The Search for Inspiration

In my last writing advice post, I talked about what we can do to overcome the problems we face when beginning a writing session or a new project. Today’s post continues that line of thought by discussing another problem that emerges early in the writing process: what do we actually write about?

Finding the right idea to spark your imagination is harder than it sounds. It may take a while for us to find something we like, and when we do, there’s no guarantee that the seed we’re trying to germinate will bear fruit. I like to think of finding inspiration and developing a story as a process similar to hunting or tracking. The initial idea is the first clue you find, and your job is to follow it to its source, i.e. your fleshed-out concept. Sometimes the journey is a straight line, and sometimes you get lost along the way. These days, numerous websites and apps have made a cottage industry out of offering prompts to writers looking for new ideas. I’ll talk about them in a bit, but there are many other ways to find the perfect premise for your new story. As a matter of fact, inspiration is all around you if you know how to look for it. Here are some of the best ways to get inspired for a new project, as well as tips on how to proceed once you’ve stumbled upon that first nugget of gold.

Pay attention to your world. As you live your life, don’t just blindly go through the motions. Instead, be an active, curious and engaged participant in your surroundings. Ask yourself questions about everyday things you see: “Where is that person hurrying off to?” or “How long has that old building been there?” Try sitting in a public area, like a park or cafe, and wonder about the history of the people and things around you. Everything and everyone has a story, no matter how mundane. Writers should be people-watchers, but people-watching is more than staring at strangers while you jot down ideas about them in a notebook. It’s about being more observant when interacting with others and going out of your way to learn things and make connections. The next time you’re hanging out with your friends, take note of how you all talk and the sort of things you talk about. When you meet a new person, get them talking about themselves and listen closely. You’ll gain a richer understanding/appreciation of your world by paying more attention to it, and with that comes more sources of inspiration.

Seek out new knowledge and experiences. “Write what you know” is the advice we’re most often given, and to do that, we should keep expanding the definition of what we know. That means taking risks, going to new places and learning for the sake of learning. Travel to a place in your town or city that you’ve never visited before: what is it like, and what happened there? Read a book or take a course on a subject you’re unfamiliar with. Find a random article about something cool and look through it. The experience itself will give you something to write about, and the information you’ve gathered will prove useful as well.

Do some freeform writing. Sit down with your notebook or computer and set aside a few minutes to write about whatever comes to mind. Don’t let a thought go without putting it on the page in some fashion. You don’t have to keep this work once you’re done, but it’s a good way of sorting through your ideas and warming up for a day of writing.

Use prompts, but know how. It’s no trouble at all to find a website or app that offers writing prompts. These can be the first line of a story, a random piece of dialogue, an image, a location or whatever else you can think of. When you find a prompt you like, don’t jump right into a first draft. Instead, do some more freeform writing. Put down how you feel about the writing prompt and the ideas that it gives you. You can do this for as long as you want. What I like to do is string five or six prompts together, spending a few minutes brainstorming for each one and then using the next to keep building on the core ideas. You can make a really detailed outline using this method. I use it whenever I’m looking for inspiration for a new short story.

Don’t keep your ideas in your head for too long. Ideas for stories are wonderful, but they’re also ephemeral. If you go too long without writing them down, you’ll lose them and have to start all over. Keep a small notebook or a note-taking app on hand so you can jot down ideas as soon as they come to you. If you’re at your computer, make a new document and start typing. The second half of this tip is to avoid spending too much time away from your idea once you have it. I think you should spend at least a few minutes each day adding to it. If you leave it sitting for too long, there’s a chance you’ll lose interest in it and forget what drew you to that idea in the first place.

Don’t be afraid to let some ideas go. Not every idea you have will end up working. That doesn’t reflect badly on you or your writing skills, that’s just the reality of the creative process. If you find that an idea isn’t giving you the pleasure you thought it would, set it aside and move on to something else. You can come back to it later if you want, but you aren’t obligated to. Explore the ideas that you want to explore.

As you can see, one of the best ways to find inspiration for your writing is to step away from your usual routine, go out into the world and see what you can discover. We writers may work best in a controlled space, but you can’t stay within your bubble if you want to hit on your best ideas. You’ll be a better writer and a better person if you’re more attentive to the world around you.

For my next writing tip article, I’m going to keep exploring this topic by detailing how writers can interact and converse with other pieces of media. See you next time!

— Dana

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