7 Simple Steps to Keep You Writing Creatively

    writing creatively - colored pencils

    As a writer, having ideas is one of the most important parts of your craft. But often it seems like one of the most difficult and challenging parts of the whole process.

    How do you keep ideas flowing? How do you create a wealth of ideas to choose from? How do you make sure you get to the one killer idea that will make your advert, novel, article or blog post really stand out from the rest?

    Some people like to wait for inspiration to strike. Most professional writers, however, don’t have that luxury. You need ideas every working day, not just every now and then.

    Luckily, there is a formula for producing ideas on a consistent basis. Of course, like all formulas, it has its limits. You can’t constrain creativity, and to only ever use one method for coming up with ideas would be utter madness.

    But if you need to produce strong and creative ideas regularly as part of your writing career, then it pays to know the formula, and how to use it.

    First of all, what is an idea? Well, according to James Webb Young in his book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’, first published in the 1940s:

    “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”

    So how do you combine old elements into new? Luckily, Young tells us:

    “The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.”

    Young says the ability to see relationships between facts is the most important factor in coming up with ideas. This, he says, is a habit of mind “which can be cultivated.”

    How do you cultivate it? By reading widely, taking an active interest in life, the world, people around you, a wide variety of subjects and areas of study.

    There is also a formula, however, a five step plan which Young outlined in his book. By adding two more steps, you can complete a virtuous circle with a feedback loop that refines and extends your creativity.


    So, the seven steps to having ideas are:

    Step 1 – Gather your information

    Information is the raw material from which ideas are born. There are two types of relevant information, specific and general.

    General information includes just about anything and everything, and gathering it is a lifelong exercise. It basically comes down to general knowledge and education, and can be cultivated through the usual channels: reading widely and having an active interest in life and the world around you, and in particular in people, how they live, what they think and how they behave.

    Specific information is directly relevant to the topic in hand. You clearly need to get all the specific information you can lay your hands on. If you’re writing an advert for a product or service, you would expect the client to come up with most of it, although you’ll probably want to do some of you own research as well. If you’re writing a blog post on a topic, you’ll need to gather your information from far and wide.

    These days, gathering information is a much faster process thanks to the internet. The down side to that is you’ll need to be judicious, and discard that which isn’t really relevant. Otherwise, you’re likely to get overwhelmed during step 2, where you have to sift the information.

    Step 2 – Sift the information

    Work over the information, turning it over and around until you see how it all fits together. A direct pursuit of ‘meaning’ might be counterproductive. You may need to try a subtle approach, and sneak up on the topic, looking at things from various angles.

    If small snippets of ideas start coming to you at this stage, write them down, even if they seem crazy.

    The more you turn and sift the information, the better you understand it, the easier it will be to see and really understand the relationships. And the more ideas you will have.

    Step 3 – Let the information bubble

    The next stage is to let the information bubble away for a while, keep it on simmer in your mind. You need to let your unconscious mind work on it for a time. It’s a good idea to do something else for a while, to stimulate your imagination and emotions. Try reading, listening to music, meditate, go for a walk, while your mind digests the facts.

    Or you could try the traditional approach – take a warm bath and wait for the eureka moment.

    Step 4 – Eureka! Let the ideas flow

    It’s at this stage that ideas should start to appear, as if from ‘nowhere’. This is where you hope for a ‘Eureka’ moment. The answer to your problem may appear to leap into your mind for no apparent reason.

    But what if it doesn’t come? You keep going, writing down the best ideas you can come up with. If your ideas aren’t strong enough yet, don’t panic, because you’ll get to have another go at this part of the process. So take the very best ideas you can come up with, and move on to step five.

    Step 5 – Shape and develop your idea

    Now your idea needs to be shaped and moulded, turned into something real. This where your writing skills come to the fore.

    Step 6 – Share your idea

    Now show your idea to others and see what they think. They may be able to add to it and make it better. That may spark new ideas, and so the process becomes ever more creative.

    Step 7 – Rinse and repeat

    If necessary, use the feedback you got in step 6, and add that to the information you gathered in step 1. Now repeat step 2, sifting the new information with the existing facts. Then repeat steps 3, 4, 5 and 6.

    Keep it going, until you have the best idea you can come up with, or you hit the deadline, and have to go with what you have developed so far.

