We have all been there before. We sit down at the keyboard, poised to crank the next spectacular blog post. We wait for that perfect idea to appear. We type a bunch of garbage, hoping that if we get the lame, trite thoughts out first, we’ll get to the good stuff.
We fidget. We frown. We wait some more. But still, the bank account is empty. No, actually, it’s overdrawn.
Most of us get our wheels stuck in the mud every once in a while. It is at those precise times that we could use a boost. We need a big jar of ideas we can open and dump out.
An idea bank to withdraw from when ours is empty.
I don’t know about you, but I am not terribly fond of the word “creative.” Maybe it’s just been thrown around so much that we don’t understand what it means anymore. Or maybe it’s the way people talk about it, as if some of us were sprinkled with the special fairy dust and for the rest of us, well, there’s just no hope.
I want to show you that we all have the power to create, to come up with so many ideas that we’ll never run out again.
In the online content space, generating useful content doesn’t require being a creative genius. It’s just takes reprogramming our brains so we look at the world differently. It’s about turning an existing idea upside down to find the unusual.
In improvisational theatre, where the players are acting on their feet and have to be ready for anything that is thrown at them, there is a term called “yes, and…” If we use that in our businesses, in our blogs, it just means that every idea, no matter how mundane, can be added to, improved, to make something new—and better.
Where do ideas come from?
“You’ve got to be an observer. And you’ve got to take time to listen to people, talk, watch what they do.”
Jonathan Winters, comedian, actor and artist
Sometimes it can feel like our best ideas are locked inside us. Or worse yet, we have an idea, but when we hold it up to the light of day, it looks puny, lightweight. Too normal.
So we immediately discard it.
But in my experience, most good ideas originate from those lame ones that were reworked until they became unique. When you get ideas, find a way to get them down—on paper, on a laptop, in a smart phone recording. Because the more ideas you come up with, the more chance you have of hitting on that just right one.
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck was right. Successful bloggers are always watching and listening—on the lookout for new ideas. And it’s funny how that works: the more you listen and look, the more you seem to generate.
While there is more to it, the first step is letting yourself lay all of your ideas out on the table, no matter how mundane or weird they may seem. You’ll find that the more you practice this kind of uncensored thinking, the more fresh ideas will pop through.
Once you learn to capture those ideas, they’ll all be lined up, waiting for you to change them, break them into smaller pieces, make them better. But let’s save that step for later. For now, you just want to pluck as many as you can.
But where do ideas come from?
First of all, stop looking for that one original idea. You know, the thing no one on the planet has ever blogged about? Because, with more than 152 million blogs on the internet, in all likelihood, it doesn’t exist.
Every new idea comes from an existing one. And while I am going to help you figure out ways to make your content fresh and more appealing, the other half of the equation is the way you tell it.
That is what will make your blog topics unique. Because no one has your voice, your exact background, your style, your tone of writing.
Ideas are everywhere.
The tricky part is paying attention to them. After years of blogging, now, in every interaction, in each mundane, everyday experience, I ask myself: Is there a blog post in this?
You may not always recognize that an idea can be used to launch a new blog post, but you’ll get better at that as you observe more. The fun part is taking a seemingly unrelated idea and applying it to your field or industry in a way that captures your readers’ imagination and makes them think more about a problem they are trying to solve.
Think of all the blog post topics you could generate if you had your thinking hat on when you are:
- reading a book
- watching the news
- in the middle of a bad experience
- taking a walk
- sitting in your doctor’s waiting room
- taking a shower
- listening to music
- making art
- stopping by the grocery store
Looking and Listening for New Ideas
“I’m not particularly imaginative, but if I look for things in different places, sometimes things happen.”
Christopher Walken, actor
When I first started blogging, I marveled at how the successful people in the online space seemed to have all these uniquely creative ideas. They wrote with such courage and confidence! I wondered how they came up with fresh, intriguing topics, many of them every single day.
I didn’t think I could do it.
As I got more into blogging, of course, it got easier. Because just putting in the time, publishing on a consistent basis, makes new ideas seem to appear more regularly. Maybe a reader comment on a post triggers thinking that leads to another post. Or in the process of writing one post, you discover that one piece of it could be expanded into a future stand-alone post.
But the other half of finding new topics is to keep your senses on high alert alert. Because what we see and hear as we go about our day can often become a springboard for a novel post, one that helps readers understand a new concept by applying it to a familiar one.
How do we do that?
The first part of learning how to generate more ideas for your online content takes nothing more than a pair of eyes. Most of us go through life not paying attention to the thousands of seemingly mundane experiences we have.
The best communicators—bloggers, writers, speakers, even stand-up comics— have one thing in common. They are exceptionally tuned into their environment. They just notice things.
