Today I learned that, in the view of one pundit on Kinja, all newspaper columnists stink at their jobs. First, because they’re trained to report and not persuade. Second, because no one can come up with a fresh, original idea more than twice in a month. Maybe three times in a good month. Yet the columnist is expected to produce two columns a week.
The article offered a solution to idea-lorn columnists: use the same ideas again and again. After all, no one except your closest friends reads every column you write. So who’s going to know?
I’m highly suspicious of the finding (that all columnists stink), the explanation (two ideas a month), and the advice (recycle your ideas). Yet I’m prompted to ask, would that apply to bloggers too?
If the likes of George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Dana Milbank are good for only two, maybe three, fresh ideas a month, then surely a blogger like me — even though I try
to publish at least one original post each week — can’t hope to do better.
That would take the pressure off, wouldn’t it? When I struggle to find new ideas, I can just warm up some leftovers, as it were, and dress up an old post as something new. You, dear reader, won’t even notice.
(Insert eyeroll emoji.) If only that were true.
I don’t think columnists are that hard up for new ideas. Bloggers either. Reading Tom Johnson’s blog, for example, I suspect that he has at least two fresh ideas every day before breakfast.
I agree with the pundit about one thing, though: ideas are sometimes hard to come by. But we can still train ourselves to increase the likelihood of having fresh ideas. How? Try these techniques.
Seek other points of view
You’re used to seeing things as you see them. What would they look like from another vantage point? What if you could see them in a larger context?
What would you learn? Would your feelings or your opinions change?
There. Now you have fresh ideas to write about.
To get a different vantage point, maybe you just need to go someplace new, like the Japanese Garden. I like to follow people on social media who aren’t from my family, who aren’t from my home town, who don’t share my religious and political views.
I’m not saying you have to change your mind about anything (although that could be a side benefit). But you’ll get fresh ideas.
Read something new
If I were in my 20s or 30s I might say do something you’ve never done before. And, yes, that’s a good way to get fresh ideas. But when you reach a certain age you already know whether you’re willing to jump out of an airplane (I’m not) or take a trip around the world (love to, but can’t afford it).
I can read, though, and so can you. Those folks on social media who don’t share your comfort zone? They can point you to articles and books that’ll spark fresh ideas. Be careful what you click on, of course. But it’s possible to broaden your horizons without getting mired in internet quicksand.
Read books and articles about topics that are new to you. One of the best history books I ever read was Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, about the 1967 Six Day War — a subject about which I’d known virtually nothing.
I also recommend anything by John McPhee for new insights about culture, technology, and environmentalism.
Tell a story
You probably know that I believe in storytelling in all kinds of writing — including business and technical writing.
If you want fresh ideas, start telling a story. You might not know how the story will end. You probably don’t know what insights you’ll draw from it. Start telling the story and see where it takes you.
Fellow technical writer Neal Kaplan recently broke a blogging silence with an appealing story about taking a hike and then taking it again. I think it’s fair to say that the experience rejuvenated his creative thinking process. So be like Neal: go ahead and tell your story.
What are your techniques for increasing the flow of fresh ideas?