For many people, feeling they have nothing to say is one of their biggest writing challenges. (Unfortunately, there are many more who have nothing to say yet write anyway. We’ll come to that in a second.)
This is something that much advice on beating writer’s block – which focuses on how to get started – overlooks. So here are five innovative ways to ensure you always think clearly and never run short of original things to write about.
Before we start though, it’s worth stating the obvious: engaging your brain before you write is critical. Most of us have had the experience of reading a document or blog post that is neither original nor particularly helpful – the result, almost certainly, of insufficient time spent researching and thinking.
It’s not surprising, of course. A word processor is merely a tool, just as a car is. A car is useless if it doesn’t take you where you need to go, and for that it needs a driver who knows where they’re going. To stretch the analogy further, most people would rather go somewhere new than drive endlessly round a multi-storey car park.
So it is with writing. Firing up Microsoft Word and tapping away at your keyboard for a few hours won’t automatically produce a good document or blog post. You still need to have something worth saying – and if it’s new, all the better. So here’s how to ensure you never run out of ideas again.
1. Prime the pump
Are you ready? Here comes the science bit. You have an idea when nerve cells in your brain fire in a unique combination. But for that to happen, the information needs to be there already. This is good news, as ideas are never truly original. Rather, they’re connections of other thoughts and concepts. The English coffee-house boom of the 1600s is inextricably linked with the explosion of new ideas that we now call the Enlightenment. That’s because it brought people together to exchange information (something non-scientists call ‘talking’), prompting nerve cells to fire in new combinations all over the place. Innovation favours the connected mind.
You can recreate this effect by conjuring up a coffee house in your head. Start by filling your mind with other people’s ideas – not just before you write a word but before you even plan your document.
Use a variety of media: books, web pages, audio and video. All of this will stimulate your brain and get you thinking effortlessly. But for it to work, you need to consume the information without getting hung up on what you’re going to say. You are merely priming the pump. ‘The best ideas come from building on the ideas and inventions of others,’ says Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation.
2. Wake up
Admittedly, the caffeine that the coffee houses served up probably helped a little too. Most people drank weak beer from dawn to dusk before coffee became popular. (It was safer than water.) So it’s no surprise that they started to think a little more clearly when they eased back on the sauce. But even if you’re not in the habit of taking a tipple while you wait for your PC to warm up, you still need to make sure you have a clear head. That means getting a decent amount of sleep.
Caffeine will help only to a point: it’s recently been discovered that sleep appears to flush out the biochemical by-products of the brain’s metabolism (‘toxins’). So continually burning the midnight oil is going to make it a lot more difficult to write good reports. No amount of coffee will clear a tired, fogged-up brain.
3. Pick the right environment
A common piece of advice is to take yourself away to a quiet room, clear of clutter and other distractions, so that the ideas will flow. In fact, this is the opposite of what you should do.
‘Ideas hate conference rooms, particularly conference rooms where there is a history of criticism, personal attacks or boredom,’ says author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, who has based his whole career on having new ideas. It makes sense. Getting a number of neurons to fire in a unique combination is unlikely to happen in the place your brain associates with management accounts meetings.
In fact, silence is probably not that conducive to innovation at all. Research by the Universities of British Columbia and Virginia has found that the background murmur of coffee shops boosts creativity. If the caffeine gets too much, switch to decaf. In fact, there’s now an app that will enable you to bypass the coffee shop altogether.
4. Capture your ideas
Apple chief designer Jony Ive says that ideas are fragile. Functional MRI research has now revealed just how fragile. In fact, most people can remember only four or five facts at a time. And what’s more, those facts stay in your working memory (the ‘front of your mind’) for only 15–20 seconds. In practice, this means that it’s critical that you record your ideas when you have them. Never rely on remembering them later – you probably won’t, and they could be lost forever. You can go analogue here and use a pencil and notebook. But digital voice recorders or apps such as Audio Memos or eRecorder can make it a lot easier to collate your ideas electronically later.
It’s important to separate the thinking process from the writing process. Raw ideas or collections of bullet points are not much use, but neither is a random collection of thoughts thrown into a document in a stream of consciousness. Used properly, mind maps are an excellent way to bring ideas together and connect them in a logical path. (You can learn more about this on our courses.)
Following these steps can be amazingly powerful: so powerful that you may even end up with more ideas than you can use. Be careful though: even the best ideas will be wasted if you don’t communicate them to your audience – by making sure you save enough time and energy to settle down and write that report.
Tell us how you get on. Do these work for you? What are your tried and tested ways of generating ideas?
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