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll be in a better position to find ways to take what you see and apply it to your own topics and blog audience.
Not only will this attention to detail spark all kinds of ideas for more content pieces, as we will see in the Storytelling for Bloggers Online Course, it will help you paint more vivid pictures for your readers to pull them into your post and help them remember it.
Watch for ideas at home
I don’t have a link for this example because the site it was published on doesn’t exist anymore, but the idea for it came from the most mundane of memories. At the time, I was blogging about the issues and challenges of writers—and people who wanted to write.
The main point of the post was that writers, especially if they have a day job, too, can’t always find big chunks of time to spend on their craft. But those smaller pieces of time can add up and before you know it, you have a short story, or a chapter of your book or that magazine article written.
If we can look at our lives and cut out all the time wasters, even if it seems to be too small of an amount of time to do something with, we may be surprised at the chunk we have left to work with.
I set the scene for the post by telling a story of a struggle I had with my 12-year-old daughter. I was, at the time, a single parent, a teacher by day and a freelance writer by night. But I wasn’t finding enough time to write.
My daughter had this annoying habit of forgetting to unroll the hems on her jeans before throwing them in the laundry basket. (They were the fashion that year—those ugly, rolled up jeans.)
It was something every parent could relate to. As I stood, unrolling those hems for the millionth time, I thought about how it shouldn’t be a big deal: it was just a few seconds for each leg.
But then I got to thinking. I began to do the math. I multiplied the number of seconds per leg by the number of jeans I washed a month and tallied it again for the year. And those small snippets of time suddenly looked bigger.
I wrote a note to my daughter. I started with the math I had done and ended with all the things I could do with that collected time: write three magazine articles, take x number of bubble baths, and a bunch of other things. And I asked her if she might be able to help me reclaim that time with the simple act of unrolling the hems on those jeans legs.
I slipped the note under her bedroom door. She came out with the note in her hand. All she did was roll her eyes and say, “Mom, you’re so weird.”
This became the perfect story to start my post with. It was funny and memorable and a nice lead-in to the question: Where can we find those small pieces of time to that together could add up to a nice bundle to push forward our writing goals?
Maybe you could try it. If you listen around home, an idea for a new post might just strike you, too.
Watch for ideas at work
If you look around, topics can also emerge from your current job or even from past careers. Again, it’s as simple as watching.
When I was a blogging coach, my blog focused on education and inspiration for bloggers in the trenches. As I looked back on the years I was teaching six- and seven-year-olds, I remembered some of the things about them that I saw, things that could apply just as well to bloggers. The resulting post was Show and Tell: What I Learned About Blogging from First Graders.
It was a fun post meant to inspire and entertain.
The post came to me from those memories of the wonder, curiosity, courage and yes, weirdness, of kids that age. They were the same traits that make good bloggers. I simply wrote about what I had seen in that classroom. And I was as surprised as anyone when the applications to blogging hit me.
“Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write.”
Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones
Lean In and Listen
I had a friend once, a teaching colleague, who was fond of collecting titles for books she hoped to write one day. We were walking down the main hallway of the school, on our way to the staff room when she said, “These walls are sure dirty, aren’t they?” I responded with, “I don’t know. I don’t notice walls.” She pulled her spiral notebook from a pocket and scribbled in it. “That’s a great title for a book!” she cried. “‘I Don’t Notice Walls.’”
As I recall, she never did get around to writing any of those books. But she did show me how important it is to listen for ideas. If we do that enough, an idea is bound to smack us on the side of the head.
IN REAL LIFE:
Inspiration for a post can come from overhearing just a snippet of a conversation. You may be at the barber or hair salon. On the bus or subway. In line at Starbucks.
When Bob and I had our marketing blog, I was inspired to write a post on customer service after a visit to a local grocery store. And when the underwater cable that brought electricity to our small island broke and caused havoc in our community, I turned part of the experience into a post about how we came together and supported each other, comparing what I heard and saw to a well-functioning online community.
Keep a small notebook to record the interesting things you hear. You may be surprised by the insights you get.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA:
If you follow other business or organizations’ “fan” pages, you’ll be able to see at a glance what issues they are talking about and linking to.
To find blogs, you can put “bloggers” into the Facebook search bar at the top of the page and it shows you choices like these:
Better yet, save a little time by qualifying it with the name of a field. In this case, I typed “marketing bloggers” and it showed me:
It works as well for bloggers in the nonprofit field. For example, here is what I got when I typed “global development”:
From there, you can usually get the to website and/or blog address and you are in business.
Once you settle on a few blogs (2-3 would probably do), just click on the link and like their page. It’ll be in your Facebook stream and will not only help you keep up with news in your industry, but give you a starting place for generating ideas of your own.
