Top 20 Ways to Come Up With Amazing Ideas

coming up with ideasPhoto by mugley.

I’m a pretty prolific blogger — between regular posts at Zen Habits, and writing regularly for blogs such as Web Worker Daily, FreelanceSwitch, and more, and writing guest posts for other blogs, I write a lot of posts every week.

And what’s asked of me most often, besides “How can you write so much?”, is the more difficult question: “How do you come up with so many ideas for posts?”

That’s not so easy to answer.


Coming up with ideas is a skill, actually, something that’s become easier with practice. And I don’t have one single method of coming up with great ideas for articles, except this one:

I’m ALWAYS on the lookout.

Seriously. Always. Whether I’m in the shower, eating, reading, driving, exercising, talking, IMing, emailing, working, writing or playing with my kids, I always think to myself, “You know, that would make a great post!” It’s a bit sad, actually.

With that in mind, if you’re trying to find sources of great, wonderful, unique ideas, whether that’s for a blog post or a painting or a poem or a new product … here are my favorite ways.

Idea #1. Carry a notebook.

Seriously, carry it everywhere. I can’t tell you how many awesome ideas I’ve lost simply because I forgot to bring my notebook.

And you know why I can’t tell you? Because I didn’t write them down. Carry your notebook everywhere, always have some kind of writing implement, and write things down immediately.

Of course, you may need to pull your car over to avoid an accident … or just start riding mass transit instead, to avoid that problem. Another good article on capturing ideas.

Idea #2. Keep a list.

I have a simple Google Doc that I can pull up at any time with a few keystrokes (I use AutoHotKey to open all my most commonly used documents and programs instantly).

On this list, I write down all my ideas. When I need to write a post, I am never short of ideas. Actually, I have dozens more ideas than I can ever use, so if anyone needs any, let me know. Just $5 an idea. :)

Idea #3. Exercise.

OK, you’re going to skip past this one. That’s OK. I’m not saying you have to start exercising to have amazing ideas, but from personal experience, exercise is one of the absolute best ways to come up with ideas.

It seems it is literally impossible to go for a run or a walk without coming up with an idea that will knock you on your butt. Which is why I now wear padded running shorts.

Idea #4. Driving.

There’s something about the mindlessness of driving that allows me to come up with some of my better ideas in the car.

To make this work, you have to drive slower than some of the maniacs out there (try it, it’s calming), and ignore the rude antics of your fellow drivers.

Concentrate on avoiding an accident, but don’t worry if someone cuts you off or is driving slower than your average toddler can walk. Just stay in your Zen zone, and watch the ideas come to you effortlessly.

Idea #5. Read a lot.

I’m reading a book every day, several times a day. It might take me a week to finish the book, but that’s because I take my time and enjoy the book.

In addition, I’m always reading stuff on the Internet. Reading is one of the very best ways to find new ideas. And yes, you have to read the articles, not just the pictures. :)

Idea #6. Find inspiration.

I find inspiration from many sources, including other bloggers, from friends and family, from life itself.

Sometimes, an idea can be totally unrelated to the source of your inspiration, but the key is that spark, that energy, that ignition that gets your mind going.

Whatever does that for you is worth its weight in gold. Failing inspiration, just rip off ideas (and make them your own).

Idea #7. Listen.

One of my favorite ways to get ideas is by listening to other people talk. When someone talks to me, I try to talk as little as possible, and just listen to them and understand.

That’s difficult when talking to engineers, of course. Those guys can talk! I also like to eavesdrop on conversations held by loud people when I’m in public places. Yes, that makes me weird.

Idea #8. Find twists.

Found a great idea by someone else? As mentioned before, if you aren’t inspired by someone else, just rip off their ideas.

But don’t just spit out the ideas verbatim — take them to another level by finding new twists on those ideas. How can you take this great idea (or even a common idea) and give it a new twist?

Sometimes you can find the best ideas by putting a new spin on an old idea.

Idea #9. Examine your life.

Take a few minutes now and then to step back and take a look at your life. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you? What are you all about? What’s important? What are you trying to achieve? What are you doing right and wrong?

Ask yourself these types of questions, think about what it is you do every day and why. This kind of examination can produce dozens of new ideas.

