The Art of Finding Ideas

image of humphrey bogart and maltese falcon

Every writer who has ever lived has lusted after ideas.

Where are they, how do I get them, and how do I keep them coming?

If you’ve been writing long enough, you know that — like Solomon — there is nothing new under the sun.

Try as you might to sweat them out of your head or pull them gently from the stars above, there are no new ideas.

So, relax.

But the page is not going to write itself, is it? Where then do we turn for ideas that work, ideas that move, ideas that persuade?

In short, we steal them.

The moment you free yourself from The Cult of Originality, you realize that “original” ideas do not come from within.

They are given to us, from without.

A writer should not look inside, but outside, at external sources, stories, events, and emotions.

If you’re offended that I’d suggest you “steal” ideas, please get over it. You’re already a thief, you just don’t know it yet.

Here are two of the most significant idea repositories on earth …

1. The modern media is a torrent of ideas

In this information age, you have absolutely no reason to “draw a blank”.

Ever.

What took our writing ancestors days and weeks to research and learn, takes us mere moments.

In fact, the only problem we have now is one of finding trusted curators. We need to develop self-discipline and discernment in seeking out correct information from reliable sources.

There is no drought of ideas.

Brian Clark recently wrote:

You have more computing power in your pocket than it took to send men to the moon. What are you doing with it?

Indeed.

Are you wasting it or harnessing it? You don’t need to go to the moon, the crossroads will do just fine for our purposes.

Research. Read. Steal.

Product manuals, literature, interviews, talk radio, magazines, newspapers, television, Twitter, Google Trends, movies, Wikipedia, and on and on and on …

It’s all there, right in your pocket.

And it’s actually more than you’ll ever need.

So use it. Don’t let it use you.

2. People will give you exactly what you’re looking for

Ideas are walking around everywhere out there.

Eugene Schwartz once told a story about a copywriting job he had.

He met with the client and asked him to start talking about the product. They ended up sitting together for four hours — the client talking, and Schwartz simply listening and taking notes.

Later that night, while he was waiting for his wife to get ready for a night out on Manhattan, Schwartz wrote the ad.

The entire ad.

He said about 70% of the finished copy was composed of his client’s own words.

The headline itself was a phrase the client had hit on, word for word.

He waited two weeks, mailed the ad to the client, and they both made a lot of money.

You might think this was some kind of dirty trick on Schwartz’ part, but you’d be wrong.

Schwartz knew how to write a powerful direct response ad. The client didn’t.

Schwartz was smart enough to know that the client knew (in this case) his own product better than he ever could, and simply translated that knowledge and passion onto paper.

The ideas were sitting in the client’s head and Schwartz knew exactly what to do with them.

It goes further …

For better or worse, a writer is working all the time.

Phone calls with friends, the plumber, your spouse, your child, your boss, your client, your neighbor — they are all constantly giving you ideas.

They are all constantly telling you what they — and the entire world — truly want.

It is all grist for the mill.

All you need to do is … listen.

Steal this post

Eugene Schwartz summed this up for me perfectly:

You don’t have to have great ideas if you can hear great ideas.

I stole this post from him, and he stole it from many others.

Listen more. Talk less.

Read less. Read better.

Steal.

The Art of Finding Ideas is then … to go out and find ideas.

Originality? That’ll come from using your own voice, and your voice develops from only one thing — writing more. And more. And more.

Where have you been getting your ideas?

About the Author: Robert Bruce is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter and Resident Recluse.

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Comments

  1. What you’ve written is so true and what I “heard” in your article is what I’ve always known–“There is nothing new under the sun!” Yet we must keep making efforts to put fingers to keys and create our own version of everything that is out there waiting for our unique spin..

  2. “the only problem we have now is one of finding trusted curators.”

    Great point! There is more information online that could be consumed in a lifetime. Thousands of years of human knowledge is at our fingertips. We just have to sort through it all.

  3. I think that Picasso once said “good artists copy, great artists steal.” So true. I think the ultimate copywriting skill is in stealing an idea, but making it your own.

  4. It’s not about having ideas; it’s about knowing which ones to act on and after that, getting somebody else to think your idea is so clever they’ll pay you for it.

  5. You have made some good points, there, although anyone who writes about writing of all things should know not to write “comprised of”… Actually, anyone and everyone should know that.