You can listen in to the conversations or join them if you wish. I set aside 30 minutes a day to check my social media networks to see if anything interesting resonates with me, something I could use as fodder for a new post.
Love it or hate it, Twitter can be a very useful network. Ideas are exchanged quickly and conversations often take interesting turns. There are a few tools and strategies I use to listen to influencers and leaders in my space.
To locate people in your field who are writing about your subjects, you can do a quick search. If you are use Tweetdeck as a Twitter management tool (as I do), just click on the first icon on the left sidebar, the magnifying glass. It will take you to a search window, where you can put in the subject you are interested in. From there, the process is similar to the above Facebook search.
The other thing you can do if you are using a Twitter management tool like Tweetdeck is to put people whose content you want to follow in their own column. That way you can keep track of what they are saying and potentially get lots of ideas from them for your own blog.
Because I am an author, I have columns with some of my favorite writers (labeled “Writers” of course), a column called “Agents & Editors” and so on.
A final note
Don’t ignore the comments of your own blog’s readers. They will often give you excellent ideas for new posts.
Reading for New Ideas
“They ask, ‘What do you need to write?’ I say, ‘Read and listen deeply.’”
-Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones
A recent survey by Pew Research found that 27 percent of U.S. adults hadn’t read a single book in the last 12 months. I have to admit, that stat astounded me.
Putting aside the general benefits of reading, of which there are many, for anyone working at creative tasks like blogging and writing, reading is an essential habit. Stephen King didn’t mince words when he said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Because if it is true that the more ideas we are exposed to, the more ideas we will generate ourselves, then reading other people’s works fits beautifully.
We may not have an explosion of new ideas hit us in the middle of a reading session. (It’s more like lots of thoughts resting gently against our mind, marinating, waiting to emerge, half formed.) But reading opens up the mind, makes us think in different ways and helps us understand all kinds of people.
Certainly, self-help books by the experts are a good addition to your library. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, The Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, and others can help you develop the right mindset for creative brainstorming and idea generation.
But try some fiction, too.
Works in your own field and self-help books on creative thinking are fine and good and will trigger new ideas. But if you really want to get different perspectives, try reading fiction. What kind really doesn’t matter: historical fiction, romance novels, spy thrillers, classical literature, poetry. There is something about getting lost in a book that stimulates your imagination and gets you thinking about the what-ifs.
I can’t exactly explain why this works, only that it does. Many times, the ideas in your brain after an evening of reading will just rest there. And one day—the next day, or the day after— you might get an incredible idea for a blog post and not even associate it with what you read the night before. Because books take us into our imaginations and help us see the world in different ways, through the eyes of the characters.
Natalie Goldberg, author of Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, puts it this way:
“The other half of writing is reading. And not just reading our own writing. That is like a snake who gets hungry and will eat only his own tail. After a while the tail is gone and he keeps going. Pretty soon he’s eaten himself up. We miss out on outside nourishment and inspiration if we don’t read books. They are good for us.”
Read as much and as widely as you can.
It doesn’t always have to be a book. Anything short of reading the instructional manual for that new grill you bought will qualify.
I love my weekly New Yorker magazine fix, but I also read news stories and opinion pieces on the web. Sometimes I’ll just read a few pages from my Sonnets by William Shakespeare or a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. Even reading in short spurts seems to help me take in more ideas.
How to Leverage Existing Content to Produce More Unique Posts of Your Own
I am a big fan of brainstorming, a creative thinking exercise that focuses on gathering the biggest number of diverse ideas as quickly as possible. It is done in a group setting, with the rule that no idea is criticized, no matter how silly it seems.
Piggybacking, the idea of changing someone else’s idea by taking something away, adding to it, or turning it inside out, is a key element of brainstorming. The purpose of piggybacking is to expand on an idea to make something that is slightly different or completely unique.
We know that in brainstorming, usually the first idea is not the best. But with a little thought, the content you create on your own blog or the articles you read elsewhere can be added to, changed, and spun into a unique post with your thoughts, your own voice.
How to collect more content ideas with piggybacking
Unless you are on a team of bloggers, you probably won’t be using piggybacking in a group setting. Still, it’s useful when you are looking for new topic ideas that may be hiding inside existing content.
Let’s look at some ways piggybacking can help us mine existing content for new gems.
Mine Your Own Content
Find your popular posts
Sometimes we write a single blog post, we send it out into the world and it becomes an instant—and unexpected—hit. Lots of pageviews, lots of social media sharing, lots of responses and questions in the comments.
We didn’t plan to write more on that topic, but we see that our readers would like more. And we want to keep them happy.
Identifying the content that has been popular with your readers is a great place to start in looking for more ideas. If you develop more content along the same lines, you are almost guaranteed to capture more readers, the people who wanted to know more about what you were writing about.
How do you find those posts?