Idea #10. Question everything.

When you find yourself thinking or following traditional ideas that everyone assumes are right, question them. Ask yourself if it’s really true, and if so, why? Why does everyone think this?

Is it possible there are other ways of doing things? Question everything, and you might come up with some surprising answers.

Idea #11. Trawl through fresh sources.

Sometimes, if you drive home the same route every single day, it’s good to drive a new route, even if it’s a little longer.

Change things up. Similarly, you should visit new web sites, read new authors, break out of your niche, talk to new people, start clicking on links in blogrolls and see where they take you.

Get outside your familiar territory, and find new ideas in new places.

Idea #12. Bounce stuff off others.

Got an idea? Bounce it off a friend or colleague. Sometimes their responses can spur new ideas in you, and vice versa.

It’s amazing what can form when two people put their heads together. Avoid more than three people talking about ideas, though … “ideas by committee” is not a smart approach.

Idea #13. Reader emails.

I get lots of emails from readers, and while it can take a lot of my time to read and answer them, it’s well worth the effort. Some of my best post ideas have come from the suggestions of others.

If you don’t get a lot of reader emails, don’t let that stop you … find a way to solicit suggestions from others, asking for emails or comments on your blog or whatever it is you do.

Let others come up with the ideas!

Idea #14. Forums.

Similar to some of the items above, online forums can be amazing places for ideas. You can get suggestions from others, you can bounce ideas off people, you can read and be inspired by great ideas from people on the forums.

And there are so many forums online that it’s practically impossible to run out of ideas from them.

Idea 15. Ask.

When I’m running dry, or need a fresh source of ideas, I’ll ask my readers. I’ll do a post and ask them for suggestions for different topics. And let me tell you, there is no shortage of great topics when I do this.

A few months ago I asked if they had “health and fitness” topics they’d like me to write about. I haven’t even gotten halfway through the list of ideas yet!

Idea #16. Magazine rack.

When I go into a bookstore or grocery store, I like to spend a few minutes at the magazine rack. I don’t even read all the articles … I just read the headlines on the cover, or flip through the magazines.

And I don’t just read the ones I’m interested in … I glance at them all. I’ve found some amazing ideas in these racks.

Idea #17. Look deep inside yourself.

This is a difficult one. It’s similar to the “examine your life” suggestion, but it’s a deeper look at yourself.

Really reach deep inside, and search the person you are, search your soul for your deepest desires, your innermost secrets, your most secret dreams and ambitions. You can find some of the most wonderful ideas deep within yourself.

Idea #18. Learn from your mistakes.

While mistakes can be embarrassing, I love making mistakes. Sure, they’re sloppy and painful, but they’re anything but unproductive.

Mistakes are the way we learn, and if we can harvest the power of mistakes to come up with great ideas, we are using our mistakes to their fullest potential.

Think about the mistakes you’ve made in your life, recently and over the years. What can you learn from them? What can others learn?

Idea #19. Be inspired by nature.

I love going outside, to take a breath of fresh air, to stretch, to get natural light into my computer-strained eyes. And to take a look at the beauty of the nature around me.

Our world has some of the most incredible natural beauty in the universe … take advantage of the nature around you, and find inspiration in it!

Idea #20. Music.

I like to play a good CD or tune in to my favorite radio station, to get myself moving, to sooth my savage beast, to make my soul leap with joy.

Music can be the most inspiring thing in our lives, if we open up our hearts and minds to it.

The Sexy Girls of Tech and Politics: The Unbeatable Trio

You ever wonder how to hook into the minds of the people who vote for your articles on social media sites? The secret to writing a Diggable post?

Figure out what they like, and you’re halfway there.

There are three topics that are unbeatable in the world of social media, that almost never miss on Digg, Reddit, Delicious or elsewhere.

They are, in this order: Sex, Tech, and Politics.

Combine two or three of these, and you’ve got a winner.

If you take a look at the top articles on social media sites such as Digg and Reddit, you’ll find that almost all the popular stories fit into one of these three categories.

So it makes sense that, in order to catch the attention of Diggers, you have to appeal to their favorite topics.

