How to NEVER run out of ideas

How to NEVER run out of ideas

This is the first in a series of posts on Greasing Your Creative Wheels. Whether you’re a blogger, a writer or another type of artist, there are times when the creative machine gets jammed, the cogs get all gunked up and you need a Creative Tune-Up. This series aims to get your engine going again using some of the time tested techniques that we use. Up first – filling your idea tank.

moleskine-notebookI never run out of ideas.

Surely, you get writer’s block?

Nope. Never. In fact, I’m a writer with more ideas than I have time to execute them. Between numerous comic strips, books, articles and blog posts, I have no shortage of ideas. Granted, they’re not all GREAT, but each is a seed capable of growth as long as there are the right nutrients in the soil.

Sitting and staring at a blank screen or page but being unable to come up with anything is a terrifying feeling. I have good news for you. Whether you are painting a picture or writing great copy there are ways to make sure it won’t happen to you again.

I kind of lied above when I said never. I wasn’t always this chock full of ideas.

During my years as a newspaper reporter, I was responsible for submitting a certain number of stories per issue. Prioritizing and scheduling were key to ensuring I met my deadlines. I was great at meeting deadlines. However, sometimes a story would simply fall apart. There are a number of reasons this can happen,  too many to mention here, but one night of panic that I might miss a deadline was all the inspiration I needed to make sure I always have something waiting in the wings.

So I created my idea tank

This is my system. Feel free to modify, improve  and claim it as your own. Call it whatever you want. Your Box O’ Ideas, your Idea Well, Hell, call it Bob. The name isn’t important so long as you develop some sort of system.

Conquer writer’s block

The FIRST thing you need to do if you’re stuck for inspiration is GET UP! Change your scenery. If you’ve been sitting at a desk for hours, get out and go for a walk, jog or run! Just get up and get moving!

I know it seems counterproductive, especially if you’re pressed for time, to leave your writing area. Trust me. Sitting in one place for too long allows both your body and spirit to fall into lethargy. Walking is not only good for its obvious health benefits, it also gives your brain a jump start, freeing you to think beyond the limitations of your house or office. Suddenly, you’re out in the world, wide open spaces filled with possibilities. I always think of new ideas while out on a walk. By the time I’m halfway through, I’m in a rush to get back and record my ideas.

Take notes

I carry a reporter’s notebook (or some variation of) with me wherever I go. (Although, I don’t take notes while on my walks) This is a habit I developed long before I became a reporter. You never know when an idea will strike. Odds are, the less appropriate the place for writing, the more likely you’ll think of some killer new idea. Funny how the mind works. Never be caught off guard. On the road, in line or in bed, have a pen and paper of some sort to jot down your ideas. Bonus – If you’re like me and hate waiting in lines or traffic or doctor’s offices, a notebook makes for a great way to make use of your waiting time! I try to keep my ideas on separate pages for the next step.

Observe your surroundings

It’s funny how often we ignore those things we take for granted.

When you pass the same street day after day, you probably fail to notice all the little things that make it unique. Start noticing. Better yet, start writing down some of these observations, as they are some of the ingredients which will inform your creative work and allow people to lose themselves inside your words and worlds.

ny-artistEverybody has a story

People watching is a favorite activity for many writers, myself included. Next time you’re out, try to imagine the lives, or the back stories if you will, of the people around you. People provide wonderful inspiration. Crowded places such as malls and public transportation often have an eclectic mix of denizens. Surely one person will glow with potential.

Perhaps the blue collar guy in the dirty shirt with the calloused hands sitting quietly in the back of the bus, his head down, his eyes tired, might have a compelling story. Perhaps there’s something special in that paper sack he is carrying. Something wonderful, or maybe something horrible, which will change the world of those around him. The only limits are your imagination. Use real life to jumpstart your creative side.

Better yet, talk to people

Your imagination will only get you so far. If you really want to write about other people, try getting to know them. Strike up conversations with people you might not otherwise talk to (assuming its reasonably safe to do so and you’re not putting yourself at risk). If you’re not especially social, try listening to others. Listening to the way other people talk can lend voice to your own creations. Authentic dialogue always sounds better than the clichéd banter that permeates bad television and movies.

