The Idea Generator 🧠

The great secret of this newsletter is that, often, I have no idea what I’m going to write about before the timer starts. Yet, I somehow finish the piece. If you want to do that, you need practice.

We had to start it somewhere, so it started there. (Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash)

Often, when I write these MidRange issues, I often don’t know what it is I’m going to be writing about until I’m already writing. While sometimes I have a good idea from what’s in the news and what’s filling up my various haunts, sometimes, I literally hit the play button and start writing and … just hope for the best.

Some days, I am staring at a blank page at 7:30am, an hour before the newsletter goes out to hundreds of people, hoping that the inspiration hits, even when the well is empty.

That it seems like this works despite all that I guess is a huge credit to the fact that I’ve gotten pretty good at generating ideas on the fly.

Back in the early 2010s, I got a chance to freelance for AOL News, back when that was a thing. (Fun fact: A surprising number of popular and successful writers and editors worked for AOL in early 2010s!) And that opportunity forced me to think on my feet in ways that I didn’t have to previously. The editor, who was a fan of ShortFormBlog, said something along the lines of, “I bet you have tons of story ideas you’re raring to write about.” And I realized, honestly, I didn’t have any.

(The editor also wanted me to translate over my hand-crafted styles for ShortFormBlog to the AOL CMS at the time, Blogsmith. Which was not easy to do because of how I designed my stuff at the time. A little quick thinking allowed me to come up with a format that worked for this much-larger site, now lost to history and the Internet Archive. In the end, it was worth it. Had I not done that, I likely would not have been able to easily move ShortFormBlog to Tumblr, where I saw significantly more success.)

The reason I was short on ideas was simple: I had spent most of my time in newsrooms as a designer, rather than a reporter. I worked with prompts, rather than building ideas from whole cloth. My shoe-leather gene hadn’t been properly tuned by my day job. And as a result, my brain wasn’t tuned in a way that was compatible with freelance writing at that time.

Sascha bosshard qhhp1 Lwv PSI unsplash 1

(Sascha Bosshard/Unsplash)

But one thing it was tuned at was digging through the AP wire and uncovering different angles. I was simply just good at following threads in the news and having interesting takes on them, because I had spent the past two years blogging and spent the four years before that digging through the AP wire every day. I eventually figured out that, being posed that question, I should actually spend more time formulating ideas so that I had sources of inspiration I could generate out. Soon enough, I had that spark.

Every type of writing has further honed these skills. ShortFormBlog made me an expert at deadline writing. Tedium made me really good at generating interesting story ideas and building them out as necessary. And MidRange has made me more better about presenting ideas and fleshing them out as best I can within economical limits.

These approaches have helped me tune my brain in new, interesting ways.

In a way, writing this newsletter over the past twelve months has been like brainstorming standing up, hoping that the spark would hit before it started raining so heavily that the pressures of time made it difficult to actually finish my thoughts.

We should not be afraid of new ideas, but we need to keep tuning the ways that we generate those ideas, so that we aren’t just developing our styles and approaches based on comfort zones alone. In fact, if it gets too comfortable, you should change things up.

So, if you’re starting a newsletter or a project, start with a high concept, something conceptual you can build around. Then, see where it takes you. That’s how you, too, can brainstorm standing up.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 7 minutes, 14 seconds

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Twitter

Related Reads