    • Thanks for the good catch “Alan”, and for your strong stand for such a crucial grammatical principle.

    • I’ve read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style a good half dozen times, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the manual: the authors begrudgingly identify several compound words and phrase that are “technically” incorrect (or at least grammatically dubious), but they concede these words and phrases have been accepted into the “common vernacular” and are therefore tacitly accepted as “correct.”

      And those who would take issue with this kind of “error” are comprised of a very small group.

  6. Ice Cube called it “Jackin for Beats.”

  7. I couldn’t have said it better.

    I used to get stuck in the mindset that I had to be completely original to write anything worthwhile. Of course, that only held me back and resulted a lot of unwritten work.

    It’s not about being original, it’s about copying, borrowing or whatever you want to call it — and then adding your own thoughts and voice to the stolen work…

    Just like you did with this post. Bravo.

  8. Great post. This information will be very helpful to me in the future. Thanks !

  9. Great post Robert.

    Research. Read. Re-Purpose.

  10. Love the ending :=)

  11. I keep telling my husband “this isn’t so much about writing as it is about transcribing.”

  12. Hi, I’m a copywriter at Euro RSCG Prague. I think your advice hits the nail on the head. After all, every play Shakespeare wrote was a direct ripoff of a Greek or Roman play.

    Most of the clients we write for want to use their brand stories and assets. And there’s always a way to present them in a contemporary context.

    It’s the task of retelling the old stories that often results in the best creative work.

    Recreating borrowed material is what every artist has done since the dawn of creation.

  13. “I have never started to write a novel with an idea in my head. Celine said that ideas were vulgar that all one had to do in order to find them is to open a newspaper. I would add to this that ideas are always bound to appear somewhere at some stage or other, so it’s hardly worth your while to worry about them in advance; otherwise you’ll be transforming the novel into a thesis and the writer into a philosopher, a historian, a psychoanalyst, or a theoretician. Anything but what he is.” (Philippe Djian)

  14. Yeah realized that everything *novel* I thought of, was already said by someone in some book.

    But so what, I said. People around me don’t know that!

    Swipe file. The whole idea is steal, file and use.

    Works so much better

    The thing is that this no matter what your field, like management for me and not just writing one can steal and apply. Infact steal, apply and get better than the original.

    Hey that ways you actually benefit the world, Ah stealing can be noble ;)

  15. Great post! This is so true. I always do these things when I want some ideas of what to write. However, you have to have the power to tell which ideas are important and worthy of writing.

  16. I blog for myself and another company and I pressure myself relentlessly to BE ORIGINAL DANGIT! I realize I’m a member of the Cult of Originality although of late, it’s been stressing me so much I’ve begun breaking away from it. You’re right, there IS nothing new under the sun (for the most part). My new mindset is to open myself up to adding my voice, my spin and my perspective to the topics others are exploring. I just hope the cult doesn’t track me down and drag me back kicking and screaming.

  17. As soon as I saw the photo at the top, I knew it was you.

    I can hear The Fat Man pouring the scotch and croaking, “Very good, Mr. Spade. I like a man who can hear great ideas.”

    Nice one.

  18. Think of it as an article of women’s clothing. 100s of other women may have bought the same thing – how she wears it makes the difference.

  19. This reminds me of what Albert Einstein once said: “Creativity is all about knowing how to hide your sources.”

    This is a brilliant & terse article and I love the layout.

  20. Steal…don’t plagiarize….

  21. I love this article and it feels like a weight lifted to a new copywriter worrying about originality and the morals of “stealing” but when I look at everything I read online I can see that it’s already stolen one, two, three or more times already! Looking in the right places is the key and minimising time in trawling internet sites and let the vast array of software out there do it for you.

  22. From my 9/15/11 blog post:

    “Coffee or Red Bull may ignite your muse. Input from a spouse or co-worker may trigger an idea. Inspiration can come from the media you consume—a song, a video, a blog, a book, a movie.

    I suggest that you step outside. A walk in a park usually stimulates my brain. Lose the screen; enjoy some green!”

  23. Harrumph! Scott Cohen plucked my comment re Shakespeare right outta my head … only he managed to scribe it faster (must have been a time-zone thang).

