I often have trouble coming up with a topic to write about. Most writers I know also have this problem. Some people call it writer’s block. I just call it annoying.

I write for quite a few different things, including

  • this blog
  • articles to submit to other blogs or magazines
  • short stories
  • my novel-in-progress
  • business documents

It doesn’t seem to matter which project I’m working on, I need help coming up with ideas to motivate me to get going and fill the pages. Writing is hard. Coming up with ideas to write about is hard.

Here are 12 ways I use to come up with starting points for my writing:

1. Turn on the TV

This might sound counterproductive. It’s not. I swear.

I like to flip through channels for a few minutes to see some potential characters and hear some random bits of dialogue. Whether I see a reality show, a sitcom, or a commercial for a used car seller, I usually get a snippet or two that ignites my imagination.

2. Go outside

Simple, isn’t it? I like to take a walk outside and look around. Cars driving by or parked next door, people walking their dogs, children playing in the yard, sounds and smells–the outdoors is ripe with ideas.

3. Settle in at a coffee shop

It’s tried and true. Order a latte and snag a bistro table or a comfy lounger in the corner and observe. As I sip, I see a variety of people, in assortments of relationships, having myriad conversations.

4. Hit the mall

This one also sounds a little strange but it works. Once again, it’s about getting to a public place and observing people. What are they wearing? What are they carrying? What are they talking about? Who are they with?

It’s an idea smorgasbord.

5. Scan the bookshelf

What books have I read lately? What are their themes? Where did they take place? What research did the authors have to do? I use the knowledge I’ve gleaned from other writers to inform my writing.

6. Phone a friend

Chatting with a friend not only relaxes me, but it opens my mind to a ton of new topics. It helps me know what someone else is thinking about, what matters to them, and gives me ideas for lifestyle writing and character development.

7. Pin it on Pinterest

Lots of writers pin writing prompts on Pinterest (including me). Both visual and written prompts can be really fun for writing fiction.

Looking at the things people pin can be an insight into what people care about or what’s popular right now. It’s also a great way to create visual character outlines.

8. Do some madlibs

Putting random words like nouns, adjectives, and verbs together to see what launching points I can make gets silly and weird, but it works. Sometimes a random sentence or character, like a purple hippo who loves spicy curry, can start a quirky story.

9. Start sweating

Going for a brisk walk (you can run if you want…but I don’t run unless I’m being chased), dancing around my living room, or taking a yoga class can all help my writing.

Exercise is good for our bodies and our minds (it’s been studied!). It’s amazing how often a block will crumble or a foggy idea become clear when I’m doing something active.

10. Take a shower

Many of my best ideas come to me when I have no pen available. Along the same idea as exercising and calling a friend, taking a bath or a shower is relaxing. When I’m not stressing about finding an idea, things clear up and I start to think about the things I’ve heard or seen during the past day.

11. Take a nap

I’ve written some of my favourite scenes, when I’ve stopped staring at blank pages and doing random web searches and instead have tried to shut my mind off and sleep. It’s almost as annoying as not knowing what to write about…

12. Listen to some music

Hans Christian Andersen is credited with saying, “Where words fail, music speaks.”

Putting on some tunes sometimes gets me thinking about memories from the last time I heard that song. It is a good way for me to infuse emotion into my text. Lyrics can sometimes be great writing prompts too.

Top tips

All of these tips can be summed up in two concepts: observe and take a break.

Observing people and places, looking around and listening to sounds and conversations–this is how we find ideas, themes, and characters to write about.

Allowing ourselves to take a break and rest is how we are able to recognize and use those ideas.

I’ve been really hard on myself this weekend. I haven’t been producing as many words as I’d like and I’ve been reprimanding myself and trying to force myself to write. After staring at blank pages and mindlessly surfing the internet for hours, I finally let myself take a break and turn on the TV. And now I’m writing the last few lines of my newest blog post. See? It works.

What helps you come up with ideas for your writing?


12 Ways to Find Topics to Write About   Image: ballpoint pen on lined spiral-bound notebook paper

  1. I think basically you’re saying that the only way to find things to write is not to write. And it is very true! We can’t possibly be mulling over something which we haven’t the foggiest idea about and that strains our mind. For me, I just do a lot of reading so that I can gleam stuff off and combine them into my next short story. That’s not to say I plagiarise others but I like to pick things here and there to form something of my own; a potluck of ideas if I may say so.

    I think these 12 ways are very diverse and I’m pretty sure we can at least get rewarded by doing at least one of them 🙂

    • It sounds contradictory but it’s true. Life and other forms of art are our best bets to expand our minds to learn more. As much as we are always telling ourselves “I should be writing,” we need to take breaks from it too. Writing in a vacuum doesn’t work too well. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I have written paragraphs in the steam on the shower glass. Just sayin’.
    Somewhere on the internet there is a Ted Talk by John Cleese about creativity. He says the same things as you, experience the world around in ways that other people don’t (observe) and play (relax). Play is a stretching of reality. If we do that to the breaking point we invent and then it is only a matter of writing it down or smearing it across a canvas or blowing it through someone’s ear drum.

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