Sometimes you’re just flat out of ideas.
It’s not a matter of talent — you’ve written great stuff in the past. But lately, when you go back to the well for a fresh idea, it’s coming up dry.
This happens to the best of us — even veterans who consistently produce quality content have their off days.
Yet they continue to write.
They may grumble about how hard it is to get going and create something solid, but they still do. Again, and again, and again.
They aren’t super-human, and they don’t have magical content-producing powers. So what is the secret?
They do it by pulling out the well-worn toolbox of strategies for creating awesome content.
Steal content and ideas
If you’re flat-out exhausted and out of ideas, then get them from somebody else — either content, or ideas, or both.
I’m not talking about real stealing, of course — it’s more like “borrowing with the author’s blessing”.
Done right, this can produce some valuable content that the authors you “stole” from will thank you for using!
- Curate content. Find your ten favorite websites, and then find your favorite post on each of them. Publish a post listing these top ten posts, and explain why you like them. You don’t even have to think about being creative, and everyone you feature there will appreciate it. This is what we do with our Best of the Web feature, and there are lots of other examples.
- Ask friends for ideas. If you’re tapped for ideas, then reach out to your friends and colleagues, and ask them what they’d like you to write about. You can do this with offline friends, or with like-minded online entrepreneurs. If you’re not already part of a mastermind group, then reach out to a few bloggers that are about as big as you are, and suggest starting one. I’m in a mastermind group with Jon Alford, Paul Wolfe and Caleb Wojcik, and they’ve all been a great help to me.
- Ask your audience. You can kick the last strategy up a notch by reaching out to your audience. This can be done in several ways — it can be as simple as running a “what would you like me to write about” post (which is a bit lame), or it can get more interesting by asking for their input on a problem, as Marcus Sheridan did to create his tag-line, or by asking a question so that you can compile their answers into another piece of content, like nittyGriddy’s free blog posting schedules e-book.
- Do an interview. There are lots of reasons why interviews are great for blog content, but right now let’s focus on the simple fact that it’s a lot easier to write a handful of interview questions than it is to write an entire post! Plus, it can be a great way to connect with really interesting people. (I got to interview Randy Komisar, who is my hero in the business world – and all I had to do was ask!)
- Solicit guest posts. This is a great source of content, and it’s easier than most people think – find a handful of blogs that are your size or smaller, whose content you really like, and invite them to write a guest post for you. They’ll be flattered, and happy to get exposure to your audience. They’ll work hard to bring their A game, and not only will you get a great post, but they’ll happily tell their contacts about it, and bring you a few new readers in the process.
Create content without creating content
If you have to create your own content, then there are a whole bunch of ways to do it without “creating content”.
In other words, you can write something great without having to be creative or original.
This doesn’t mean that the content won’t be good — only that you’re going to rely on creativity and originality that has already been percolating in your mind.
- Create a best-case study. Think about your favorite blog, company, or product, and write a post about why you like them so much (like Marlee Ward did about Rise, Pushing Social, and IttyBiz). Explain what you think they’re doing right, and what others can learn from their example.
- Create a worst-case study. Same thing, but focus on a blog, company or product that you hate. This can be even more interesting, particularly if it’s a popular offering. Explain your frustrations with it, explain why it is successful anyway, and explain what you would do differently.
- Write a review. Think about a product that you like, and are happy to endorse, and write a review about it. No need to get too creative, just explain what you like about it, and why. And then write what you don’t like about it, and why — easy peasy. You can kick it up a notch by contacting the company and asking them to donate a product that you can raffle off to blog commenters, like Kristy Hines did with an IBM ThinkCentre M90z.
- Explain your success. Think about a time when something went really right for you, and write a post explaining how you got it to happen. Don’t just brag about successes — explain all of the steps that you took to get there. Draw out the lessons that you learned from the experience, the lessons others can learn as well. This is what I did when I shared how I landed Guy Kawasaki on Problogger.
- Explain your failure. If there’s anything that people love reading about more than a great success, it’s an epic business failure. A post about your most challenging experiences is likely to be powerful just by virtue of how intense the original experience was for you, and you don’t have to make up anything original or creative — just tell it like it is (or, was), and explain what you learned from the process.
- Link to old favorites. Go through your archives, and make a short list of your old favorite posts that newer readers probably haven’t read. You can even do a quick deconstruction, and explain what you were thinking when you wrote the posts, what worked, and what didn’t.
Borrow some name recognition
Okay, so maybe what you really want is to find a great original idea to write about, but it just isn’t happening.
In that case, all you need is a creativity jump-start; a useful constraint that can send you off in the right direction.
