As a regular contributor here at BAFB, my job is to come up with an idea that you lovely readers will find helpful and relevant, and then write it up. I’ve been a reader here for years, and a freelance writer even longer, so usually it’s a lot of fun to come up with a few quick ideas to pitch.
Usually… but not always.
I use calendar reminders religiously to keep track of deadlines (you have a system to help you track deadlines, too, right?). So when I got the reminder that it was time to submit an idea for my next BAFB post, I opened up a new email, tapped out a quick introduction, and waited for the ideas to come.
But to my horror, all I had was… a whole lotta nothing.
I’m kind of an “idea person” — I have pages of ideas for various topics. My favorite part of pitching new gigs is the “send us some ideas” part. I even have an idea generation module in one of the courses I offer, for crying out loud.
But my idea well was completely dry.
What to do when you have no ideas
Whether you’re pitching a new client, trying to land a hot guest post, or coming up with content for your own blog, there will be a time when you don’t have any ideas.
Usually this happens toward the beginning of your career, but not necessarily. My recent experience is a good (or not-so-good) example of an established freelance writer hitting an idea wall.
Fortunately, ideas are like any typical watery metaphor: a river, a well, the tide, an oasis in the desert, etc. They do come and go. You may “dry up,” but you can also replenish them without driving yourself mad.
So with all of that in mind, here are some things you can do when you can’t come up with any good ideas.
1. Do not panic
The first thing to do, when you’re trying to come up with some new content ideas, is to take the pressure off.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the more you really, really try to come up with an idea, the less likely you are to get a good one.
So if you’re completely stuck for ideas, step away. Close the draft email. Put the pen and paper down. Start doing something completely different. Your idea-maker is in motion, and it won’t be long before some new ideas bubble up. Just be ready to write them down when they do!
When you’re in the habit of coming up with ideas, this will usually happen fairly quickly for you. But I’ll be honest: I “stepped away” from the pitch for this post for several days, waiting for something to bubble up, and still I had nothing.
In fact, that’s how I began my pitch email for this post:
“Hey, y’all — I’ve been thinking about what to pitch for my next contrib post (submission due mid-Aug) and I’m out of ideas. Been dry as a bone for days. Nothing.”
2. Play with what you have
Ideas don’t like to be forced, which is why you need to do Step 1 first. What ideas like is to play! Ideas are a creative endeavor, and turning your idea machine on requires some creativity.
These are some of my favorite ways to play around with ideas and see what comes up:
Pull the shiz out of the trash can.
If you’ve sketched out a couple of ideas that are mediocre at best (but really actually kind of lame), don’t throw them out… take a look and see what you’ve got. Can you combine two ideas into one big idea that packs a punch? Is there an underlying theme or keyword idea that you can pull out and focus on? You may have some good pieces there.
See what works elsewhere.
Hop over to your search engine of choice, type in a topic or phrase, and see what pops up. Google’s a good place to start, but don’t stop there. Try BuzzSumo to see what headlines are the most-shared ones related to your keyword, and check out what’s got traction on Pinterest, too. (I like Pinterest because it’s card-style, making it really easy to scan.) Seeing the lay of the land will give you a few ideas of your own.
Read up on it.
A huge portion of my ideas come when I’m reading something. There will be a word, phrase, bullet point, or new perspective in someone else’s writing that makes me want to know more about that specific thing (or even want to argue something). That little spark is the seed of an idea. Develop a sense of curiosity when you read something on your topic, and you’ll start catching all kinds of ideas.
Read some reviews.
Look up some books on your topic, and see what gold you can find in the reviews. What questions do reviewers have that the books leave unanswered? What information did reviewers most appreciate getting? Think about ways to turn those comments into new blog posts.
Start at zero.
What are some of the questions someone new to your topic might ask? If you had to explain some facet of that topic to a 10-year-old, what knowledge gaps would you need to fill? There’s probably an idea or two lurking in that imaginary conversation.
Own your frustration!
What’s the topic of this post you’re reading right now? I went from having no ideas to pitching a post about idea generation. Slick, right? I took a moment when I was struggling and I owned it. If you’re struggling with a topic, ask yourself some exasperated questions and see if any ideas come up. Why does this topic even matter, anyway? Who should care about this stuff? Why should people who don’t care start caring about it?
Run with it (or don’t)
Once you have the nugget of an idea, it’s time to do something… or not. That all depends on how much you’re struggling and what kind of time you have. If you’re under pressure, focus on playing around with the idea and try to ignore the ticking clock. If you’ve got some time, you can infuse a bit more space into your tinkering.
First, sketch out a few potential headlines based on the idea, and see if anything jumps out at you. Play with different post types (like a how-to or a list post) you can work up with your idea. See if there’s a current event or a pop culture reference you can bring in, just to make it interesting. Your goal is to massage your basic notion into a post you can pitch… but remember, the more you “try” to come up with something, the less the ideas will flow. Keep a light touch on your ideas and let them move around in your head.
If nothing’s really happening yet and you have some time, step away again and wait for your flashes of brilliance to hit you. If you’ve taken any of these suggested steps, you’ll have a lot more fodder for your magnificent brain to work out some new suggestions while you concentrate on something else. It’s OK to let your mind return to the idea occasionally, but don’t get wrapped up in the process of idea-ing. It will come.
One more thing…
When you’re doing some deliberate idea generation, you’ll probably come up with some great concepts that won’t work for the particular thing you’re brainstorming, but might work for something else. Don’t throw out those good-but-irrelevant ideas. Store them somewhere, either to write up on your own for later, or to bring into future pitches.
You’ll find that the more you work through these idea generation exercises, the more ideas you’ll have.
That’s one of the great things about being a blogger — you get to exercise a lot of creativity and have a good bit of fun. And the more fun you have, the better your ideas will be.