding good ones can be difficult. A simple Google search of "best writing prompts" is a good place to start. 

Note taking, reading and using writing prompts are just three ways - outside of occasional "shower moment" inspirations - that you can get some great ideas for your essays. If you have any best practices or things you like to use, please let me know in the comments!