There are plenty of questions I hate fielding from people when they find out I’m a freelance blogger (such as, “Why don’t you write for a newspaper?”). But at least I’ve developed canned responses for most of them (such as, “Because print is dying and traditional jobs make me murderous, Uncle Frank.”).
The one question I’ve yet to figure out a good response to, however, is one which on the surface seems fairly innocuous: “How do you come up with ideas?”
This is is because I myself don’t really know the answer to this.
I can say it helps to have a working knowledge of the publication you’re writing for, a sense of what has already been covered (and converted well), and a healthy heaping of creative spin to make your approach new and noteworthy. It also helps if you’ve gotten enough sleep, had enough caffeine, have nothing else stressful going on in your life, and are Seth Godin. (The man is so prolific it’s unnatural).
But even possession of all the above (minus, of course, Seth Godin) isn’t enough to ward away those times when the ideas Just. Won’t. Come. Some days you’re a wellspring of potential pitches and some days the well runs dry, but if you want to succeed as a freelance blogger, you have to find ways to prime the pump no matter what condition it’s in. Because your clients want content, and their schedule doesn’t revolve around your “aha!” moments.
When you find yourself at a loss for blog post ideas, here are 21 ways to step outside your stale, obstructed brain and jumpstart your creativity. Whatever topic you’re covering or audience you’re writing for, these hacks can be tweaked to fit your needs — and the timeframe you’re working with.
If You’ve Got a Little Time…
Deadline rapidly approaching? Try one or more of these hacks, which you can do in half an hour or less.
1. Read a Blog You Totally Disagree With
Spend some time reading a blog whose viewpoint is in direct opposition to your own (or your client’s). Not only will it challenge you to defend and present your ideas in a compelling manner; it can also give you a glimpse of angles you’ve missed in your own coverage of the subject.
If you’re writing for a budget-conscious lifestyle blog, checking out a blog by a luxury fashionista could inspire you to write a post on ways to knock off the latest trends for less. If you’re writing for a mommy blog, a blog directed at singletons might lead you to a post on why it’s so hard to stay friends with people once they have kids — inspiring you to write a post on ways moms and non-moms can be more understanding of each other and find common ground.
All too often, the blogosphere becomes an echo chamber. Step outside the static you’re used to and you’d be surprised what it can do for a topic you thought you’d already written to death.
2. Explore the Numbers
Look up the latest stats/research in your category and ask yourself what you can extrapolate from them. What questions do the numbers raise? What realities do they shed light on? How can you use them as a springboard for a related issue?
The numbers in question don’t have to be published in your subject area; a glimpse at the top news headlines in general can also provide inspiration. I’ve found the inspiration for money-saving posts on trending studies on the average cost of raising a child or grocery staples whose prices are on the rise.
3. Take a Shower
A nice, warm shower has several brain-boosting benefits, as explored in this piece on Buffer.
First, it relaxes you mentally and physically, and a relaxed state of mind helps you make connections and formulate insights much better than fixating on a blank screen.
Second, the feelings, sounds and aromas of a luxurious shower (or bath, if that’s more your style) provide a lovely distraction from the million-and-one thoughts that tend to logjam when you’re in heavy brainstorming mode. It gives the bits and pieces in your head time to incubate.
Finally, a shower triggers increased dopamine flow, which can spur creative thinking. Plus, you’ll finally be making the time to clean yourself for once. It’s a win-win all around.
4. Listen to a Podcast
If you haven’t gotten on the podcast wagon yet, now’s the time to hop aboard. Podcasts are a fantastic source of distraction, inspiration and “how have I never heard of this?” knowledge. (If no one’s yet told you about “Missing Richard Simmons“, you’re welcome.)
Simply do a search for “best podcasts” plus your topic area and check out a few episodes. No need to listen to one all the way through if it doesn’t click; feel free to bounce around a bit until something strikes you.
As you listen, jot down any follow-up question you wish you could ask the host(s), any references you’re not familiar with, any tidbits that catch your attention. These could all be the basis for a great post.
5. Watch a Wordy Game Show
Sometimes simple free association can get your brain unstuck. Sure, you could do something dull like journaling or following a writing prompt — or you could watch a game show. I’m not talking The Price Is Right or Wheel of Fortune; for this hack to work, it has to be a show that gets your verbal synapses firing as you play along.
For something fun and simple, try the old-school Password. Pause the show after each prompt and see if you can lead your significant other or roommate to the right word with some carefully chosen clues — then unpause to watch the hilarious (or disastrous) results of the real contestants’ attempts .
For those with a more modern palate (and sense of humor), the pop-culture obsessed, stand-up comic challenge @midnight features lots of wordplay-heavy games like #HashtagWars that force you to think on your feet and blurt out the first thing that pops into your head. (#SuperOldHeroes. Responses include: “20-Cats Woman” and “The Hot Flash.”)
Will this help you come up with keyword-specific post ideas? Not directly. But it will help you practice taking one idea and spinning, kneading or twisting it until it becomes something new — a great skill to have when coming up with different angles on a well-worn topic. It will also make you laugh and take you out of your analysis paralysis, which in itself can be all you need to get your brain churning again.
6. Try Adult Coloring
Adult coloring books aren’t just for hipsters or those looking to recapture a bit of their childhood; they’ve actually been found to reduce stress and boost creativity much the same way meditation does.