Now, I’m not saying that every post you write should be about one of those three topics. But if you’re going to write about these topics anyway, make them sexier, write a great headline, and see if you don’t have a shot at social media success.

Let’s take a look at a few tips that can help you find success with social media:

1. Sex sells.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life. A large part of the Digger population, for example, is made up of younger (under 30) males … and there’s no doubt that sex appeals to that demographic.

Am I saying you should resort to pornography? Not at all. Just find things that are sexy that you can hook into. A sexy photo doesn’t hurt either.

2. Tech rules.

Let’s face it: the people who use the Internet the most tend to be tech lovers. Apple, Mac, Linux, Microsoft, the iPhone and other new gadgets … these topics are always sexy to Diggers and other social media users.

3. Controversy stirs things up.

And politics is just as controversial as anything else. Political scandal, a politician who dares to challenge the establishment, unusual political stands … these kinds of controversies are bound to catch some attention and get a discussion going. And if you can do these two things, you’ve already won.

4. Sexy headlines.

The only thing you have to catch the attention of a Digger is your headline. If it is about flowers and butterflies and kittens, you’re never going to get their attention.

The headline, of course, has to match the article, but that said, there are headlines that are just so-so, and there are headlines that kill. Ask yourself if the headline will catch attention. Ask if it appeals to any of the topics that Diggers like. Ask if it has power, if it appeals to curiosity.

5. Pack the post with great info.

You can’t just have a headline that sells and a lame post that’s about a popular topic. People will see your article, bury it as lame, and never come back again. You want to be extremely useful, extremely informative, extremely packed with great photos or videos, or packed with controversial information.

Whatever it is, make it worth the reader’s time to come and check out your post. Otherwise he will feel like he’s just wasted his time on nothing.

12 Ways to Turn a Boring Post into Pure Gold

Perhaps your blog is not getting the kind of traffic you’d like, or perhaps you’ve submitted some of your stories to Digg or Netscape or Reddit and they never go anywhere.

You need a way to ramp up your writing, and get the kind of posts that people are scrambling to read…

It’s time for a 12-step makeover for your posts.

First, you need to realize that all the time you might spend checking your blog stats and optimizing your ads and redesigning your site and optimizing it for search engines and submitting it to high-ranking sites and social bookmarking services … all of that is well and good, but it’s not going to get you anywhere until you focus first on the content.

Good content and good headlines drive traffic.

Focus on the things you can do to improve your content and headlines, and ignore the rest, for now.

Once you’ve built up some good content, you can worry about those other things. The most productive use of your time is spent doing the things that will get you the most benefits.

Here’s 12 things you can do right now to your post to make it into one that will drive traffic to your site:

1. Bold ideas.

You start every post with an idea. Well, take the idea you come up with for your post, and see if you can make it bolder.

Be daring — aim for a big post, not just a regular one. Aim to say something huge, not just what everyone else is saying. Aim for a post that a major blog would link to, and that people will talk about. Get noticed!

2. Bold headlines.

Once you have your idea, start with your headline. As much as I like to flatter myself about my amazing writing (I’m humble, I know), people would never read a word of it if their interest weren’t caught by the headline.

There are so many posts on so many blogs, that your headline has to grab the reader’s attention and want them to find out more. For more on how to write a great headline, see The Sexy Art of Writing Headlines That Kill at FreelanceSwitch.

3. Scannability.

A reader will only give you a few seconds of scanning a post (either on your blog or in his feed reader) before deciding whether to move on or keep reading.

That means that your post cannot be a bunch of long, plain paragraphs. You need to highlight key points through bolding, through bullet points, and other design elements.

The reader should be able to find out what your key points are in 10 seconds or less — otherwise, he’ll move on and you’ll lose readers.

4. Usefulness.

How will your post be useful to the reader? What problem does it help him to solve or what skill does it teach him?

If your post is kinda interesting but has very little practical use to the reader, it won’t mean much. But if you teach the reader something he really wants to know (how to lose weight! make money! become attractive! become a hacker! be more productive!), you will get their attention and have them wanting to read more.

Step-by-step guides are always extremely useful.

5. Create a resource.

Related to usefulness, this point tells you to find a bunch of useful things on the Internet, and put them all together to create an extremely useful resource for your reader.