    This is lip-smacking, thirst-quenching, supersize writing that explodes right off the page.

    Bravo, Mr Bruce. Bravo!

  24. Great post Robert!
    I’m stealing from it as we speak, LOL!!!!
    -AJ

  25. Kismet? Serendipity … I don’t know which but I went to hear John Hegarty (the man who put Nick Kamen in a pair of Levi’s in a hot laundromat all those years ago) speak today and he was talking about exactly this – take out your headphones and LISTEN, get off YouTube (the things there may be great – but they have already been done) and watch … “Life. ‘Being’ is the greatest of all art forms. The more you feed yourself – with ideas, books, art, films, life – the more you can create.”

    Be aware, be present, notice what’s happening around you – it will tell you the truth which is, according to Hegarty, “The most important strategic position. Find the truth and make it interesting.”

    Stimulating stuff for a chilly Tuesday in the UK

  26. And so this stealing thing will go on right under the noses of cops – people who first had the idea.

    What a world. Human beings, we seem to care less sometimes. May be it is just human nature to borrow three eggs add one of their own, then claim that all the four eggs belong to no one but only them.

    • Philos, share with us your latest original thought, and someone here will tell you why it’s not original at all.

    • Reach beyond your literalism here Philos. Have a chat with Picasso.

    • One of the most significant mantras in the business world is: never invest with your own my money.

      From building companies, to developing products and even real estate – “investors” always seek to leverage other peoples capital to make a project happen, claiming a portion of the eventual profits as their “prize” for engineering the deal.

      Your egg analogy almost perfectly (you were planing to use one of your own eggs, you should just borrowed all four) describes the ideal investment strategy! So this “stealing” your railing against is a big part of what makes the world go around.

      And the same logic can be applied to writing. Greek tragedies were based on oral mythology, and Shakespeare “borrowed” from the Greeks, as well as from the oral mythology of his time, in addition to the “headlines” of the day generated be the Royal Court (i.e. the celebrities of the day). So in a sense, he borrowed three eggs, mixing them with his own egg (a grain of his personal creativity) and is now regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language.

      Journalism also works in a similar fashion. Tens of thousands of Press Releases (PR) are issued every day ( I issue at a dozen every month) in the hopes that a journalist will seize upon the idea and write a feature article. That means a very large portion of the “news” stories you read everyday have little to nothing to do with any “original” thought on the part of the Journalist.

    • I work with clients all the time who have a “break-through” business idea, something they want me to sign a 5 page NDA for, something that will change the world of online (and offline) marketing and so on…

      And then they tell me the gist of the idea and I have heard it 30 times before or know of at least 5 other sites that already do it BETTER than they have even thought of.

      I had a client today who had this “killer” idea to do a site that reviewed businesses and allowed users to rate a restaurant or slam it based on their experience…sound familiar? It’s called YELP.com!

      I asked the client if he’d ever heard of Yelp, which he hadn’t. Now I’m not saying that he won’t be able to make his idea work, but the point is that his idea is not “new” or even “original”.

      Thanks for this great post that not only helps me recognize all the ideas that are constantly around me, but also proves that innovation is about taking current ideas and making them better (rarely re-inventing the entire wheel).

  27. Thanks Robert! I’ll be taking this now. :)

  28. Whoa! A well written and deep post. Thanks for sharing.

  29. The best quote I ever found on this subject was by acclaimed film maker, James Jarmusch, who directed Coffee & Cigarettes among many:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”

  30. This is exactly why it’s always a good idea to read something if you’re struggling with writer’s block. Ideas manifest themselves through outside inspiration. You’re never going to successfully mine good ideas if you don’t expose yourself to the ideas of others.

  31. Ah…. there will be new ideas created.

    The computer wasn’t around in 1000 AD. The car wasn’t around in 500BC. New developments will come.

    There’s a difference between inventing something out of the blue and innovating. Innovation is taking two proven concepts and combining them in a new way.

    However, innovating is still being original, and should be pursued. Giving credit to a source doesn’t detract from the innovation either.

  32. It holds true. You can’t steal second with your foot on first.

  33. I find that Digg has been a great place to generate great ideas. This is a place where people from all walks of life come together to dig what they like and you can bet that the top stories are what people actually want to read.

