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The Idea Generation Formula

What to do when you're stumped for an idea

The Idea Generation Formula

Stuck for an idea? Try this. It’s an idea generation formula that works every time, if you’re prepared to make the creative leap between the starting point and the thing you want to write about – but more on that another time.

Here’s the idea generation formula: [Something about you] + link to topic = idea

By the way, on its own the formula doesn’t give your idea depth. That comes later. But it does give you an idea when you’re stuck.

The terms in the formula

  • ‘Something about you,’ which I’ll discuss in detail in a moment, is connected to you somehow but doesn’t have to be personal or private.
  • I’ve used the word ‘topic’ in this formula, but you could substitute ‘topic’ for anything you want to write, say an article, story, poem, blog post, lesson plan or any general topic you want to write about whether that’s holidays, parenting, investing tips or alligators, or anything in between.
  • That plus sign is important – that’s the creative leap.
  • The link is the bridge you create between two concepts: the detail about you and the topic.

Get used to linking

The best way to understand the link or bridge between two concepts is to have a go at creating some for yourself. In order to do this, you’ve got to let yourself off the hook and allow yourself to write down anything (no one is going to see it after all) without censoring or criticising yourself. To prove the point, I’m going to give you ten random pairs of words. Have a go at linking them.

Here’s a linguist trick you can try if you find yourself holding back: it helps if you write down what the link could be between these concepts, not what the link is. In other words, ask yourself ‘what could link bees and whales?’ and not ‘what links bees and whales?’

Play the game

Consider this practice attempt at linking as a game. Please don’t try to make logical sense or to tell the truth when you first try this. Simply write down anything that comes to mind.

Take the question ‘what could link whales and bees?’ As answers, ‘they both like honey’ or ‘they’re both blue’ are as good as ‘they’re both animals’ or ‘they both feature in stories by Julia Donaldson.’

Here are your ten pairs of words:

  1. Whales and bees
  2. Books and fire
  3. Flowers and ice cream
  4. Shops and pencils
  5. Thailand and Glasgow
  6. Frankfurters and small dogs
  7. Fences and anchors
  8. Kindness and trees
  9. Forgetfulness and bananas
  10. Friendship and the alphabet

Imagine you had to – were being compelled to – write a sentence explaining the link between these concepts, or what the link could be, however unlikely. Have a go at doing that now.

Make your own

Like this game? You can make your own lists of words based on what you can see around you, cut them up and put them in an old tissue box or a jar, and then pull out random pairs to use. Right now I can see two snakes, a frog, a dinosaur and a sausage dog and that’s just for starters! (Can you tell I’m looking at a room full of untidy toys!?)

Now you’ve got the hang of linking, do this:

Now write down ten things about you. This could be jobs you’ve done, experiences you’ve had, food you like, TV programmes or films you enjoy, hobbies or sports you’re into, any interests you have, anything quirky or unusual about you, places you’ve lived or loved, memories you treasure, trips you’ve been on, or any category of your choice. You get the idea!

Write down ten and then choose those you’re happy to write about. As an example, here are ten random facts about me:

  1. I have two cats.
  2. I love reading.
  3. I love watching Murder Mysteries.
  4. I was baptised in the Tower of London.
  5. My dad’s side of the family have ginger hair.
  6. I love musicals.
  7. I do yoga at home most days.
  8. I have a teddy called Fred who is as old as me.
  9. I worked in a bookshop as a teenager.
  10. I love old buildings and based my first novel on a semi-demolished hotel.

Add your topic and stir

Once you’ve got your list of ‘things about you’ take whatever it is you want to write (or write about) and put them together. Find a link between the two things in the same way you did with the pairs of words in the random words game above.

Old buildings example

Here’s the idea generation formula in action. In the first example, let’s say I wanted to write a travel article and decided to start with number 10 above, old buildings. In the second, let’s assume I wanted an idea for a series of poems instead.

  1. Old buildings + travel = article about old buildings in 7 unusual travel destinations
  2. Old buildings + series of poems = poems written in or near unusual old buildings.

The writing prompt isn’t ‘old buildings’ or ‘write a travel article’ or ‘write a series of poems’. The writing prompt is ‘something about you + your topic’. You bring the creative link between the two.

Over to you

Have a go at linking ‘something about you’ with ‘something you want to write about’ to see how this technique works.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

P.S. If you’d like more tips like these, take a look at the Small Steps Writing Guides.

P.P.S. I have an online course on coming up with ideas. You can find it here.

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