    So, the good news is that you can learn to be more creative and have stronger ideas. You:

    • Gather the information
    • Sift it
    • Let it percolate
    • Let the ideas flow
    • Shape and mould the ideas
    • Share them with others
    • Put the feedback into the loop; and repeat the process to strengthen your ideas.

    That’s the good news. The bad news is, despite what I said at the start about the importance of ideas – and don’t get me wrong they are important – despite that, the truth is that having ideas is the easy part of writing.

    Yes, ideas are easy. It’s the execution that is truly difficult, that’s where the real genius lies. And you can only master the craft of writing through hard work and long, steady perseverance.

    About the author

      Simon Townley

      Simon Townley blogs about all aspects of writing at WriteMindset, and provides professional writing services through his company Simon Townley Copywriting Limited.

    • bob says:

      hi please give mi emails for days
      spam is possible

    • execution of ideas is the challenge. I think most writers never STOP having ideas – articulating then into a useful piece of writing is another story! Oh yes and perseverance

    • alex says:

      Very good. Writing takes plenty of discipline. This kind of recombining of old ideas is very much in the abstract like Herman Hesse’s Glassbead Game or Hegelian synthesis.

    • A very good list. I totally agree with “Rinse and Repeat”.

    • Great post! There’s almost nothing as fascinating as idea generation / creativity stimulation. There’s a touch of magic to the process.

    • Have you ever noticed that we frequently get our best ideas when we are either falling asleep or waking up?

    • Delia says:

      kudos for the article, it has a really practical approach. i’m sure that by following these simple steps, anyone can get improvements.
      i do have an objection to the title though….there are no steps to creativity and there is no precise way of getting ideas. your advice is actually aimed at the working method. like i said, i appreciate your points but without the basis of a personal flow of ideas – and the way to get a flow of ideas cannot be taught of cheated, they are pointless.

    • O'Cahan says:

      I generally find substance abuse to be the most evocative muse.

    • Issa says:

      Simon, the timing can never be better. Thanks! I’ve been on a creative slump lately and no matter how hard I try, there’s just no spark of ideas. I guess, many freelancers experience this since working alone can also mean not getting ideas from colleagues in a typical office setup. Better get the creative juice flowing then.

    • Julie, I think it depends on the kind of writing you do. This technique comes from an advertising copywriter – someone working in one of the big New York agencies back in the 30s and 40s. Copywriters in that environment need to come up with ideas to order, all day long, on subjects which may not necessarily inspire them emotionally (soap powder, instant coffee, that kind of thing).
      Sometimes a writer has to come up with lots of ideas, most of which are rejected, and there’s only a tiny bit of writing involved.

    • I agree – execution of ideas is the challenge. I think most writers never STOP having ideas – articulating then into a useful piece of writing is another story! Oh yes and perseverance.

    • e.lee says:

      I like the word you used ‘percolate’
      now I’ll be even more inspired while I brew my coffee, thank you

    • Marci says:

      I like your quoute. Making old ideas, new. Giving a fresh perspective in my writing and my work with others.

      In writing, I’ve found, once the ideas start to develop, I must write or lose them. Once I find the flow, I must let it keep flowing. This tends to happen most in the morning, which is not typically when I carve out time to write. So, I grab the laptop and squeeze it in. That seems to be when I am most creative and letting the ideas flow most naturally.

    • You are so right about ideas being the easy part of writing. Many wannabe writers are good at starting projects and not finishing them. Perseverance is the key as you said.

    • Dick, useful suggestion. I’ve not come across SCAMPER before. Where does it come from?

    • Zach, hope it helps with the research process. Like a lot of formulas, this is really a way of setting down and understanding a process that people do naturally. Knowing the formula helps, especially if you get stuck. It can help you realise you’ve missed out one step of the process, such as giving the information time to bubble.

    • Walter, I totally agree. If you skip or skimp on the information gathering, then the rest of the process will suffer, or simply fail.

    • Walter says:

      I think the most powerful process among your list is gathering information. Ideas do come from information that pops before us or thru research. In my case, when information seeps to my mind, my creativity starts its work. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for this post, Simon. I just started brainstorming for a research paper and can never come up with more than three ideas to cover 8-10 pages.

      I have subconsciously used your process to an extent with blog posts and short assignments, and I’m happy to have more of a formula to make content even better.T

      his is especially great for research papers – they have always been my nemesis because they require so much content. Now I think they can make the process more efficient. Thanks again for the post.

