Writing Exercises: Techniques for Generating Ideas and Getting Started

Techniques for Generating Ideas and Ideas for Getting Started Writing

Generating Ideas


The best way to do this is to do it fast. Number a page from one to ten or twenty and go!

Drawing from your own life:

1. Jobs you’ve had
2. Careers
3. Passions
4. Obsessions
5. Quirks
6. Pet peeves
7. Loves
8. Interests
9. Favorite authors and their themes
10. Habits
11. Places you’ve lived or visited.
12. Hobbies
13. Your daily routine
14. Family members
15. Pets you’ve had
16. Names of streets you’ve lived on.
17. Items of clothing you’ve loved
18. Cars you’ve owned
19. Lovers/Relationships
20. Dreams you remember
21. Favorite movies, their themes
22. Favorite phrases, where did they come from?
23. Your most-used cliches

Now take a look at your lists. Do you see any themes emerging? Do all your passions and obsessions coalesce around one main idea with offshoots? Can you start to write about items on your list? For instance, under places you’ve lived, write what you like and don’t like about them. Start to cross-pollinate. If you want to write a piece of fiction, you could transpose your daily routine onto living in a different place.

What would your current life be like in a totally new environment? Even changing none of the details of your daily routine, in a new place it would be different. If you moved to a small mountain town in the winter, for instance, suddenly you’d have to build in time every morning to shovel the snow away from your car. Of if you moved to LA from a smaller city, the morning commute would be much different. If you moved from LA to the country, you’d suddenly free up tons of time you used to spend in the car.

What if you crossed the authors on your list and imagined them writing about another author’s themes? What if a very macho male author wrote about domestic issues? What kind of story would result? For non-fiction, what kind of essay could you write linking several contemporary authors and exploring their themes in terms of a current social issue?

Drawing From the World:

1. Places you’d love to go
2. Political issues that make you crazy
3. Social problems you’d like to solve
4. Politicians you love
5. Politicians you hate
6. Celebrities you love
7. Celebrities you hate
8. TV shows you love/hate

Other ideas:

1. What you’d buy with a million dollars
2. What you’d take on a round the world journey
3. What three items you’d want with you on a dessert island
4. What people from your life you’d want with you on that island
5. Would you rather be too hot or too cold?
6. Other deep questions from childhood (like #5)
7. The first three things you’d do if you ruled the world

You can think of numerous other ways to cross-pollinate from your lists, and you can also think of other things to add to it. Write new ideas for lists as they occur to you. Keep going back to the lists and use them as the basis of a journal entry or a free-write. The thing about ideas is once you start cultivating them, they come fast and furious.

Word Games

1. Choose 20 verbs, 20 nouns, and 20 adjectives. Write them each on a separate piece of paper and put them, according to category, in separate containers. When you are ready to write, draw one of each, make a sentence of it, and start writing.

2. A variation on the above is to choose 20 occupations, 20 personality traits, and 20 locations. Draw one of each, create a character from it and start writing.

3. Take a thesaurus, photocopy random pages from it. Run your finger down the listings with eyes closed, stop, and use that word to create a sentence and then a paragraph.
4. Take first lines of poetry and use them as starting points. Or take a poem, photocopy it, cut up all the words and put them back together again into a sentence or several.

5. Use Refrigerator Word Magnets to create sentences and spark ideas.

If you have a vague idea, but aren’t sure how to develop it, try the following:

1. Utilize the five Ws and the one H. Who, what, when, why, where and how. Answer all of these in depth for your idea.

2. Explain the idea, in writing, as if you were explaining it to an alien who does not understand the mores of society. For instance, if you had an idea about the history of desks, you’d have to start by explaining what a desk is. If you had an idea to write about marriage, you’d have to explain what marriage is. This is an excellent way to go deeper into the heart of the idea.

3. Look at it through different lenses. How would a reporter, a poet, a screenwriter, a novelist, a short story writer, an essayist, a letter writer approach it?

4. As above, put through the eyes of people you know.

5. The old standby, do a cluster.

6. Quickly cut pictures from magazines that remind you of your idea and make a collage.

7. Do a repetitive activity, like walking or sewing or knitting or weeding. Some thing about this jars ideas loose.

The Big Questions

1. Why do you want to write?
2. What moves you?
3. What stops you?
4. For whom are you writing?
5. How can you be true to yourself as a writer?
6. What causes you to get blocked?
7. What is your legacy?

Other Useful Techniques

1. Brainstorming. Take one of your lists and force yourself to go deeper, writing as many ideas from it as you can in one minute.

2. Over-responding. Similar to above. Take an idea, a problem, a concern and over respond. Similar to over-reacting, except over-reacting is desperate and over-responding is positive. Think of all the ways you could possibly solve a problem and then push yourself to list more. This would be great for character development—over-respond to a character’s problem and think of all the possible things that could happen to her.

3. Utilize your sub-conscious. Tell it you need an idea. Tell it you need to develop an idea you have. As you are falling asleep, read over what you have and tell your sub-conscious to work on it in the night. Or do that right before you go for a walk.

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