It’s a deeply troubling thought, isn’t it?
That even your best ideas might be a little… ordinary.
Particularly if you dream of online success. The Internet hates ordinary.
Actually, scratch that; the Internet totally ignores ordinary. It doesn’t even register on the chart.
So naturally, you feel envious when other writers get noticed with ideas that aren’t ordinary at all.
Your jealousy is tinged with admiration, and you can’t help but wonder how they do it.
How come their ideas are so great when the ones that pop into your head are so damn average?
Newsflash – these people are not fundamentally more creative than you.
They just understand something about the nature of ideas that nobody told you yet.
The Common Misconception about Great Ideas
When you read a piece of writing that has a great idea at its heart, you can easily imagine that the concept popped spontaneously into the author’s mind, perfectly formed.
But most of the time, that’s not how the creative process works.
Great ideas don’t simply appear, like unicorns stepping out of the mist; they start out crappy, then evolve.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And the same is true of ideas. But how often do you hear people talk about the first draft of an idea?
The search for great ideas is like any creative process – it’s a journey from where you are now, to where you need to be.
And if you wait for the perfect idea to present itself on a silver platter, you could waste a ton of time.
So instead, start with an idea that has a kernel of merit, even if it’s been explored by others countless times before, and make it the starting point for something great.
The following tricks will help you transform pale and predictable ideas with a minimum of effort.
#1 Tie One Hand Behind Your Back
Nearly four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare is still regarded as the greatest writer ever in the English language.
And if you cast your mind back to English class, you may remember that his plays were written using iambic pentameter, where each line has exactly ten syllables (with extra stress on every second syllable.)
If music be the food of love, play on
Is this a dagger I see before me?
In other words, some of the greatest works in literature were created within rigid constraints.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but restriction breeds creativity in the writer. It also differentiates the idea.
So borrow this technique by taking your solid but uninspiring early ideas and introducing some kind of restriction.
Does that mean writing your next post in Shakespearean verse? Fortunately not.
Imagine you’re a travel blogger who’s currently visiting Sweden and you want to write a post about the top-ten things to do in Stockholm. As an idea, it’s not totally without merit, but it’s ordinary – dozens of similar posts already exist.
But what if you were to write about the top-ten things to do in Stockholm at night? Or the top-ten things that don’t cost a penny. Or the top-ten things that native Swedes choose to do whenever they’re in Stockholm?
A restriction won’t transform you into Shakespeare, but it will turn a faceless idea into one with significantly more character.
#2 Cut Your Work to Ribbons
William S. Burroughs, author of the Naked Lunch, experimented widely with the cut-up technique, where phrases were cut from newspapers and magazines and rearranged to create new sentences and paragraphs.
Often these combinations produced interesting ideas that were neither in the original text nor in the mind of the person doing the cutting. (Watch the video above for an example of cut-up text “predicting” the future!)
When working on your own blog post ideas, try cutting an element from one idea and “pasting” it into another.
For example, if you write in the career space, you might, for example, have a couple of long-standing ideas for topics you feel you ought to cover but feel uninspired by both. Maybe one is a post about creating the perfect resume (done to death), and maybe the other is about maximizing your productivity during your working day (really, again?)
Both ideas are desperately ordinary, but cutting up the concepts and rearranging them might produce a far more interesting blog post idea about, say, writing a resume in record time.
You can even use this technique to create interesting new hybrids based on other people’s ideas.
Let’s say the following were two of your favorite posts on BBT:
- 317 Power Words That’ll Instantly Make You a Better Writer
- 9 Plugins for Growing Your Email List That Work So Well It Feels Like Cheating
You could use the cut-up technique to create “9 Power Words for Growing Your Email List” – a post about the persuasive language you should use to get people to subscribe to your list.
Generating ideas in this way is a form of chemistry. And combining two ordinary concepts can produce something explosive – like popping Mentos in a Coke bottle.
#3 Ask “What Would Jesus Do?”
Okay, maybe not Jesus. That was just to get your attention.
But ask yourself this: what would your most creative writing heroes do with this idea?
In what direction would they take it? What spin would they put on it?
This is a useful trick because when you’re still developing writing skills – and particularly when you’re finding your voice – your conception of yourself as a writer is fuzzy.
However, the writing personas of your online heroes spring vividly to mind.
So channel their distinctive brand of creativity to your own ends.