Invite the creator inside you to your next conversation. Pretty soon you will have plenty of inspiration to tap into.

Filling your idea tank

As you record your ideas, you’ll want a place to store them. I use a giant index card box with dividers. You can use whatever works for you: a computer program, a shoe box, a series of notebooks, whatever you like. Each idea falls into a category and gets filed away. Note: you don’t have to store JUST your ideas in this bank. You can also store other people’s work which inspires you in some manner. Perhaps you saw a photo in a magazine of some place which triggered an idea in your head. Cut it out, write down some notes and attach it to the pic and file it away.

Some sample categories:

  • story ideas – long
  • story ideas – short
  • books by name
  • blog article ideas
  • magazine article ideas
  • column ideas
  • print or online clips which inspire
  • research
  • memorable quotes
  • biographies
  • sketches
  • photographs
  • site design
  • color schemes
  • other art

The important thing is to have some easy way to categorize them and call them up at a later date. Because when it comes to writing, ideas are your friends. Treat them well, invest time in developing them and they will reward you greatly in return.

Next time: we’ll discuss your digital idea tank, how to use an RSS feed for inspiration and other tools to keep your creative engine chugging.

The Collective Inkwell Community Question: We’re interested in some of the tricks and tools you use to fill your idea tank. How do you get your inspiration? What tips would you like to pass along? We want to hear from you! Comment below and join the discussion.

ci-contest-boxSpeaking of writing, there’s still time to enter our contest to win a free premium Thesis WordPress Theme and other prizes!


  1. Your timing is uncanny. I needed this jump start of ideas for the upcoming weeks. You are an unbelievably, WoW… artist. Thank you for liberating your gifts.

  2. Ha, well I just started carrying a notebook and I now have fifteen new post ideas just from one sitting. The benefit of having one is unbelievable. I greatly suggest it for all of you who haven’t tried yet.

  3. You can’t beat a notepad and pen, unless you’re a photographer, in which case always carry a camera with you.

    I usually transfer my notes into WordPress as drafts before refining them into posts

  4. I love your clear, crisp writing style as much as your sound ideas. Thanks, Dave!

    Like Dan, I carry a notebook for ideas but also a quotebook for writing down quotes. I’m a real quote junkie and probably a pusher, too; they inspire me, clarify my thoughts, send me signs, record my life and express me.

    As well as jotting down ideas and snippets of dialogues I overhear, I also capture the world in haiku in my notebooks. (My own blog post today is about doing just that.) I find it helps me be present, see the big picture in the details and connect with everyone and everything. It also balances simple ‘showing’ with the self revelation, information sharing and longer, more lyrical pieces I do elsewhere. Like you suggest, getting away from the place you work is vital. Communicating with real people and nature is crucial.

    Finally, there’s a lot to be gleaned from what you write in personal emails and comments boxes. Sometimes, because you’re more relaxed when you’re writing to friends and colleagues straight after you’ve read something, you’ve actually bypassed the inner critic/censor and ‘accidentally ‘started the process of filtering and expressing something that’s inspired you.

  5. LOL…………I have an LA Moleskin I carry in my purse, with gets some good use. My ideas come from where I do, who I meet, and what I choose to take pictures of. I’m never short on ideas, in fact, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by just how many ideas are out there.

    Outside of LA, I also get ideas from groups. For example, I belong to the group on flickr. I just met my first “stranger” and love it. It’s a challenge to talk to a stranger, and taking their picture. Now, after having completed my first person, and the second one, which I haven’t posted yet, I’m excited to get to know more people.

    Thank you for the additional ideas. Your post is thoughtful and insightful……………..:)

  6. Great Article David, as usual! I really like your writing style!

    I don’t usually have a problem coming up with ideas and that is largely due to the fact that I practice many of the things you mention here! Thanks for this article because it gave me more ways to keep my idea tank full!

  7. The well is indeed bottomless if we take the time to catalogue our thoughts. I use a small tape recorder. I love the ten cent notebooks, but they aren’t always possible. The recorder is thin and I can take it everywhere. My children also love it as well. They call it “the story maker.” Yes, it is.

  8. Hi Dave,

    All of these are great ideas.