You’ve just saved a huge amount of time for the reader, and for that, she will bookmark your post for future reference. Get enough people to bookmark you on delicious, and suddenly you’ve got a popular post.

Take whatever topic you’re thinking of writing about and find a way to create a resource — a list of 100 tools to lose weight, 50 ways to make money online, 5 ways to be instantly more attractive to your hot co-worker, and 60 tips from celebrities teaching you to be better in bed.

6. Link to others.

This should be obvious, but if you create a resource, you will most likely have a collection of links. This is very useful to the reader, but it has added benefits for you: the blogs you link to will be grateful for your link.

And this could get you some link love in return. Don’t go overboard, but in providing useful links to your readers you are helping out a fellow blogger — and that will come back to you, either immediately or eventually.

7. Focus on the lead.

What’s the most important part of a post after the headline? The first paragraph. The first sentence, actually.

If you don’t grab the reader’s attention with that first sentence (known as the “lead” paragraph, or “lede” in journalese), you will lose him. He will go on to the next post in his feed reader, and read someone else’s tips for being better in bed (“Get a bigger bed!”).

After you craft your headline, really craft your first sentence. Get it as concise and catchy as possible, and explain why the reader should continue reading.

After the first sentence, the next few are also very important. Now, you shouldn’t get so caught up in the lede that you don’t write the rest of the post … write the whole thing, then go back and revise the lede until you’re reasonably satisfied that it does its job.

8. Be different.

This is easier said than done, I know. But it’s useful to know what others have written on a topic, and find a way to provide new information, a twist on what’s been done, or a fresh perspective.

If you’re just doing what everyone else has done, in exactly the same way, people will yawn at your post.

9. Be concise.

After you’ve written your post, go over it for a few minutes. It’s tempting to just press “Publish” and be done with it, but it’s actually very useful to trim your post down a little where you’ve been wordy.

See if there are unnecessary words or even sentences or paragraphs that can be cut out, or reworded in a less awkward or confusing way.

Write simply, with force, and people will enjoy reading you. Write in a convoluted, fumbling way, and people will move on.

10. Give practical tips.
This is very related to the usefulness tip, but extends it a bit: Instead of just being useful, provide a list of practical tips.

Not general or vague tips, but ones that can actually be implemented by the reader without further research.

For example, if you’re going to write about how to write a good headline, don’t just say “be catchy” but give some actual examples and methods for doing so. Your reader will be eternally grateful.

11. Know what you’re talking about.

I’ve made some mistakes here myself, but it’s best if you write about something you really know about, that you’ve experienced yourself, and can give some real-world advice about what works and what doesn’t.

It’s easy to give diet or exercise advice, but unless you’ve actually lost 50 lbs. or run a marathon, you are just talking about vague concepts. If you haven’t actually done what you’re talking about, find another topic.

12. Don’t make it all about you.

Sure, you know what you’re talking about and you’ve gone through it yourself. And it’s good to share your experiences and make your post personal.

However, you are writing for a very general readership, not for your mom, and they are more interested in how the information will help them than they are in the personal details of your life.

It’s good to put yourself in your posts, because readers can identify with it, but be sure that what you’re writing about is of general interest to many people, not just your personal stalkers.

10 Ways to Make Your Blog More Powerful by Optimizing the Signal-to-Noise Ratio

“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau (who would have made an excellent blog writer)

How much of your blog is actually useful content, compared to stuff about your blog, about your cat, about what you did today, or about why you’re not posting as frequently as you should?

People come for the useful stuff, but they’ll leave if your Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) is too low.

SNR is a term borrowed from electrical engineering by Usenet, used to describe the amount of real information in a post (or in a forum) compared to spam or irrelevant or false information.

You come for the signal, but you leave if the noise level is too high. You don’t want to sort through a bunch of stuff to get that one little nugget of information.

The useful stuff should be jumping out at you, from every corner, and the non-useful stuff should be kept to a minimum. Otherwise, you’ll quickly lose those visitors who you do happen to attract.

