I’m Stumped! How to Come Up with Topics to Write About

How do writers come up with ideas? Novice writers obsess over this question for many different reasons but one thing that definitely doesn’t help is the impractical and imprecise advice professional writers give in response to being asked about the creative process. Ask a writer where they get their ideas and you’ll often be treated to either a bunch of mystical nonsense about how their writing has a mind of its own or a handful of specific techniques—usually involving journals—and empty platitudes about how you need to find what works for you.

This is unfortunate because the creative process isn’t very difficult to explain as long as you remember one thing: there is no such thing as an original idea. All ideas are derived from experience. This is why the phrase “write what you know” is parroted so often, but the mistake people make is that they believe that “what they know” is limited to what they’ve directly experienced. A writer’s experiences extend beyond personal history. Every book a writer has read, every movie they’ve seen, and every person they’ve met constitutes the material that makes up their ideas. They only have to learn how to draw from this wealth of information in a useful way.

The simplest way to accomplish this is to practice two general techniques: specification and defamiliarization. Specification is the technique of beginning with a general idea and making it more specific. For example, let’s say we needed an idea for a paper on the work of William Shakespeare. We would start with “the work of William Shakespeare” as a general concept and get more specific from there by following our personal interest. We might start by writing out our favorite Shakespeare plays:

Hamlet, Midsummer’s Night Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello

From there we might choose a single play—let’s go with Hamlet—and get even more specific with the things we find interesting about the play.

The ghost, Ophelia, the play within a play, Horatio, pirates

Then choose one of those elements and get even more specific with what we find interesting about it:

The flowers Ophelia gives out, Ophelia’s guilt, Ophelia’s mother

And you continue in this manner until you have a specific topic for writing the paper (“the absence of Ophelia’s mother in Hamlet”). This general technique can be used in many ways—outlining, mind-mapping, research questions—but the premise of “general to specific” is the same in all of them.

The other technique a writer should practice is defamiliarization or “making unoriginal material seem original”. This is a vital technique for creative writers and it is best accomplished by synthesizing multiple experiences into one form. Let’s say that I wanted to write something like Harry Potter, where a bunch of kids go to a magical boarding school. Now, I could just write Harry Potter but no one would want to read it and J.K. Rowling’s lawyers would get upset. To avoid this, I would take the idea of “kids at magical boarding school” and combine it with other concepts. For example, let’s say I decide that it will also be about “juvenile delinquents” and “heist movies”. If I put all that together I might get something like: “A group of juvenile delinquents at a magical reform school team up to pull off the heist of the century”. At this point, the idea is thoroughly defamiliarized. It might not be a completely unique idea—few are—but no one’s going to accuse it of being a complete ripoff of Harry Potter, despite the fact that no single idea is particularly original.

And that’s really all there is behind the creative process. Practice these two techniques—the best way is by using them to generate writing prompts—and you’ll never find yourself lacking ideas. And you’ll always have an answer when someone asks you, “Where do you get your ideas?”

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