What would Jeff Goins do with this idea? How would Tim Ferriss approach it? What about James Altucher? Or (of course) Jon Morrow?
Allowing yourself to imagine how others would tackle your idea can reveal all kinds of possibilities that previously eluded you.
#4 Jump into Your DeLorean and Hit the Gas
Time travel has inspired countless Hollywood movies, but as a blogger, it’s more common to focus on the present. You naturally want to give your readers what they need right now.
But shifting your perspective backwards and forwards along the timeline is a fantastic way to add spice to a tired idea. It also helps you hold the interest of readers who are more (or indeed less) advanced than your average audience member.
So if you write about weight loss, instead of writing another collection of tips about losing weight, why not jump into the future and explore some tips about maintaining your ideal weight after a successful weight-loss initiative?
Or head into the past and write about what to do before you start any kind of healthy eating or exercise regime. How do you mentally prepare? What unhealthy triggers should you be aware of? What temptations should you remove from your home?
Alternatively, if you blog in the social media space, don’t write about how to get more followers on Twitter; jump forward in time and write about how to make the most of your following once you hit 1,000 or even 10,000 followers.
Or rewind and give readers a list of reasons they might want to start their Twitter profile from scratch.
By projecting a so-so idea into the future or the past, you can often make it as distinctive as a futuristic sports car with gull-wing doors.
#5 Be Intentionally Obscure
Ever notice how some TV shows seems like second-rate versions of others?
Usually it’s because the stories and characters aren’t based on the writer’s personal experiences, but rather on other shows they’ve seen. It’s not art imitating life – it’s art imitating art.
And the same happens in the blogosphere. As a blogger, you can’t help but be influenced by the other bloggers you read online, but your ideas end up sounding a lot like theirs.
Here’s a trick where having an obvious, well-trodden idea as a starting point is actually a virtue.
If a topic has been exhaustively covered by others, use their work as an inverse blueprint – a guide to what not to cover in yours.
People love obscure details and fresh ways to achieve old goals. That’s why “Little Known” is such a powerful phrase to include in a headline.
So if you run a personal finance blog, why not write a post about unusual ways to save money on groceries? Or unconventional ways to save for retirement? Instead of writing about Warren Buffet’s investment strategies, write about an investor who’s enjoyed huge success but isn’t a household name.
On the other hand, if you write about good parenting, why not gather parenting tips from different cultures so that every reader will find something new? Or write a humorous piece about the obscure parenting theories that (thankfully!) never caught on.
When you deliberately take the road less traveled, you can reinvigorate a popular topic and tap directly into interest from readers who are desperate for fresh ideas.
#6 Blow Up a Single Detail
In Antonioni’s classic movie Blow-Up, a fashion photographer snaps two lovers in a park, but only later, when the photo is enlarged, does he notice a dead body and a man with a gun lurking in the background.
That shocking detail drives the rest of the film.
Sometimes an idea isn’t interesting until you find the right detail to focus on. But when you blow that one detail up to full scale, you discover fascinating subtleties that weren’t visible before.
Use this technique to narrow your sights then dive deep into a topic. Give your readers a detailed understanding of one small aspect rather than a broad sweep of the whole thing.
They’ll get information that’s specific enough to act upon, and you’ll turn a single topic idea into many – each dealing with one part of the bigger picture.
Let’s imagine you write about relationships on your blog and “conflict” is a popular topic.
Instead of writing another generic list of tips about dealing with conflict, you could focus on one tiny aspect of that topic and teach people how to spot the exact moment when a conversation turns into an argument: 12 Warning Signs Your Conversation Is About to Go Nuclear (and How to Defuse It).
Like a snowflake under a microscope, sometimes the beauty of an idea is only clear once you zoom in.
Stop Waiting for Great Ideas and Start Creating Them
Great ideas rarely arrive fully formed. More often, they start out dull and derivative.
Your job as a writer is to work with the best of what you have and make it shine.
Because waiting patiently for your muse to arrive is a dangerous game.
Other writers will use that time more wisely, evolving their own ideas beyond the banal and beating you to the punch at every turn.
So quit being a perfectionist. Stop throwing away ideas because they’re not good enough.
Instead, see an idea as raw material. Be the sculptor who sees the perfect statue hiding beneath the lump of rough stone.
Use the tricks above to put your creative process on the fast track.
Dig out your list of old post ideas and get to work.
It’s time to turn mediocre into magical.