How can you keep your blog’s SNR to an optimal level? Here are some suggestions:

1. Focus on publishing something useful, every post.

My goal on my blog, and when I write for other blogs, is to write something extremely useful, every time.

Now, I don’t always succeed, I’ll grant you that … but that’s the goal. My experience as a reader is that I tend to continue reading blogs that have a high ratio of useful content.

That should be your goal — when you’re thinking about what to write, ask yourself how useful it’ll be, and what problem it will solve for the reader.

2. Focus on the reader, not yourself.

Related to the above point, of course, but it’s to make a point: too often a blogger will talk about his day, his dog, his boss, his cool new iPhone.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those topics … they can be great topics, and very useful to your reader … if you apply them in a way that will be useful to the reader.

If instead you talk about yourself, and what interests you, you are being self-centered … and you’ll lose the reader. Think about the reader’s needs and wants, what problems the reader has, and how your post will help solve them.

3. Focus on the macro level.

Think about your blog overall — is the overall topic very general and not of much use to the reader?

Then you’ll only get a few readers. Be more specific, and think about the theme of the blog — is it useful? If not, you’ll get a lot of noise, because you aren’t starting with a concept that lends itself to focusing on producing a high SNR.

Now think about each post: start with a concept for each post, and then make it more specific: don’t just talk about your boss, but talk about ways to deal with a micromanaging boss. That’s useful.

4. Focus on the micro level.

Once you’ve thought about usefulness on the level of your overall blog concept, and your post concepts, think about it on a paragraph and sentence level.

Is this paragraph necessary, or can it be cut out? Is this sentence, or this phrase, helping get the message across?

5. Review and revise.

Once you’ve written the post, go back over it and review it on the macro and then the micro level.

Cut out as much noise as possible. It’s good to revise, cut, edit. Be minimal.

6. Use lists.

I use lists too much, but I’m a compulsive list maker. You don’t have to do that, but I would suggest you try it out.

It allows your reader to quickly find the main points (the signal) of the post, without having to read through all the noise. If the reader wants more, he can decide what to read more closely.

7. Cull your archives.

Every month or two, you should go back over your archives. This is a daunting task for many bloggers, but it helps tremendously.

You might have had a bunch of posts that talked about site updates, or your daily life, that most people don’t find interesting when they go over your archives.

They want to find the amazing posts. If a post didn’t do well, perhaps it’s time to toss it. Cut out the noise.

8. Simplify your design.

Noise doesn’t have to come from just words. Look at every element of your blog and decide if it’s really serving a purpose — for the reader, not for you.

Removing elements that aren’t necessary will greatly reduce distractions and allow your reader to focus on what’s important — the message. Every design element should help get that message across, not hinder it.

9. Identify the essential.

In order to know how to cut out noise, you need to know what signal is. And to do that, you need to know what message you’re trying to get across with your blog, with each post.

I like to crystalize my message in a good headline. If I can’t do that, then I don’t really know what I’m writing about. Once you’ve crystalized that message, you know what is essential about the post.

10. Eliminate all else.

Now that you know what’s essential, remove everything that’s not. I know, it kills you to do that. But really, it will help your reader focus on what you really want him to focus on — the message.

Everything else is a distraction — noise. And remember — too much noise, and you lose readers.

10 Ways to Focus on the Reader and Build Long-Term Traffic

Too often bloggers focus on themselves – blogging is a form of journaling, right? – or on making money, on advertisers, on marketing, or on social media.

As a result, if they attract a reader, they have trouble making them stick.

The goal of most bloggers is to build up readership and traffic, but the only way to build up long-term traffic (as opposed to say a two-day spike from Digg) is to get the readers you are able to attract to stick around for a little while.

So your goal should be to get the reader interested not only in reading your article, but in exploring the rest of your site, reading more and ultimately getting hooked.

The way to do that: by focusing entirely on the reader, all the time.

Here are 10 suggestions to do just that:

1. The Reader’s problem.

Every post you write should be useful to your readers — which means you must focus on a problem that the reader has, and how to solve it.

What problem will you solve for your reader today? How to lose weight? How to find a job? How to make money online? How to knit all her Christmas gifts?