    • Simon —
      Useful process—thanks.
      May also be useful to use update (improvement?) of SCAMPER — i.e.
      try CAMPER to “massage” first-thought ideas that come from the steps you propose:
      C = Combine. A = Adapt. M = Magnify. P = Put to Other Uses. E = Eliminate (or “Minimize”). R = Rearrange (or Reverse). S = Substitute.
      CAMPER asks that we look first at six dimensions of “what is, what you’ve got, the current situation.”
      If that doesn’t bring you to where you want to be, to a better place on your thinking journey, THEN think outside the box (the current situation) and Substitute.

    • Greg, good suggestions, though I think your point 3 is really the same as my number three – taking time away from the problem, and letting the subconscious get to work.

    • Ishan, hope it works for you.

    • Marlene, I know what you mean, though I don’t think there is much of a way around it. Working on your own, from home, has many advantages, but down sides too. It’s god to have colleagues to bounce ideas off.
      But I still wouldn’t give up my freelance lifestyle.

      • When you put it that way…I wouldn’t give it up either. It’s worth the trade off!

    • Hi Simon,

      Here are three ways that I keep ideas flowing:

      1. Keep an idea journal – Whenever I come up with an idea for a blog post, I try to write it down in a notebook. I currently have around 30-40 ideas written down. And if I ever get stuck, I can take a look at this list and utilize one of the ideas.

      2. Read other blog entries in my niche – I’ve found that when I read other blog entries, ideas tend to flow to me. It may involve something related to the particular post. Or for whatever reason, an idea that is totally unrelated to the post may come to me.

      3. Stop trying to force the issue and just do something enjoyable right now – I typically have a lot of trouble coming up with ideas when I am in “make it happen” mode (e.g. looking at a blank computer screen trying to be inspired). When this happens, I try to do something that is enjoyable to free my mind. For example, I might go outside and take a short walk.

      Thanks for the post!

    • Ishan says:

      You wrote this article at such an appropriate time!
      For 2 days now, I have been waiting for inspiration to “strike” my head but it didn’t! I am going to use your techniques(I am doing first step right now, collecting information!) and see if they help me.
      Thanks for the tips!

    • Ishan says:

      You wrote this article at such an appropriate time!
      For 2 days now, I have been waiting for inspiration to “strike” my head but it didn’t! I am going to use your techniques(I am doing first step right now, collecting information!) and see if they help me.

    • True, Simon – LinkedIn Groups, for example, have actually been a good resource for me in terms of troubleshooting, sharing ideas, figuring out process, etc.

      But sometimes, I just don’t want to post specific questions about client work for all to see – and that’s when I miss my in house days. I’ve not yet found a replacement for colleagues who are sitting in the same room, working on the same project and are fully briefed. 🙂

    • Thanks Guarav.
      Marlene – I agree that the sharing ideas part can be a problem for freelancers. I guess that’s why we have blogs with comment sections, stuff like that. Maybe there should be a social media site for creative types?
      John, I agree, chunks are good.
      Kenji, I say writing is only ever as good as the thinking that goes into it.

    • “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” – love and totally agree with that sentiment.

      Your step-by-step process totally resonates, except I do sometimes feel the loneliness of freelancing and not having a colleague with whom I can bounce ideas around.

      I recently wrote a post about what to about creativity under pressure when there’s no time for steps #3/4. For me, it’s mind maps and brainstorming!

      • im hoping i am back at the site ? i really didnt expect a response . this is dale you called me at supper and i got here and didnot find your email please try again. im assuming that your marlene that spoke of the freelancers. standing by.

    • Gaurav Gupta says:

      Great post Simon.

    • Simon what a post! You put it succinctly at the end – having ideas is easy,executing them is the hard part. Wholeheartedly agree. Ideas are easy because they take a mere thought. The rest requires action, activity and determination to stay the course plus flexibility to refine and improve them. Your 7 step process really focuses the attention on achieving that. Thank you for simplifying a big task into practical step by step chunks.

      • Kaye Herbert says:

        Great post Simon, and very good advice. Do you know about the Writer’s Breakfast as part of the Teneriffe Festival in Brisbane, next Saturday 3rd July? We are starting the festival with the breakfast with a view to starting a Teneriffe Writers Group so that like-minded scribblers can support each other. Three local veery diverse authors with speak about their writing experiences. Information is available at http://www.teneriffefestival.org.

    • Good Call Simon, far too often is attention placed on the production aspect of writing, and not the thinking that comes before it. Output is easy when you have enough input and you know what to do with it.

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