Check your traffic stats. If you have set up Google Analytics or some other stats system, you can access useful information about the number of people who visited a particular post and how many total pageviews it got. If the numbers are high, think about producing more content around that topic.
Watch your google search terms. Most analytics will tell you what people were googling that got them to your post. Think about how you could “write more of the same, but different.” (See the tip below on how to turn your popular blog post into a series.)
Look at the number (and nature) of your comments. You want to focus on posts with a higher number of comments because that was the content that engaged your readers. As you identify those posts, revisit the comments again to get a sense of what readers were most interested in and, most important, what their questions were. If there were things you didn’t talk about in your original post, write a new post to address those issues.
Pay attention to your social shares. If you have social share buttons on your blog, look for posts that were pushed out in high numbers on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels. These people found your content valuable enough to share with their friends.
Refresh and Retool
Revive an old post with a new twist.
If you revisit your older posts often, using the data and stats you accessed in your research, you can identify one post or more that you can bring back. Whether it got a lot of pageviews, tons of comments or lots of people landed there from Google, you have a winner and should consider republishing it.
Google does not look kindly on copying and republishing exisiting content (and why would you want to do that anyway?). But there are several ways to resurrect an old post and make it fresh and new.
Sometimes, the data in the post is no longer correct. Take the time to research and update it. Has something happened since you published that might have an impact on the content of your original post? Is there a paragraph in your old post that triggers new blog post ideas? Scribble it down. All of it.
What about this post appealed to readers? How can you take that interest and write a new post expanding on one of its main ideas?
Refresh an ‘evergreen post.’
I love returning to my evergreen posts. It doesn’t matter what season it is, the content in the post still applies. Evergreen posts can be published and enjoyed again because they are as fresh in July as they are in December. With the exception perhaps of technology-focused blogs, many topics will lend themselves to evergreen posts.
Two ideas: Mine your evergreen posts, especially the more popular ones, to see if any new gems pop out. Often a small part of such a post can become the foundation for a brand new piece. Ot take a time-sensitive post, remove all the parts that date it, spruce it up with a little new content, change the headline, and republish it.
Revive that sizzling post and make it a series.
Hollywood calls them sequels. They have gotten very good at taking advantage of the success of the first movie, continuing the themes, and expanding the stories to make a new hit.
What can we learn from Hollywood that will help us turn our sizzling blog post into a series?
1. Build on the popular.
Hollywood calls it “More of the same, but different.” The execs in tinsel town are good at jumping into work on a sequel not too long after the first weekend’s box office receipts have been counted.
The lesson for bloggers: While you don’t count tickets sold, you can leverage what is popular and create content on the original blog post topic but with a new spin.
2. Expand and deepen the original idea.
Pixar did it well with the amazing Toy Story movies. InToy Story III, they beautifully deepened the themes of loss and aging from the second film. So much that you really felt the progression and the growth of Andy as he gives up his toys for good.
The lesson: Take a popular post and go deeper with it. Maybe it’s as simple as taking a “7 Tips…” post and making separate posts out of each of the seven tips. There you have it: an 8-part series. Or, take a question from your comments and turn it into a sequel post.
3. Connect to the original storyline but surprise us.
Even when it seems like it is the last movie in a series (Men in Black comes to mind), Hollywood writers keep the options open, leaving the ending hanging and, thus, the moviegoers’ curiosity piqued.
The lesson: Make references to your original post, but show us entirely new things in your sequel posts. For your new readers, it helps if you can recap and link to your first post. If your mind is thinking series, leave an intriguing question at the bottom of your original post to elicit reader curiosity and hint at what’s to come.
4. Don’t give it all away.
Master screenwriters who have their series hats on always leave something unresolved at the end of each movie. The Harry Potter films are an excellent example of this.
The lesson: The endings to your series posts may not be cliffhangers in the true sense of the word, but they should leave your readers wanting, or wondering, or both. Hint at something your reader wants or needs to know, so she’ll come back to your next post for the answer.
5. Reward audience loyalty.
Hollywood movies sometimes have zingers and inside messages that only people who saw the previous movie will get. It gives them the satisfaction that they are in the “inner circle,” with the people in the know. The second Indiana Jones movie did this by using catch phrases from the first film that made devoted fans grin, but still made sense to new moviegoers.
The lesson: While you don’t want to make certain readers part of a community that excludes others, you can reward your blog’s regular readers in other ways. Consider highlighting a comment one of them made in the previous post and using it to start your new post, complete with their name and a link to their blog or website.
Mine Other People’s Content
I can hear the gasps as you read this. Before you tell me it’s not nice to steal, hear me out. The beauty of piggybacking is that someone else’s stuff can be that spark of inspiration you need to create your own stellar post.