Whatever the problem, it should be something common to most of your readers — and to know that, you’ll need to get to know your readers. When you write your post, don’t write about yourself too much — just enough to allow them to relate to you, and to know that you’ve gone through this problem too — but focus more on how they can solve the problem.

2. Don’t annoy the reader.

It’s annoying to have a subscription or ad boxes pop up when you just want to read an article. It’s annoying to have to click multiple times to read one article.

It’s annoying to have flashing ads screaming at you. It’s annoying to have way too many ads, or garish bright colors, or a very jumbled design. Avoid these things, or you are ignoring your reader’s wishes.

3. Answer their comments.

While it’s impossible for the blogs with heavy traffic to answer every single comment, if you don’t get many comments, you should treat every commenter like they’re your best friend.

Reply to each one, be welcoming, thank them, answer their questions, don’t get pissed off at them even if they’re critical. And even if you get a lot of comments, don’t ignore them all. Respond to as many as you have time for, and especially those with questions or concerns.

A blog is about the discussion, not just about the post, and if you don’t take part in the discussion, your blog is dead, and readers won’t care about it. Talk to them.

4. Answer their emails.

Similarly, be sure to give them an easy way to contact you in private (an email address or contact form), and be sure to respond to every single email if you can.

If you can’t, respond to as many as possible. Even if it’s just a two-line reply. I respond to every reader email, even if I can’t respond to every comment on the blog.

Why? Because they felt strongly enough to send me an email — I need to show them that I value them (which I do) by taking at least a minute to thank them for the email, and to answer their question or concern if possible. This dialogue with your readers is crucial.

5. Ask them questions.

Every week or two, I run an “Ask the readers” post, asking them a simple question related to the topics I write about.

Instead of me providing the answers, I show that they have just as much wisdom, and can provide answers of their own. I show that their opinions are valued, and allow them to speak.

The readers are central to a post like this. Best of all: it’s like an informal poll, and it allows you to find out much more about them. And as I said in the first item, you need to know them to know what problems they have. Ask them.

6. Show them your best stuff.

In your sidebar, or somewhere easily accessible from every page, put links to some of your best posts. Don’t make the reader dig through your archives to find your gems — make it easy to find them.

That way, they’ll be more likely to read more than one article, and see what good articles you have on your site. If they like them, they’ll stay. They’ll subscribe. And that’s a good thing.

7. Make navigation easier.

Similarly, they should be able to navigate from one story to another, or through your archives, without too much trouble.

Imagine that you’re a first-time reader — is it easy to find stuff, especially if you don’t know what’s there? The easier you can design your navigation, the better. Simplify rather than confuse.

8. Listen to their complaints.

If someone is complaining about your blog, it’s possible that will make you defensive or angry. But think about it: they are giving you valuable feedback that you can use to improve your blog.

Listen to these complaints. Treasure them. Thank the reader for giving you that input. Now, you shouldn’t change your entire blog each time a reader complains, but you should still listen.

Sometimes they just make sense. Sometimes, it will take 10 readers to complain about something before you decide to make a change. But ignore your readers at your own peril.

9. Don’t add stuff they don’t need.

A great example of this is MyBlogLog. It’s popular among bloggers, for a number of reasons: it helps people find you through the blogs you read, it shows readers that you have a bunch of other readers, it helps you to network with other blogs, it gives you stats, it helps keep readers on your site if they join your community.

But out of those great benefits to the blogger, how many of them are really benefits for the reader? None, really. So why add it? You shouldn’t, unless you can think of a compelling reason that it will help the reader.

MyBlogLog is an example of a service or element of your blog that helps you, not the reader. It’s only one example, though — you should ask yourself this question each time you sign up for a service or add something to your site.

10. Don’t write about stuff they don’t care about.

This goes with Item No. 1 above, but it should be emphasized here: don’t write too much about stuff that’s not relevant to the topic of your blog.

For example, if your blog is about blogging, don’t write about politics or sports. Similarly, don’t write about other blogs just because you like them — if it isn’t about the topic of the blog, and isn’t extremely useful, it doesn’t belong there.

Also, don’t write too much about your personal life — sure, people like to get to know you as a blogger, but it should be within the context of providing useful information to them. They usually don’t want to hear about your day if it’s not relevant.