Back to Basics: Generate Ideas to Find What You Have to Say

[Ep 226]

With my Back to Basics series, I’m providing tools you can apply to your next project in hopes it will make the writing process easier and the final product stronger than ever—so you can make an impact.

Last time, we started by identifying a project’s high-level elements—its Topic, Audience, Purpose, and Medium. After that, you can focus on the message of your project; that is, given your topic, what is this project’s IDEA.

What do you write about​? Is it running, longevity, RV travel, cooking on a budget, stamp collecting, or social justice?

Maybe you’re known for this topic and it’s your brand identity, or maybe you’ve been assigned this by an editor. Regardless, you start with a topic, but you don’t stop there.

You have to hone in on an idea: a narrowed idea suitable for this particular project and this particular audience. Your finalized idea will reflect the slant or angle you’re taking that will provide focus and set your project apart from others tackling the same topic.

It’s tempting to latch onto the first idea that pops into our heads—and sometimes those are indeed fresh and full of potential. Most of the time, though, if we want to write something that stands out, we’re better off taking time to send the idea through five phases:

  1. Generate
  2. Narrow
  3. Validate
  4. Revise (adapt, adjust)
  5. Confirm or Finalize

1. Generate

First, you’ll generate ideas. You’re about to hear lots of tips for generating ideas in this episode, and I’ll include links to a few other articles and resources. You can test them out and find what works best for you. 

2. Narrow

When you land on some ideas with potential, you’ll narrow them to suit your audience, purpose, and medium. You’ll also find your unique slant.

3. Validate

When it seems your idea has potential, you’ll validate the idea, especially if you’re launching a big project like a book. But even when you’re planning an article or blog post, it’s smart to take a few steps to vet the idea, and I’ll explain that in another episode.

4. Revise

After that process, you’ll adapt it based on the input you receive during the validation phase, revising and adjusting the idea as needed.

5. Confirm or Finalize

The last phase will be to confirm your idea and finalize it so you can dig in and—finally!—write.

A five-phase process just to lock in an idea may sound like overkill and it may seem like it’ll take ages, but you’ll breeze through it—especially for short projects. And it’s definitely worth it for longer projects because they’ll come together more efficiently when you walk through these phases.

Let’s start with what it takes to generate ideas.

Generate Ideas to Find What You Have to Say

When we begin our search for writing ideas, we start with ourselves. What are you drawing from to produce your projects? What’s in you? What do you have to say?

Generate Ideas by Remembering

Our writing usually flows out of the person we are. The ideas we share are ideas inside us, so writing about our past and drawing from memories, we can pull up ideas that formed us, challenged us, confused us.

Using those memories as the centerpiece of a project, we can dive in to explore the meaning, the truth, the lies, and the message locked in our past.

These ideas flow from the richness of remembering.

Generate Ideas by Living

We continue to add to our memories by increasing experiences. So another way to generate ideas is by living.

The stories we tell, if nonfiction, are experiences we’ve had or observed in others—or heard from others. 

And, actually, if we write fiction, the scenes and ideas still flow from what we’ve seen, heard, tasted, smelled…from what we’ve experienced. Even mundane assignments start with our exposure to and understanding of the subject matter.

To generate ideas, we have to live. To live well, we can make choices that take us places, switch things up, change our perspective, widen our lens.

Work on Yourself as a Person

In an interview with Linda Sivertson, Ann Patchett said her advice for writing something great is: “Work on yourself as a person instead of working on yourself as a writer.”1

She talked about a professor of hers, the late Grace Paley, who would load up the students and drive them into Manhattan to take part in a protest, because, Ann said, Grace wanted them to experience life, make a difference, take a stand, and fight for good—she wanted each of them to become the best person they could be.2

Her method was to introduce them to the world so each person would have new material, new ideas, new experiences. From that, presumably, these young writers would have something to say, something to write about.

Ann continued:

 [W]henever anybody says to me, can writing be taught? I say, well sure, I can teach you how to be a better writer. I can teach you how to write better dialogue or the importance of plot or narration or whatever. But I cannot teach you how to have something to say. And that is the heart of it. Do you have something to say?3

Ann Patchett

Ideas that mean something—ideas that change readers—are ideas that mean something to you, that changed you. And one way we can be changed is to step into the world and interact with new people, visit new places, and experience life.