It works because although the topic might be the same, you have your own personal take on it and will make it your own. And no one can write in precisely the same way you can.
Find successful bloggers to follow and subscribe to their blogs.
It is amazing how reading other blogs can trigger new ideas for you. You will want to choose your blogs carefully. (Obviously, you want to visit and return to the ones you love and enjoy reading.)
Choose just a few in your industry, four or five at the most, and lean in and pay attention, not just to what the blogger is talking about but what his or her readers are saying in the comments.
But don’t limit it to just your own field because that can rapidly become an echo chamber. Find at least one in a completely different niche. There you are likely to find truly unique ideas that can spark a completely different post for you.
Where do you find bloggers in your own field?
You can do a search for bloggers on Google or Facebook, but I have found Guy Kawasaki’s site, alltop.com, to be the best source of the most popular blogs. It’s been called the ultimate magazine rack, and for a good reason. You can look for blogs alphabetized by topic or simply do a search of your own. Either way, you’re sure to find at least a handful of excellent blogs to follow:
Read and comment.
Subscribe to a few of the blogs you found and set aside a few minutes each morning to read them. Leaving a comment is optional, but you may find that reading others’ comments on a post will inspire a thought or two for a new post of your own.
Jot down notes about possible posts of your own.
What topics did you absolutely love? Can you take any and put your own spin on them?
How to Generate and Organize Ideas Faster with Mind Mapping
“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”
Alan Alda, actor
Mind mapping is an incredible tool for generating and organizing your ideas. It’s especially useful when you are looking for online content topics, ones that are just the right size to package into a tasty post for your readers to consume.
If you have ever taken notes in a class to make some sense of the content, you have engaged in mind mapping of sorts. The difference with mind mapping is that you start with the big picture—a word, a phrase, a drawn picture—and branch out, moving from the general to the more specific.
And all the time, you are making a visual representation, with lines and circles, ‘roads’ leading farther away from the too-big topic you started with. You are breaking down the huge into more manageable pieces. And that is exactly what you want to do when you write a blog post.
Once you master this process, you will find that you will be able to generate blog post content faster. If you are a divergent thinker like I am (that is, you like to generate creative ideas by coming up with as many possible solutions as you can), you will feel right at home with mind mapping.
But even if you tend toward more linear, logical thinking, mind mapping can help you tap into your creative side.
In my teaching days, when I first discovered mind mapping, I jumped for joy. It was the best of both worlds, this tool for releasing all those wild-eyed ideas but taming them enough so they made sense to other people.
Since then, I have used mind mapping to encourage divergent thinking in classrooms with everyone from excitable first graders to gifted upper school students and graduate program teachers. When the buzz started in business and management circles, I was delighted to see a successful tool in education crossing over to other fields.
What is a mind map?
While image- and word-centered maps have been used as organizational tools for centuries, the term mind mapping was coined in the 1970s by British psychologist and author Tony Buzan.
A mind map is a useful tool for generating new ideas and organizing them into a coherent piece of content. At its simplest, it is a map with side roads that lead to more interesting stuff.
You can construct a mind map in two different ways. Some people like to think of a mind map as a tree, with branches that go out from the trunk, leading to new thoughts or content sub-topics.
But the method I prefer produces more of a fluid, non-linear idea picture. I start with a big circle in the center of the paper (there are mind mapping software programs, but I still prefer the old-fashioned option, pen and paper). Then from the central idea in the big circle, I branch out and travel to other interesting places, which may or may not become part of my blog post.
That is the beauty of a mind map. It frees your mind to brainstorm diverse ideas and becomes a bank to revisit whenever you want to withdraw more topics. Use them now or use them later because there is no expiration date.
As I said, you can now create digital mind maps and there are several programs out there. (See the resources listed in Lesson 7.) For me, the ideas flow faster when they come directly from my brain, down the arm, through my fingers, in spatters of thick, gloppy ink.
But use the option that works best for you.
Why you should try mind mapping
For starters, mind mapping:
Stimulates both sides of your brain.
Most of us are more proficient with one hemisphere of our brain than the other. The left brain’s strengths are logic, lines and lists. The right brain is more skilled with imagination, images and whole-picture thinking. By drawing on the two of them together, mind mapping helps in both the creation and organization phases of idea generation.
Helps you find manageable blog post topics.
A mind map creates order out of chaos, especially when your original topic idea is overwhelming. If you keep practicing (yes, it may feel awkward at first), you will start to see when that just right sub-topic jumps out at you.
Stimulates the generation of new ideas faster.
There is nothing as exhilarating as a mind mapping session that pulls dozens of ideas out of your brain and lays them all out in graphic form.
Makes the natural connections between ideas easy to see.
You can see immediately the relationships between your ideas and which ones will naturally fit together in one post.