The idea is to take two unrelated things, and force them together into a really interesting post. It’s really easier than it sounds.
Start by picking something that your readers are interested in, and then pick something unrelated, that your audience will be familiar with.
Merge them together into a post with a headline that goes something like:
- 5 Things Depeche Mode Can Teach You About Effective Online Marketing
- The Grateful Dead 4-Step Guide to the Magical Influence of Content Marketing
- The Eminem Guide to Becoming a Writing and Marketing Machine
Are you starting to see the pattern?
Just to get your brain going, here are some of the things that you can plug into the “fascinating hook” part of that equation:
- Use a movie. Use either the name of a movie, or a character from that movie. Think about the last movie you’ve seen, and think about what you can learn from that movie about your topic of interest. There’s always something there, if you dig deep enough. It doesn’t have to be a recent movie, either — it can be an old favorite, like the Princess Bride, which Brian references in his Inigo Montoya’s Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words
- Use television. Same idea, but this time pick a television show that your audience is likely to watch. That’s what Jon Morrow did in his super-successful Mad Men Guide to Changing the World with Words post, and I did the same when I wrote Desperate Housewives on Writing, Storytelling and Selling. For extra credit, you can make a list of the top five TV shows you can think of, and do keyword research to see which one is hottest.
- Use a book. Just make sure it isn’t a book about your subject matter (“What How To Win Friends and Influence People Can Teach You About Winning Friends and Influence People” is kind of lame). As long as it’s off-topic, you’re good to go. It doesn’t even have to be the book, it can be the author (“What Tolkien Can Teach You…”), a poet, or even a line out of a poem.
- Use a comic. There’s a reason why they’ve been remaking movies about Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men, and half a dozen other, more obscure comic book characters. Unless it is a spectacular failure, you can pretty much count on a certain volume of sales at the box office. By the same token, if you lean on the super-powers of one of these characters, your post should perform just as well!
- Use a celebrity. This is a blanket category for any kind of icon that your audience would recognize. It could be your favorite pop star, movie star, or blogging star (whether it’s a big name like Brian Clark, or an equally awesome but slightly lesser known blogger like Jk Allen) … as long as your audience would recognize the name, it should be solid.
- Find out what’s trending. While we’re on the topic of celebrity, take some time to see what else is currently trending. Visit google.com/trends, click on the “More Hot Searches” link, and pick something from the list.
The last thing you can do when you’re fresh out of ideas is to recharge and get inspired.
This may sound difficult when you’re looking at a desk covered in crumpled note papers with lousy ideas, but it can be done.
There are at least four ways to do it.
- Go for a walk. This is the generic advice that you’ve probably heard a hundred times before. If you just can’t do it anymore, then take a break, go for a walk, and get some fresh air. It’s not quite that simple, but it’s close: we all have routines and practices that are good at triggering high performance mental states. It’s just a matter of finding the right triggers for you.
- Go to the theater. The theater is a fantastic source of ideas — much better than just going to a movie, because there’s so much more atmosphere, and so much more happening, which means there’s that much more for you to deconstruct and draw analogies from. Find a show in your area, get out of the house, and come back refreshed and ready to start writing.
- Explore new cultures. No, no, I’m not suggesting you book a vacation every time you’re out of ideas. You don’t have to fly half-way around the world — why not start with an authentic restaurant? Go somewhere that you aren’t familiar with, and really pay attention to the experience. All of this is fodder for analogies that can get your creative juices flowing.
- Tell your story. This is if you’re ready to kick yourself into overdrive, and write a post about an experience that is powerful and deeply personal. For this, you’ve got to dig deep, and pull up a formative story in your life — share a real crisis that you overcame, and how you became a better and happier person for it. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but you don’t really need original content, because it’s all stuff that has already happened to you. And the results are stories that stick with people for a long time, like Danny Brown’s failed suicide attempt, Jon Morrow’s childhood fight for survival, and Brian Clark’s subdural hematoma.
Bonus #22 — Write when you do have ideas
You can fall back on these strategies when you’re fresh out of ideas and don’t feel like writing, and with a bit of discipline you’ll be able to create a really solid post.
But that doesn’t make it easy.
The reality is that when you’re feeling uninspired, it isn’t the best time for you to do your writing. That’s why the last strategy is to do the writing when you are feeling inspired.
Write a handful of articles and keep them in an “emergency posts” folder, to run when you absolutely don’t feel like writing.
And of course, you can use any of the ideas described in this post as a starter for filling up that folder. So go to it — start writing! But first, join the discussion …
Which of these methods has worked for you? Which one do you plan on trying first? Leave a comment below and let me know.