Engage from the Center of Your Heart

But we can take it one notch deeper—one layer more intimate and vulnerable. Ann Patchett continues:

Are you a person who is engaging with the world from the very center of your heart and you’re writing about something because you’re trying to make a difference? That to me is great writing.4

Ann Patchett

Live life from there—generate ideas from there—from the center of your heart, and your words will make a difference and you’ll have something great to say.

Are you a person who is engaging with the world from the very center of your heart 600x600 - Back to Basics: Generate Ideas to Find What You Have to Say

Generate Ideas by Noticing

No matter how much we experience, we need to pay attention to what’s happening. We also need to record it somehow. By noticing and documenting life, we’ll have a wealth of ideas to draw from. 

Engage the senses and pay attention to the world around you.

Record what you observe; reflect on its meaning. 

Try not to miss details like the small gesture, the faint scent, the peals of laughter. Note the temperature, fabric, lighting, colors, and space. 

If we intend to draw from that wealth of observation, we will want to preserve it somewhere, documenting what we’ve noticed. 

  • If you save scraps of paper, ticket stubs, and flyers, store them in a box or file folder.
  • If you document digitally, type up thoughts and save those entries in your favorite space, whether that’s OneNote, Evernote, Google Docs, a spreadsheet, or some other system.
  • If you document visually, take photos and store those using a retrievable, searchable filing system with tags or filenames that help you locate your inspiration.

We draw from this raw material of life to generate ideas to use in our writing, and as we create, we find meaning. 

Generate Ideas by Reading

The best way to improve as a writer is to read, but reading is also a great place to find ideas. Just as an op-ed or letter to the editor is written as a response to an editorial in the newspaper, you can write in response to something you read.

  • Blog posts
  • Magazine articles
  • News pieces
  • Books
  • Social media updates

Whatever you read—short or long, online or in print—it can inspire ideas for your own projects. 

Don’t write in that voice or style, and be careful not to plagiarize in any way (give credit for anything you excerpt or summarize). But when you read something, you may realize you want to refute it or build on it, expanding on their ideas. In this way, you can generate your own ideas from what you read.

You can point to the source and creatively enrich the ideas from the original presentation with your own deep understanding of the subject matter. 

Or maybe you’ll pull together five different ideas from five different sources to form one new thought, synthesizing them for your audience.

Or maybe one small idea buried in one chapter of a literary novel inspires a research project for a nonfiction book of your own.

Read and reflect on what you take in, so you can generate more ideas.

Generate Ideas by Journaling

Many people have journaled their entire lives to capture daily life, thoughts, feelings, revelations, and frustrations. Others come and go, abandoning journals after a few entries. Some find simplified methods that suit their lifestyle well, like bullet journals and one-line-a-day journals.

If you think you’re not a journaling type, maybe you need to test out variations to see if you simply haven’t found one that works.

Traditional journals 

Traditional journals typically contain the source materials of day-to-day activities, observations, thoughts, and emotions. If you don’t keep one, this may be the time to begin. 

Consider all the different types:

  • High-end leatherbound
  • Spiral-bound notebooks picked up on sale at the start of a school year
  • Composition books
  • Moleskine 
  • One-Line-a-Day 

Maybe you just haven’t landed on the type of journal that fits the way you think and operate.

Homework for Life

In his TEDx Talk, on his podcast, and at his blog, storyteller Matthew Dicks invites every person, not just writers, to document their “most story-like moment from the day” for what he calls Homework for Life™

He takes five minutes at the end of each day and thinks back: What made this day different from all the rest?5

The idea is so simple. He writes a sentence or two—sometimes just a string of words—and that brings back a memory from the day: the moment he chose to document. Note the small discoveries, the daily surprises, those meaningful moments you don’t want to lose.

He keeps his in a spreadsheet, making it easy to search keywords and find connections and themes from year to year.6

Morning Pages

Julia Cameron urges artists to practice the daily ritual of Morning Pages—writing three handwritten pages first thing in morning.7

This practice can be an idea-generating gold mine, because it taps the mind fresh from dreams, before the world intrudes with its headlines, notifications, and email onslaught.