Helps you figure out gaps in your thinking and identify missing pieces of content.
The logic part of a mind map will trigger for you the content gaps in your post and the points you have left out.
How to create a mind map
Think of a mind map as a visual of your ideas, starting with a large topic and moving from general to specific. Your goal is to break your topic down into consumable pieces for your reader.
The easiest way to show you is to create an actual mind map for one of my blog posts. This is the one I made for a post on my own blog, “How Growing Your Child’s Sense of Justice Can Change the World.”
For this post, I started with the big idea, how to grow a sense of justice in your child. I structured my post around the 3 E’s, a model I used with kids in my teaching days. I wanted to show how that model worked in the classroom and how it can also work for parents in the setting of the home.
So I started with my main blog post topic in the center circle, which I labeled “Growing Justice.” Because I already had an angle for this post, I made two circles branching out, one labeled “Classroom” and the other “Home.” This time I wasn’t using the tool so much to brainstorm new ideas as to plan the content of one particular post, but you get the idea. By using mind mapping, I was able to break my topic into pieces the reader can easily understand.
From the “Classroom” circle, I drew three more lines going out to circles that had each of the 3 Es in them: “Empathy,” “Education,” and “Empowerment.” I wanted to show how I worked with these kids in these three areas, which are key to helping them understand how they can recognize injustice and figure out what to do about it. I then branched out from each of the Es with circles for what we did in the classroom to get to empathy, education and empowerment. On the “Home,” circle, I did the same thing, this time with a focus on what parents can do to follow up with their kids in working them through the 3 Es.
The resulting mind map was just that: a map showing clearly the path my post would take.
Your mind maps can be a treasure trove of ideas that will trigger more topics for future blog posts. I pull mine out every once in a while and usually find new gems of content lying there in plain sight.
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
1. Turn a blank page sideways to give yourself enough room to branch out in all directions.
2. Write your general topic in the center of the paper and draw a circle around it. Think of it as your home base, the point from which you will take your “day trips.” This is where your thinking will start.
3. Work from the general topic in the center to the specific, connecting your sub-topic branch to your central idea using a line that leads to a new circle.
4. Use single key words or phrases—the shorter, the better.
5. Always look for a sub-topic that is a manageable, bite-sized piece of content.
6. Continue mind mapping from that blog post sub-topic to brainstorm your post’s main points.
7. Save your mind maps to revisit for ideas for additional posts, or even to create a blog series around your main topic.
Try creating a mind map using the getting started steps above. Start with your central idea (blog post topic) in the center and worked outward from there.
A whole cottage industry has sprung up around mind mapping software programs. I have never used them, so I cannot vouch for their quality, but check the resources in the final lesson for a few options to explore if you feel more comfortable on the keyboard.
How to Make Creative Habits a Part of Your Day
Sometimes people ask me how I come up with my ideas—as a writer, blogger, and content marketing specialist here at BobWP. It’s a complex question, but if I go for the short answer I usually say that I practice thinking like a child.
The fact is, there is no creativity gene.
I taught first graders for 15 years. (For those in a country other than the U.S., this is equivalent to the first full-day year of primary school, the time when most children learn to read.)
One thing I learned from this experience is that we all have it, this creativity thing. These kids were just six and seven and they came to school ready to explore, to try new things.
And they were not afraid to fail. If one idea didn’t work, they would enthusiastically try another one.
What is creativity?
Creativity is an ability.
If you are not a first grader anymore, the creative abilities you once had have slowly dissolved over the years. Sometimes school, the very institution that should grown and nurtured our creative side, beats it out of us instead.
Creativity is an attitude.
It’s a willingness to accept change, to play with ideas. And it’s being willing to fail. Some of our greatest inventors knew that it takes lots of ideas—many of them bad—to come up with that great one.
Creativity is a habit.
This is perhaps the most important trait of all. Creativity is a muscle. When I started teaching middle grade students, it became crystal clear. By third grade, those open, fearless, spontaneous first graders were gone. Their creativity muscles had gotten lazy. But the funny thing is, just like stopping our yoga, bicycling or walking, as soon as we start using it again, it comes back.
To get back to that child self, the one that wasn’t afraid to try new things and was open to just about any idea, here are some habits to practice:
“To stimulate creativity, one must develop a childlike inclination for play…”
“If you want creative workers, give them time to play.”
It’s interesting how two brilliant people—Einstein and Cleese—are saying the same thing. Doing things just for the fun of it is the best way to free up your mind for all those percolating ideas.
Julia Cameron, in her excellent book, The Artist’s Way, walks you through weekly ‘artist dates’ to reconnect with your playful side and jumpstart your creativity. (For a link to the book, see the Resources in Lesson 7.)