And with the wide array of grownup coloring books out there, you’re sure to find something you’ll enjoy. Lose yourself in the intricate scrolls of 100+ Magnificent Mandalas or Enchanted Forest (it’s taken me three months to fill in a single tree with my OCD perfectionism, and I’ve loved every minute of it.) Release some inner tension with the NSFW Calm the F*ck Down. LOL with the hilariously ridiculous Dinosaurs with Jobs or Unicorns Are Jerks. Bonus points for going beyond your comfort zone and using colors you wouldn’t normally choose.
7. Get Moving
Okay, so it’s not the most outside-the-box tip, but I’d remiss if I didn’t include it, because it works.
The connection between physical activity and creativity is well-documented. As this piece on Psychology Today points out, Thoreau took long walks in the woods and Joyce Carol Oates favored running because “sweat is like WD-40 for your mind -– it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid.”
What counts as “exercise” for you is entirely your call. If you’re on a short deadline, a stroll around the block could be enough to do the trick. If you’ve got more time and yearn for something a little more unique, consider ’80s night at the local roller rink or an indoor trampoline park. Bonus points if your activity takes you outside (see: the benefits of nature on creativity).
If You’ve Got a Bit More Time…
Got a little breathing room before your deadline? The following hacks could take an hour or several, depending on how deeply you dive into them.
8. Learn Something New
Learning new things exposes you to new concepts, encourages new ways of thinking, and can help you look at subjects you think you know well in a different light.
Learning a new language can change the way you view the world. Learning to play a musical instrument can increase your brain plasticity (a fancy word for “the ability of your brain to make new connections and forge new thought pathways”). Heck, even playing video games can help you approach problems in a more creative way.
So explore a new hobby, learn a new skill or study a new subject through the many free online courses out there. You’ll boost your skill set and train your brain to work in different ways — which will be super useful when pitch time rolls around again.
9. Hang Out with a Kid
I’d like to illustrate this one with a pair of jokes my nine-year-old niece told me and some other grownup relatives recently, which she introduced by saying, “Only kids can get these answers, because kids are smarter than adults.”
And seeing the way they approach the world can teach us an incredible amount about how we might approach the world in new ways. Plus, play is a known creativity stimulant.
10. Fix Something
The art of repairing something with our own two hands is one that’s fallen by the wayside in today’s tech-heavy, toss-it-if-it’s-broken society. But there’s a lot to be gained by this simple yet challenging endeavor, as this Psychology Today piece reports.
Whether you check out a local Repair Cafe or head to YouTube to finally learn how to fix that busted door knob, it can help get you out of a mental funk for a few reasons.
Doing something tactical that requires step-by-step thinking helps focus your attention and can stop the thought whirlpool you’re stuck in. The state of flow you enter into gives your brain time to process and connect information in fresh ways. Finally, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction you get from conquering a task you’d been neglecting can boost your confidence and give you a jolt of motivation to tackle your next problem — namely, those pesky pitch topics.
11. Join a Meetup Group
Meetup is a fantastic way to explore new areas and meet interesting people. Whether you’re writing about business, board games or babies, joining a local Meetup group can help you connect with people who are passionate about the subject. And what better way to get blog post ideas than asking your audience?
12. Become a Foreigner in a Foreign Land
As anyone who’s ever studied abroad can attest, you can learn more in a month of exploring new cultures than you ever would in the classroom. But that’s not to say you need to get out your passport to get the inspiring effects of travel; even a day trip to a nearby town or unfamiliar neighborhood can do the trick. The important thing is to go somewhere you’ll be exposed to new people and new experiences.
Normally a Netflix-and-PJs person? Try spending a night at a local rock climbing facility or join an early-morning hiking group. Love to hit up the hottest new bars? Grab a drink at the dusty old local watering hole and eavesdrop on the regulars’ conversation. Chat people up. Bring a moleskine notebook and sketch your impressions.
13. Join a Book Club
Not only will you be introduced to genres and styles you may never have read on your own; you’ll also get regular doses of other viewpoints as you discuss what you’ve read. Or start your own club with a few friends and try something wildly different every month: manga, children’s books, experimental, etc.
14. Check Out Seth Godin’s Blog
I joked about it at first, but in all seriousness, Seth Godin is a master of generating ideas. He’s written 18 books (to date), is a world-renowned speaker, and puts out daily — that’s every single day — blog posts that are surprisingly simple yet surprisingly impactful. I’ve been following him for years and am constantly amazed at his seemingly endless supply of things to discuss.
If you ever feel like you’ve run out of ideas, go to Godin’s blog and just skim through the last few weeks’ worth of posts. Note the way he takes a single word, concept or question and turns it into a brief but pithy lesson. Now look at your surroundings — the cover of the magazine on the table, the ad flashing across the TV screen, the first five subject lines in your inbox — and use them as prompts to start brainstorming.
View everything as fodder. See where it takes you.
When All Else Fails…
Up against the wire, or tried all of the above to no avail? Then it’s time to turn to some less creative, downer and dirtier tricks:
- BuzzSumo – Enter your keyword or topic area into this content analyzer to see what’s trending and what’s getting shared the most.
- Quora – Enter your keyword or topic and find out what questions people are asking about it.
- Read through your client’s archives – What were the most popular posts? Could you spin off any ideas from existing content? What questions do readers have in the comments?
- Steal from the competition (ethically) – Sophie explains how in this post.
- Reddit’s Ask Me Anything – Search for your keyword or topic and browse existing AMAs to learn what people are interested in learning about it.
- Twitter trending hashtags – Take a look at what’s popular now for inspiration on of-the-moment topics.
- Chris Brogan’s blog topics swipe list – While writing one of these posts precisely would be a bit on the nose, they’re great templates to tweak.
Do you have any other tricks for generating new blog post ideas? What are they?