My friends who are writing-curious often ask me how to come up with ideas to write about.
This is something I also struggle with from time to time. I encounter a sense of panic when I didn't know what to write about or what to put in my next newsletter.
When I feel like my idea pipeline is drying up, it helps me to remember the following principle:
Good writing is downstream of good information capture, which is downstream of being aware of the topics and ideas that resonate with you.
In this essay, I will codify my process for:
- Cultivating awareness
- Capturing ideas
I call this the fisherman’s guide to writing.
When you go fishing, you start by making the right preparations to catch the fish you want to eat. You set the right bait and cast your line in the right waters, readily waiting for a bite. You then move from a passive to an active state when there is a nibble, yanking the rod to catch the fish.
When writing, we need to be aware of the topics that resonate with us (create a readiness) to capture the ideas (the fish) when they appear. It is important to know what is important to us and then set up a system to record our thoughts when they arise. Moving from passive awareness to active capture.
Cooking the fish (the actual writing) and hosting your dinner party (distributing your work) come later. For now, we will focus on getting the fish (the ideas) out of the water.
1. Cultivating awareness
Writing is more than just typing. It’s a way of living.
The process starts with cultivating awareness. It starts with knowing what you care about and what gives you energy. By being aware, you prime your mind to notice when you have an interesting idea. You will be ready when the fish (or idea) bites.
One exercise to cultivate awareness is to list your 12 favourite problems. List the topics and themes that resonate with you. The ideas that you like talking about. The problems that you would like to solve.
Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist and Nobel prize winner, explains why this works:
My approach to problem-solving is to carry around a dozen interesting problems, and a dozen interesting solutions to unrelated problems, and eventually, I’ll be able to make connections. […]. Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’
Once you have your list of problems, your antennas are out, you consume information more intentionally, you start making connections and sometimes there is a hit. Bingo!
Every few months, I spend a couple of hours doing this exercise. Old notes and diary entries always prove to be a goldmine. Here is my latest list (recorded in March this year).
To give you an example - one of my 12 favourite problems is to become a better storyteller. Whenever I see content from David Perell or Robbie Crabtree on storytelling that sets off a switch in my brain. My spidey senses go on. I lean in and listen.
Another approach to cultivate awareness is to set up content buckets. Think about the things you have spent 1,000 hours doing. Think about the things you have spent 10,000 hours doing. Think about what you already do on a day-to-day basis - your work, the books you read, the podcasts you listen to. All of these are potential content buckets you can write about. You can help other people by sharing this knowledge. You can write for the person you were one or two years ago.
At a deeper level, awareness starts with mindfulness. This means going through life with fewer distractions and being more present in the moment. By practising mindfulness, you can recognise the thoughts that pop up in your mind. You can listen to your body. You can be in tune with your emotions. In this way, you are ready to react when there is a nibble on your line.
2. Capturing ideas
Once your antennas are out and you know which topics resonate with you, you need to act on the signals you receive. As you go through life, capture the thoughts and ideas that match your problems and content buckets.
At a very practical level, capturing information means setting up a note-taking system. You need a net to throw your fish in. You can cook the fish later. But first capture the thought before it swims away.
Become religious about jotting down thoughts when they arise. The built-in notes app on your phone will work fine. Alternatively, you can keep a moleskin at hand if you prefer taking notes by hand. When I’m out on a walk, I like to record myself talking about an idea should one arise. I give some practical strategies for note-taking (among other writing-related tips) in this guide.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. You may have an idea during the Netflix show you’re watching or while waiting for your dentist’s appointment. I’ve found my best ideas to come up in conversations. Every time someone asks me an interesting question, that's a new note and a potential essay. During a call last month a writing buddy asked me what my purpose for writing was. I recorded my explanation to him and converted the note into an essay.
I like the concept of notice-taking - writer Matt Tillotson’s spin on note-taking:
“Notice-taking captures an idea or feeling in the moment to feel it right now, rather than to recall it later.”
By adopting this principle, you are helping your future self. The notes you save now can be used in an essay three weeks or three years from now. It depends on when you want to cook the fish.
This is what David Perell refers to as ambient research. Ambient research is different from active research - the type of research we did at school. We would study lots of material, cram for the exam and forget all the info afterwards. All those notes went into getting a good grade and were never used again. Lost forever.
With ambient research, writing becomes part of your life. You can write from what you already know. What you already know started long ago when you started taking notes.
By adopting the fisherman’s approach to writing, you will quickly build up a wellspring of material you can return to.
I've built up hundreds of little notes over the last six months. These are dormant essays that are waiting to be written one day.
Where I used to be concerned about where the next idea will come from, now I have the opposite problem – I have a steady stream of ideas and not enough time to write about all of them. I can live with this problem.
As you go about life, try to incorporate the two states: an awareness of what resonates and a dedication to capturing information. Casting the line and yanking it when the fish bites. Over time, you will have many topics to write about or fish to cook.
Thanks to Rik van den Berge, Phillip Andriopoulos and Melissa Menke for reading drafts of this essay.