Play is powerful in and of itself. But for the artist/blogger/writer, play is essential to our self-nurturing. I have learned that the creative part of me, the one I need to show up for work, depends on getting enough play time. And I know that the best ideas come to me when I am playful.
To take charge of the child in me, who is lurking inside, waiting to escape, I find time to do things like:
- juggle (yes, I have three juggling balls)
- paint with my water color set
- create crazy shapes with my kaleidoscope
- make something from modeling clay
- stretch my bendable Gumby into weird positions
- play with my paddle ball (you, know, that board thingie with the elastic string and red ball)
- sketch a drawing of my cat
It doesn’t matter how good you are at painting with water colors or juggling. When you are having fun, there is no point.
But that’s the point.
It is the act itself that is key to channeling your inner artist, your creative child. I make time for this kind of play at least once a week.
The best blog posts have a way of getting into the reader’s head. If you can understand multiple perspectives, you can get creative with the stories you write or tell on your blog. Not only will you have an original blogging voice, but the people in your stories will have something unique to say, too.
Here is one example of the pretend concept. Bob and I play a game where we turn the sound off in a movie and voice new lines for the characters. It seems to work best with old movies: the film noirs and screwball comedies. He takes one character in a scene and I take the other. In addition to being good for laughing yourself sick in a short period of time, this game helps you build on an existing idea and change/add to it quickly. It’s good practice for the brain when it comes to generating ideas for your content—and overall, for your business.
This creative thinking skill can be summed up with, “This thing is like this other thing.” When asked to define infinity, a 9-year-old said, “It’s like the man on the Quaker Oats box.” If you recall (and maybe you don’t), the Quaker Oats box used to show a picture of a man holding a Quaker Oats box, and on that box is a man holding a Quaker Oats box. It appeared that it would go on forever and so this student compared it to infinity.
Analogies and metaphors can be very useful to compare things in fresh, new ways. For instance, comparing your blog’s readers to players and spectators in a game. Or using the metaphor of house for explaining the elements of a blog.
The best bloggers I know have an incredible ability to put a new spin on an old idea. Did you know that you can actually train your mind to get better at doing this? When my daughter was acting in L.A., she was a member of The Red-Headed Stepchild, an improv troupe. It was make-it-up-as-you-go-along: fast, funny and smart. And they got very good at inventing.
The TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? was based on the same idea. For example, in the timed exercise called Props, the actors passed one prop back and forth and each time they had to invent a new use for it.
Bob and I play this game at garage sales (okay, sometimes we get some strange looks). It works especially well when there are a lot of automotive tools and parts because I know nothing about them, so I don’t have any pre-conceived ideas. This exercise will help you get good at looking at things from a different angle and finding the new in the old. And those skills will transfer to your writing.
No, I am not inferring anything about your alcohol or drug intake. I’m talking here about a technology detox. As incredibly efficient as our keyboards and computer screens are, they have short-circuited our brains, bypassing the areas that process idea generation and memory. One option to counter that is to ditch your tools of technology every once in a while and pick up the pen like Shakespeare did.
Writing by hand can make you a more creative blogger
The research backs up what I have discovered myself, that writing by hand engages the brain. The hand has a unique connection to the brain when we are generating and expressing ideas. While typing on a keyboard just requires us to select a whole letter by striking the key, writing with a pen forces us to execute sequential strokes. And brain imaging has shown that sequential finger movements activate the region for thinking, language, creativity and memory.
How could writing longhand make you a more creative, interesting blogger? What if you set aside 10-15 minutes a day to give it a try? Here are a few ideas:
If you are already a doodler, you are in great company. George Washington and Leonardo da Vinci were both known to scribble words and pictures in random, spontaneous ways. Companies like Dell, Zappos, Apple and Disney are even paying consultants to help their employees learn how to doodle.
Doodling gives you time to process your ideas. It helps train your mind to get to more creative solutions. Just the simple act of taking a basic shape and asking yourself, “What else could this be?” and then adding lines and strokes to it to complete it helps you practice this.
In a sketchbook with blank, unlined pages (they can be found in any art supplies store or bookstore), create random shapes, then turn them into objects (for instance, animals); at a work meeting, or in your own office, take a single word and draw at least ten representations, either improvising on the word you printed, or drawing something that relates to the word; doodle-draw a character from a favorite story or movie; doodle while listening to a talk or to music.
Write two to three pages of longhand every day.
The nice thing about writing random thoughts each day, in addition to activating the creative side of the brain, is that it helps you get rid of your inner editor. There is no delete button, so the words just splash onto the paper, often messy, sometimes even incoherent.
When I write mine, I don’t even go back and read them. Sometimes, much later, I will read past entries and think, “Hmm. That’s an interesting idea,” and I may use it as a springboard for a piece of online content. But many more times, the process just frees me to release my fears and negative thoughts that I’m not being good enough or creative enough.