    I keep telling myself I need to keep a notebook in the bathroom as for some reason when I’m in the shower or getting ready for the day, my mind is buzzing and the ideas are flowing. I often grab my eyeliner pencil and scribble an idea on whatever paper I can find or on mirror. 🙂

    BTW: This is the first time I’ve been on this site of yours and Seans and must say, it’s beautiful. I’m subscribing. Keep up the great work, guys.

  9. Ha! Isn’t it amazing how handy some old school paper and a pencil can be? It’s so true. Also, not staring at my computer waiting for ideas to come is key. Sometimes it feels like the most efficient thing for me to do is work-work-work (or at least appear to be working), when in reality, it can be far more efficient to fold some laundry or take a walk or change locations. When the idea is there, almost fully-formed in my mind, I find it almost writes itself. Now THAT’S efficient! 🙂 Plus the idea is usually better and it all tends to flow more smoothly.

    Thanks for these great ideas and reminders!

  10. Reading different types of books many times sparks ideas.

  11. Cindy – thanks!

    Dan – Notebooks are ESSENTIAL to writers and bloggers, imo.

    Nicki – Thank YOU!

    Marc – The camera is a great carry along item!

    Janice – Thanks for the nice words. As for the email thing, I agree completely. I’ve gotten posts from some of my email exchanges with friends. Some of my funnier posts at Blogger Dad are a result of such email banter.

    Lisa – Thank you. I’ll have to check out that flickr group when I set up an account.

    Keith – Thanks! Glad you liked it and the ideas resonate with you.

    Sean – Mine is called the funcooker, but that’s another story for another time.

    Kristin T. – Thank you. Although, I would NEVER advocate folding laundry for anything except punishment.

    Lori – Agreed. Got any good book suggestions?

  12. I write my ideas in small notebooks mostly.

    The only thing scary is losing the notebooks.

    I wish I had a manner to file my ideas. Sometimes I just have to page through them to find what I’m looking for. There has to be a better way.

  13. Taking notes – carrying a notebook everywhere – is so important. I get most of my ideas when I’m out and about. I also carry a camera with me everywhere.

  14. This is what I should I try. From today onwards I’ll take a small note book everywhere with me. Thanks for made me understand how important it is.

  15. Hi, I’m Sybelle.
    I’m an italian student, and I’ve to be creative as much as possible (I’m studying advertising).
    Thanks for there ideas!

    Sybelle’s last blog post..Campagne elettorali bolognesi

  16. Hi David,
    Quite resonating with me. I try to carry carry a small note book when I go out, but forget each time and search for a piece of paper in my wallet. Of late, I kept a small booklet next to my laptop to note some points while I read a good blog post.

    I find your – talking to people, interests me a lot. I always cut a conversation with a stranger, a customer next to me to know somethings about him. It’s getting difficult to get across someone talking, by the day :-). However, I can manage wherever I can.

    I get to know by talking to people their views on things. That can trigger some thoughts about how people start looking at things. I try talk to many. Probably my blog posts are all inspired by personal discourses of others and my own experience with them. 🙂

    Great tips to keep in mind!

    Solomon’s last blog post..Go Crazy …. It helps you LEARN and WIN

  17. great post! i agree with you, we can get ideas anywhere, sometimes we just have to get out and get them! thanks a lot 😀

    Rosa’s last blog post..2do

  18. These are excellent tips for making sure the idea tank is always full! I use many of these techniques myself, but I have to admit that there are still times I find myself staring at a blank screen with an even blanker look on my face. Usually that has more to do with fatigue than absence of ideas. I believe that noting ideas in some kind of log is the best way to ensure a constant stream of ideas. That way, if you’re feeling blocked, you can just open your idea journal and pick something… anything.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..One of the Best Websites for Writers

  19. Thank you for an interesting post. I agree with you on the importance of good dialogue!

    Can’t wait to read the next section 🙂

  20. Hi Dave. Great ideas. I have about 3 notebooks: one by my computer, one in my bedroom and one in my purse. But the key IS to organize them. I love the idea of storing them in an index box with dividers. Another good trick is to take one idea and see how many different ways you can look at it. Like doing a mind map. But, sometimes I don’t think there is a way around writer’s block. Sometimes it’s just there and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. In those cases, I get up and move, take a walk and stop “trying”.