  34. Listeners are learners, and leaders and usually make a lot of money too. Listen. Act. Keep open to all that happens around you, and you will generate creative ideas with ease.

    Thanks!

    Ryan

  35. This article is a writer’s paradise. I am a writer but one of those who runs out of idea quite frequently. The tips provided in this article are really amazing and will help me a lot in gathering new ideas to write books in the future. Really a useful blog. Thanks for this!

  36. It isn’t as much about “stealing” as it is that ideas, for the most part are incremental. We build on what others have done before. Every so often there is a burst of change or a radical idea that comes along but generally we are all building off of, not stealing from what we experience.

  37. Innovation is taking what’s already out there and doing something new with it. Creativity is doing it even better.

    “Any activity becomes creative when the do-er cares about doing it right or better.” John Updike

    And that is basically what we do as writers. Take a pile of information and ideas and make something new.

    Useful post. I’m going to steal it for my next coaching seminar.

  38. Ideas are no problem. But often, it seems I’ve found the perfect angle only to discover my market just published someone else’s version! Ach. I guess that’s why we never stop churning out ideas.

  39. I get my ideas from you.

  40. Wow, this is all so true! I’d be lying if I said I’ve never wished a brilliant idea would just “pop into my head”, but I guess there are plenty to be found all over the world. I guess my biggest issue is being satisfied enough with one idea to put the time and work into writing it all down. Or maybe my issue is just the time and work. ;)

  41. Ah, inspiration. Actually, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Seriously, and this Copyblogger article proves it. I used to read Communication Arts to keep pushing me to new heights. Now I find the Harvard Business Review to be more potent. Writing/Interpreting the wisdom found there and in other think-central ‘majors’ helps establish a little thought leadership. Even easier? Eavesdrop on a webinar and report it from your notes. Here’s what I got from their recent ‘Changing Role of the CMO’ webinar. http://www.writingforfameandfortune.com/?p=432

  42. “What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” – Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix.

  43. Terrific quote above from Artis. Thank you.

  44. Thanks for the reminder. I love that you refer to Eugene Schwartz and Ecclesiastes in the same post. Not to mention Brian Clark.

  45. Thank you for this liberating post! This perspective stands to make us better listeners as well. I can use that kind of encouragement!

    By the way, those “trusted curators” are called librarians (:

  46. Robert, this is a great post. You are absolutely right about us having a neverending resource of information to create new writing ideas. Keep on inspiring us to display our full potential.

    Stacie Walker
    WomanInLeadership.com

  47. I just blogged about this here (including a video on how I “steal” content): http://www.dreamsystemsmedia.com/blog/index.php/how-to-overcome-writers-block-for-blogging/

    Thanks again for the great tips and reminders.

  48. I don’t ever have a problem finding idea’s, but sometimes I do find myself in a slouch where I just don’t feel like writing. I can think of twenty topics but just can’t bring myself to write about anything. When this happens I go on a reading rampage and read other blog posts often one will spark a conversation or opinion that brings out my fire to write again. If not, then I go watch some TV or game for a little while and take a break from blogging, then come back to it.

  49. What a wonderful post Robert. Thanks for the reminder that we’re surrounded by inspiration if we’ll only keep our eyes and mind open.

    I particularly loved your story about Eugene Schwartz. I like to use my clients own words in their copy and I find it has one of two reactions: they have a greater sense of ownership or they think I’ve slacked (cheeky devils). Thankfully, it’s usually the former!

  50. Hi Robert

    You asked “So where have you been getting your ideas” I get most of my article ideas from Google’s Keyword Research tool. Put simply I write articles in my starting a small business niche tailored to what people are searching for.

    I am also not afraid to take ideas from different places when constructing an article and definitely agree that there are no new ideas. I overlay my own personal experiences to the generic content for originality.

  51. Yes! There are no new things on this world. Beleive me however, every one of us discovers it and if it is really a discovery, it makes everyone else excited. For example, we all know about how important is listening :) However, if we all of a sudden discover it in a real life experience that it helped and brought concrete results, we can share it, and that would become a discovery.

    I like reading and listening to things that people experienced, rather then “stolen”. “Stolen” means that you had never had hands on experience in some obvious truth.

  52. It is very impressive to read this post. Thanks for sharing.

  53. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t possible to agree more with the last part than I do.