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Generating ideas

Advice for writers and bloggers

Starting Points

In yesterday’s post I talked about how to decide on a subject matter and a way of communicating that subject matter by answering two simple questions – what do you want to write and what do you want to write about? – and getting as specific as possible with your answers. Today I’m going to give you some starting points that you can use if you’re still not sure how to approach your subject matter.

A writing exercise

  1. Wherever you are now, make a list of ten things you can see inside the room.
  2. Go outside or look through a window and make a list of ten things you can see outside.

By the way, if you like this idea, do ten more of each tomorrow. In fact, repeating this activity every day for a week is almost guaranteed to generate lots of ideas for writing.

Get your FREE book of writing prompts here.

Here’s one I prepared earlier

I had a go at this just now (because I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself!) and here are the results.

  1. Photo, cup of coffee, keys, sketchpad, notebook, paper, pencil, matchbox, scissors, book.
  2. Bumble bee, leaves, sparrow, rain, wall, fence, tree, brambles, flowers, sky.

You really do simply have to write down what you can see. There’s no need to think about it or work it out. For more list games, download the PDF available on this page called ‘Free Resource for Parents and Teachers’. (They’re suitable for grown ups too!)

Cup, pencil, sketchbook, photo, keys

Turn what you saw into ideas

Go through your own list. If you like Mind Mapping, you could use that to stimulate ideas instead of this next stage, but otherwise, here’s what you do:

Decide how each of these objects could become an idea for your writing project.

Here’s an example

I’ll imagine two different approaches. One from a blogger writing about productivity for small businesses and one from a short story writer who wants to generate an idea for an upcoming short story anthology. I’m simply using objects from the lists above.

  • Photo: How could small business owners use better photography to enhance their social media advertising?
  • Photo: A character finds a series of photos hidden under her grandmother’s bed.
  • Cup of coffee: Why it’s important to pause and take stock once in a while when you’re running a small business
  • Cup of coffee: A spilled cup of coffee first thing in the morning leads a character to discover a hidden stash of jewellery under the floorboards
  • Keys: What’s the key to successful business planning?
  • Keys: Losing her keys down the drain was only the start of her problems

Hopefully you get the idea! If not, post your object / thing in the comments and what you’re writing / writing about and I’ll suggest an idea.

Taking it to the next level

If you’re finding it hard to come up with ideas based on the objects / things on your list, try drilling down a little more with the next exercise called ‘the five associations’. This is essentially a brainstorm so jot down anything that comes to mind. Take random items on your list and do the following. (It isn’t necessary to go through all of these stages with each word. In fact that would probably drive you crazy.)

By the way, if you’re a poet I suggest only doing stages one and two – you’ll have enough material to work with after that!

Get a voucher code for my course on writing poetry here.

The Five Associations

Have you ever played ‘word association’? If so, you already know how this works. If not, follow the instructions below. Grab your list and let’s get going.

  1. Stage one is personal associations. Ask yourself what this word suggests to you. What associations exist in your own mind? What memories does it conjure up? Example. Sky: flying, memory of flying kites, deep blue, changing colour, a child wishing she can fly, like the sea. If you get stuck, play word association with a friend with this word as the starting word.
  2. Stage two is contextual associations. What overlaps with this word or idea? What surrounds it? Some of these might have already come up. That’s fine. Example. Sky: planes, birds, space, the solar system, rockets, skydivers, stars, the universe, atmospheric pressure.
  3. Stage three is cultural associations. Note down any euphemisms, idioms, cultural norms or jargon to do with this word. Any related idioms are fine too. If you get stuck, ask yourself what ‘everyone’ understands when they hear this word. Example. Sky: blue sky thinking, sky’s the limit, sky high, why is the sky blue? Reach for the stars. Skylight.
  4. Stage four is subjectspecific associations. Ask yourself how this word might be connected (even tenuously at this stage) to what you want to write about. Write questions if you’re not sure. Example. Sky: A magical character called Sky who can turn invisible at will. Which atmospheric compounds are covered by the national curriculum at key stage 4? How could skylights enhance a kitchen extension? How do I acquire the perfect blinds for my loft? Is ‘blue sky thinking’ really helpful when working on a plan for a small business?
  5. Stage five is story associations. Ask yourself what stories this object or thing could tell. Example. Pencil: Where did the tree grow that turned into the wood in this pencil? Where was this pencil sold? Who bought this pencil? Who worked in the pencil factory where this pencil was made? How has this pencil been used? Has it written / drawn anything important? If you get stuck, think about where it came from and what it’s made of – go as far back to the original source as possible.

Pencil factories, flying girls and atmospheric compounds

Note that the ‘five associations game’ works whatever you are writing. You could end up with a political news piece on the conditions workers face in pencil factories (I made this up – I have no idea what the conditions are like in pencil factories) or you could end up with a novel for children about a girl who wishes she could fly or an article for key stage 4 science teachers on the best way to teach students about atmospheric compounds or a blog post about ‘blue sky thinking’.

There’s more on generating ideas here.

Let me know how you get on

I’d be interested to know how you got on with these idea generation exercises. Let me know in the comments. Tomorrow is for bloggers and nonfiction writers: I’ll talk about how you can use templates and subheadings to get the job done more quickly.

Don’t forget to pick up your FREE book of writing prompts here.

Until then, happy writing!



  1. Vicki says:

    This is such a good exercise!
    My objects are: coffee, blanket, tv, sofa, picture, cushion, door, dolls house, mirror.
    Already it’s sparked me to think about distraction (tv) as a subject!

    1. Louise says:

      It’s fun isn’t it? Ok, off the top of my head:
      Coffee + sofa + TV – how to build in time for yourself
      Blanket – how to look after yourself and avoid burn out
      TV – how to use other media to get ideas for your blog
      Picture – using professional images and where to find them
      Cushion – how to cushion your digital business in a recession (?!)
      Door – working with media gatekeepers
      Dolls’ house – niche interests and finding your target audience
      Mirror – creating mirror posts for different audiences (I think this is called using ‘buckets’?)

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