So just let your mind go where it wants to go and write anything that crosses your mind, no matter how weird it may seem. I have stacks of notebooks in closets, pages and pages that I have filled over the years.
Get a cheap spiral school notebook or two at the grocery store and start writing 2-3 pages a day, on anything you want to write about. It works best for me to do mine as soon as I get up in the morning, so I can release my brain to engage creatively for the rest of the day.
Use mind mapping more to brainstorm blog post ideas.
As we talked about earlier in this post, mind mapping is another way to establish that reconnection between hand and brain. The regular use of this creative thinking tool can help you generate hundreds of new ideas while organizing your topics and planning your blog posts.
Collect your ideas in a small notebook.
I keep a small notebook in the car, one by my nightstand and one in my office. If you are ever stuck somewhere, as I used to be while waiting in the ferry lines, you’ll be surprised at how jotting down an idea here and there can trigger even more interesting ideas.
Try planning your post in longhand first.
Though it might seem counterproductive at first, getting your rough draft ideas down with pen and paper can stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain, that area that is a rich source of emotion and creativity. I always reach for a yellow legal pad and a pen. My pen of perference is the Uni-ball Roller, which makes my writing free-flowing and fluid. It has the feeling of a fountain pen without all the mess. (Although as Bob can tell you, I’m not afraid to pick up a fountain pen, either.)
And for those times when you have blogger’s block, check out the post 7 Things to Do When Blogging Is Seriously Hard.
More ideas: 7 Ways to Crush a Blogging Slump
The major league baseball season lasts for 180 days. These players are in for the long haul. One game (unless it’s the playoffs) doesn’t have a huge impact. It’s the overall record, the showing up and playing consistently, that matters more. Still, the season is long enough for players to fall into a slump.
In many ways, blogging can be compared to baseball. As on the playing field, sometimes in blogging, things just don’t click. Ideas for topics seem scarce. We aren’t knocking it out of the park with our posts. It feels like the stadium is empty because the fans, our readers, are silent. Where did they go?
Here is what we can learn from baseball players who find themselves in a slump:
1. Don’t obsess over your strikeouts.
We have high hopes for every one of our blog posts. We want that home run. And sometimes we take it personally if it doesn’t happen. But if you just focus on showing up, you’ll come to realize that each post is just a fraction of your total body of work. So, this one post didn’t strike your readers’ fancy. So what? It’s just one post.
2. Ignore the numbers and trust yourself.
Players who watch their stats too much tend to freeze up more often. Bloggers can fall into this trap, too. If you are an FSC (Frequent Stats Checker), stop it. Focus on that current post, on making it the best it can be.
3. Don’t chase bad balls.
Just like you can’t put a good swing on a bad pitch, you can’t make a gem-filled post out of a crappy idea. Don’t waste your time. Toss it and pick another topic.
4. Start with one small goal and block out the distractions.
Pro baseball players understand that tunnel vision is a good thing. There may be lots of reasons for their slump, but when they step up to the plate, they choose one small goal and focus on it. Maybe it is simply to move a runner from second to third with a sacrifice fly.
As a blogger, your goal might be nothing more than writing a short, one-paragraph tip for your reader. Or to link to three excellent blog posts you found on the web this week. Think baby steps.
5. Mix it up.
Just as a baseball player may change his stance, his pre-swing, or his mental approach, a blogger can try different things, too. A video post. An interview with someone you admire. A longer post if you normally write short—or vice versa. Or a “Free Stuff I Found” post with links to resources.
6. Get off the bench and visit the batting cage more often.
In baseball, the more times you swing at the ball, the more your chances of connecting with it. Same thing with blogging. Don’t sit on the bench. Step up your blogging frequency. As we saw in past lessons, new ideas spawn more new ideas. Blogging more helps you write better, faster, easier. For a time on my own blog, I switched my blogging from two times a week to four and I found that my posts didn’t take nearly as long to write.
7. Trust your own instincts—but please, wash your underwear.
Baseball players in a slump desperately need something to believe in. Some players have even been known to keep wearing the same underwear after they started getting a few hits. (I know, that’s kind of disgusting.) They are looking for some self-confidence, something to believe in. Because baseball is a mental game.
The blogger’s equivalent might be putting herself on information overload. Reading too many other blogs, listening to too much advice from the social media “thought leaders”—these things can overwhelm you. Old-time Major League Baseball executive Branch Rickey said it best. “A full mind is an empty bat.” So block out all that advice, trust your instincts, and just get writing.
Well, there you have it. Hopefully enough ideas to chew on for a while. Because the thinking piece of blogging is at least half of the equation for success. So just bookmark this when you feel that your idea gas tank is running on low.