Writer’s Notebook

Writers often keep notebooks associated with a specific project to keep ideas flowing, sort through stuck spots, and chronicle the creative process. In these notebooks, ideas that don’t fit into the work-in-progress can be stored and accessed later to contribute to the next big undertaking.

Novelists pack their notebooks with lists that include descriptions, timelines, character notes, and snatches of dialogue. Make a list of unfortunate events you can throw at your characters and you’ll have the makings of your next novel’s plot.

Generate Ideas by Brainstorming

Tap your natural curiosity and creativity during the ideation stage to generate, explore, and develop ideas for your writing projects. People use a lot of tools to support the brainstorming process.

Start with a brain dump to spill out every thought out until you think you’ve hit the last possible idea you have ever had. 

After that, continue with other systems and approaches, asking questions like, “What else?” and “What if we tried it another way?”and “What if I didn’t have X tool?” 

Keep tossing out ideas, no matter how ludicrous, and see how your brain dredges up long-lost trivia or memories and makes connections. Checking out the following tools and techniques to support the creative process:

  • Whiteboard
  • Post-Its 
  • Index cards
  • Mind Maps or clusters

Generate Ideas by Making Lists

Whether you’re keeping a journal or meeting an article deadline, lists are quick ways to write during busy seasons. 

List everything you know about a topic, subject, or scene you plan to write—this is kind of like a brain dump. Your list establishes what you already know and reveals what you have yet to find out. Thanks to the list, you can plan your research and fill in the gaps.

List keywords and phrases associated with your idea, because that will guide your initial research, which will reveal even more keywords and phrases you didn’t know existed.

Make a list of the big ideas and subtopics you want to cover in a nonfiction book. This list can help you determine the angle your project will take and later, you can convert this list into a working Table of Contents.

Generate Ideas with a Rough Outline

Speaking of a Table of Contents, rough outlines—and a working TOC is basically a rough outline—can emerge from a list, mindmap, or cluster. This rough outline—along with the lists and notes you’ve taken so far—helps you spot information gaps that need research and development for your project to be complete.

You can use the classic Roman numeral I, II, II, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, i, ii, iii approach to organizing your outline. But if we’re talking about fought outlines, feel free to just number things and keep it simple.

It’s nice to have a way to show levels and subheading ideas when you’re tackling lengthier projects, but go ahead and create it in a way that makes sense to your brain.

Generate Ideas by Composing Headlines and Titles

Generate article headlines or chapter titles you’d love to tackle someday and you’ve got an idea bank to draw from when you’re ready for something new. When you have time minutes free, add to the list. And you can use templates to speed things along.


Books often have a title and subtitle, and when I’m working on a book, I like to make a long list of titles and subtitles, then I mix and match, combining a title with a subtitle to emphasize an audience or big idea in a book. 

For example, let’s say I was writing about technology, and I generate title ideas, like:

  • Switch
  • Flip the Switch
  • Power Out
  • Power Off
  • Power Down
  • The Power of Powering Down
  • The Up Side to Powering Down

My brain would get going, and then I’d start thinking of subtitles:

  • Empower Yourself by Powering Down
  • Live Your Best Life with Less Tech
  • Reconnect with Family in an Always-On World
  • Disconnect from Technology to Reconnect with Family

You can see that some emphasize “living your best life” and others emphasize “family.” Depending on my focus, I can mix and match to find a combination that I like:

The Power of Powering Down: Live Your Best Life with Less Tech, or

The Up Side to Powering Down: Disconnect with Tech to Reconnect with Family


Pay attention to headlines that grab your attention—when you feel your finger hovering to click through, take note of the title and convert it into a template to use for your next headline.

Even the click-bait-y headlines can get you thinking up ideas:

  • How to ______________  in X Days/Minutes/Hours  ____________
    How to Generate an Endless List of Article Ideas in Ten Minutes a Day
  • X Ways to _________________
    7 Ways to Disconnect Your Kids (and yourself) from Technology
  • X Tips for ___________________ the Easy Way
    3 Tips for Growing Tomatoes the Easy Way, or
    9 Tips for Building Upper Body Strength with Nothing but Resistance Bands
  • _______________ or _______________ : [Question]
    Stencil or Canva: Which Design App Do We Recommend? or
    Adidas or Brooks: Which Shoe Is Best for Flat-Footed Runners?