  21. When I need writing ideas, I go for the metaphor:

    *How can I apply my cat’s purring to relationships?
    *Can I filter any of my current situations through this amazing rain storm’s powerful cleansing?
    *Does the dog howling in monotone next door because of the EMS sirens remind me of an emotion?
    *Is writing this comment — dark text in a white box surrounded by black and bordered in gray — tell me anything about the gradients, layers, or facets of comment writing?

    Metaphor opens the door to non-linear thinking, and once open, nothing is the same.

  22. thank you ! really good one ..
    and you know what, an idea came to my mind while I was reading this 😀

    dinu’s last blog post..Thank you, Google Reader

  23. I couldn’t agree more. I get my best ideas when I’m not working, but out running around the town with my kids. I always have a notebook with me and way too many ideas and never enough time 🙂

    flowers’s last blog post..The Essence of Great Knowledge

  24. First, David & Sean, I just LOVE this new blog of yours!! It’s beautifully designed AND written — a combination that never fails to give me pleasure. So glad I discovered it. (Actually the Thesis folks are where I heard about it!)

    Second, this post is terrific, David. I’ve been been a writer my entire career, and I concur with everything you recommend. I especially want to thank you for the idea organization idea. Ideas I never run out of anymore, but collecting and keeping them has been a huge problem — especially since I have so many more “categories” to track these days. Your giant index card holder (which I already) have and the category names totally clicked for me. I usually carry index cards with me, but I also realize that’s the perfect size for filing pages ripped from my little notebooks!

    I wish you the very best with this blog and look forward to hanging around it a lot!


    Joan Kremer’s last blog post..Are You Missing What (Second) Life Has to Offer?

  25. Wow, never knew you were a journalist – explains the quality of your writing 😀

    really like the idea that everybody has a story – so true and far too overlooked.

    i’m a huuuge fan of keeping notes. i keep them in my phone and dump them weekly (about 100 short mini mini tweets 54 characters) into my laptop. – also, more ideas than time to do them. high class problem 😛

    really enjoyed reading it.
    inspiring stuff

    unleash reality

    Alex’s last blog post..Why You Never Get Anything Done

  26. Love your list of ideas. I’m working on a blog project that I hope to launch in the next couple of months. Though I’m usually a digital girl all the way, I found that writing with a PEN on PAPER (in both a beloved moleskine notebook and a basic sketch pad) brought out all kinds of creativity that was lurking in my brain just waiting to get out. There’s a whole new world of ideas that might not be willing to come out and play on the keyboard, but will jump for joy if you start doodling. My ideas have been flowing so freely that I have to take the notebooks with me everywhere – including to bed and the loo. Crazy? Maybe. But I’m not losing a single idea. 🙂

  27. What an inspiring, well written post that just motivates me to actually begin an ideas collection and store it somewhere physical.

    Up until now I’ve only kept ideas in my head, images and websites on my Firefox bookmarks list; I’ve never considered a physical (or virtual in the form of folders on my computer of the actual content) bank of inspiration and ideas. In general, they have served me well enough.

    I think, however, I’m going to have to develop a much more robust and reliable system into which I can collect all my ideas for future use.

    Overall, a wonderful post, David! I also need to say what a great design for the blog: I love it! Looking forward to the future of the Inkwell. 🙂


    Matt Hayward’s last blog post..The Purpose of a RolePlay Post

  28. I carry a recorder and use it mostly when I’m driving. That’s when I seem to have my best brainstorming moments. I’ve also started keeping a tiny book light (the kind you can clip onto a book) and notepad by my bedside at night. That way, when I wake up at three in the morning with ideas buzzing in my head, I can write them down without waking my partner.

    Michael’s last blog post..Crippled for Life?

  29. This is my first visit to your site and I love it! For writers who want to use their computers to organize their ideas, a voice recognition recorder is ideal. You have to train it to know your voice, but then all you have to do is plug it into your computer, which will produce typed copy of your ideas. I like this because frequently my hand cannot keep up with my ideas! A recorder can. Just don’t use it in the shower!


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