Generate Ideas by Writing

Still not sure what you have to say (or want to say)? Still struggling to unearth what lies beneath?

Writing can be the way in.

Sometimes we start with nothing but a moment, a memory snippet, and from that we can freewrite, using writing itself as a way to unearth what we want to say.

“I read, listen, and write my way to discovery,”8 writes Charity Singleton Craig in her book The Art of the Essay. I know Charity personally, and I can verify she exhibits the trait of a curious creative, following an idea, statement, or detail to see where it leads.

Quote from Charity Singleton Craig: I read, listen, and write my way to discovery.

In a 2018 interview right here on this podcast, Patrice Gopo, said when we’re trying to understand what’s happening in our lives or in the world—when we delve deeply into an incident to see its significance and why it matters—that’s meaning-making on the page.9

Write without knowing where a thought is leading you or what theme is emerging. You don’t have to know where you’re going, but you have to be willing to go wherever the path on the page leads.

That’s the discovery process. That’s how we tease out ideas for our writing.

Patrice says, “You’re going to discover something new about yourself or new about the world or just new about the situation you’re in, whatever it may be.”10

Charity writes:

Often, our thoughts, opinions, and emotions are hidden when we begin. They surface as we write, our minds themselves serving as the subject of our inquiry. We investigate, ripple outward.11

Charity Singleton Craig

I can set out with good intentions and a logical plan for my writing projects, but the curious creative in me often strays from the original outline to dive deeper and unearth more than I realized was available when I initially formed my plan.

That’s part of the mess of writing—and it’s part of the fun of generating ideas.

Call it discovery or inquiry or curiosity, I’m grateful for this writing process that invariably leads to greater insight, understanding, and meaning. That’s so important—now, more than ever.

Generate Ideas with Research

To give you a sneak preview to the next episode on how to narrow and validate ideas, let’s end with how research can help generate ideas.

When we dive deep into a topic, we turn up information—some of it relevant, some of it not. But in the search, the information that wasn’t so relevant may end up being gold for another topic.

To research the book Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand ordered vintage newspapers from the 1930s, and she explains that as she read about the horse, she “happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading,” she said. “Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.”12

Research for one project generated an idea for another. With the turn of a page, she landed on her next project: Unbroken


Try these ideas and you’ll end up with pages and pages of ideas to scroll through. Maybe you’ll store them in a bullet journal; maybe they be lined up in Evernote or Google Keep. 

Now you can pick one with promise. Read through the list and pay attention to one that catches your eye and holds your attention.

Which idea would you enjoy living with for a stretch or time?

Does one of these ideas make sense given the brand you’re building—do you want to be known for this kind of thing?

That’s the one.

Now you’re ready to narrow and validate.

Generate Ideas to Find Out What You Have to Say 1 - Back to Basics: Generate Ideas to Find What You Have to Say


  1. Sivertson, Linda. “Sue Monk Kidd & Ann Patchett on the Beautiful Writers Podcast: Longings-In Writing & Life.” Book Mama, Linda Sivertson, 6 June 2020,, 54:39
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Dicks, Matthew. “Homework for Life | Matthew Dicks | TEDxBerkshires.” YouTube, TEDx Talks, 8 Dec. 2015,
  6. Ibid.
  7. Cameron, Julia. “Morning Pages.” Julia Cameron Live,
  8. Craig, Charity Singleton. The Art of the Essay: from Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words: Includes Activities for Personal Journals, Classrooms, and Writing Groups!, by Charity Singleton Craig, T.S. Poetry Press, 2019, p. 26.
  9. Kroeker, Ann, and Patrice Gopo. “Ep 173: [Interview] Patrice Gopo on Meaning Making on the Page and Studying the Craft.” Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, 28 Feb. 2019,
  10. Ibid.
  11. Craig, Charity Singleton. The Art of the Essay: from Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words: Includes Activities for Personal Journals, Classrooms, and Writing Groups!, by Charity Singleton Craig, T.S. Poetry Press, 2019, p. 26.
  12. Hillenbrand, Laura. “Unbroken (Movie Tie-in Edition) by Laura Hillenbrand – Reading Guide – Books.”, Random House Group,

The post Back to Basics: Generate Ideas to Find What You Have to Say appeared first on Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.

find the cost of your paper

Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.