There’s a scene in the movie My Girl where the main character, an 11-year-old girl named Vada, is taking an adult summer poetry workshop. The class is sitting cross-legged in a circle and holding hands while learning how to meditate.
Justin, the classmate who is leading the meditation, asks Vada what she felt while they meditated. She had been holding one of his hands during the session, and she answers to the class, “I felt Justin’s hangnail.” He responds, “A hangnail is insignificant” and urges her to dive deep and feel what’s in her soul.
Vada’s inner monologue, which doubles as narration for the audience, explains that her grandmother once had an infected hangnail. The infection traveled to her vocal cords and ruined her singing voice. So, she feels like a hangnail wasn’t insignificant to her grandmother.
This scene has always resonated with me as a writer. The meditation exercise provided Vada with the perfect topic for her next poem, and she didn’t even realize it.
This is something that I do all the time. My mind is racing with stories and topics, both real and imagined, and I let them pass by without writing them down. So, when it does come time to write, I draw a blank.
How do we know when we’re having a good idea? The answer is, we don’t. But recognizing that we have an idea at all is half the battle. So, here are some techniques that I’ve come up with for finding inspiration for my next piece of writing.
Write it down
The obvious trick to coming up with ideas to write about is to write them down. But like I said, I often let my daydreaming and reminiscing pass by without even thinking to write it down. Like an actual dream, the memory of what I was thinking about fizzles out.
I always have a pen and paper on me, and I know people love to use the Notes app on their phones. So, there’s no excuse for not writing down a good idea.
I particularly love using Post-it notes. It gives me just enough room to write a line, a description, or a topic idea. Then, I can stick it in a notebook to develop further later. It doesn’t use up a whole notebook page, and you can carry it around with you easier.
If I come out of the shower or am trying to fall asleep at night, and an idea comes to me, I can run over to my Post-its, scribble it down, and save it for later. Then, I can also assess it and decide if it is an idea worth developing. Some are and some aren’t.
If I come back and look at it and it still seems like it’s a good idea, I start drafting out more of the blog post, story, or even a novel. From there, it’s up to me how far it goes, whether it turns into a finished piece or an unpublished draft.
Not waiting for the perfect moment to write
Writing is the easiest and most fun when you have the good idea at the same time that you have the time and desire to write. These three elements rarely collide. But they’re the moments that writers strive to have.
Those who truly love to write will find a way to write no matter what the circumstances. But that can mean that the writing will feel like work. Most of us have to squeeze writing around our day jobs, families, and social lives. This can suck our desire to write dry because it takes a lot of brain power and a discipline to block out the million other tasks that are pulling you in their direction.
Even on the good days, just starting a writing session is tough. There are so many distractions that feel a lot less intimidating than writing those first few words, or even that first page. Practice not letting that intimidation or a lack of perfect circumstances hold you back.
Second guessing your topics
I strive for originality in my writing, particularly my fiction writing. I want my stories to be different from the trends. So, if I’ve had my mind on a topical issue or something that’s been done a million times, I usually put it out of my mind as a potential story topic.
I’m trying to get away from doing this. Writing something topical is going to draw in readers. And writing it from your perspective is going to give it an original take.
Also, if the topic is something you’ve been thinking about a lot, it’s going to make you more willing to write about it. Because it’s not pulling your focus away from the things you’ve been thinking about. It’s leaning into those thoughts and letting them work for you. This makes for more of those fun writing sessions.
Recognizing that it never comes out perfect the first time
One thing to remember is that you’re trying to get to that ideal headspace where the words are pouring out, the connections are clicking into place, and all of the thoughts and ideas are spilling out. It never comes out perfect at once, but getting it down at all is something.
Find a process that works. Make an outline. Scribble your thoughts in a free associative writing style in a notebook and then try to smooth out this rough draft when you type it up. It may be easier to use a pen and paper on your lunch break, and then you have something ready to type up on your computer or typewriter at night.
Filmmakers love to talk about how a movie is written three times: when they write the script, when they shoot the film, and when they edit it. The same goes with writing that will never be acted out on the screen. It often shapeshifts into many forms before it reaches its final version. And writing in stages will lead to a better finished piece and break up your writing time into more manageable sessions that you can do more consistently, both on the easy days and tough days.
Don’t set deadlines if it will hold you back
I consider myself a patient person, but I also like to see the results of the time I’ve spent on a project, not just writing projects. I also have a fear of not finishing something if I put it aside before it’s done. I might get distracted or discouraged and never pick it back up.
This puts unrealistic deadlines on myself. It makes me feel like I need to carve out four hours a night to drafting, editing, and publishing a piece, particularly on my blog.
Some authors tell you to hit a certain word count each day. But they usually have all day to write.
Others tell you to give yourself a certain time frame to write a novel or write at the same time of day every day. But this too makes writing feel like a chore. One more thing to put on my to-do list each day.
Some days you just can’t write. And if you feel tethered to your writing, you’re going to come to resent it. So, if you set any of the above-mentioned guidelines for yourself, make sure you remind yourself that you can switch things up if it starts to feel too monotonous.
Bouncing ideas off others
Sometimes getting out of your own head is the key to a great idea. Having conversations with others will help you to sort out your own thoughts and come up with new topics and ideas. Whether you’re specifically asking for help developing an idea or just having a natural conversation to see what comes from it, either can be helpful.
Writing groups are great for this because everyone has the same goal as you. And seeing what other people are doing can help you figure out what you want to do. You also get to play editor and work with material that’s already been written. In helping others to shape their stories, poems, or essays, it can get that muscle working that will ultimately lead to you producing a new piece of writing – whether it’s in a competitive way, an inspired way, or just gets you in the mood to write.
Book clubs are also a great place to have deep and meaningful conversations. When everyone is discussing the same story, you get to see things from the readers’ perspectives. This will provide you with some dos and don’ts and maybe even inspire you to piggyback off of the bestsellers and come up with your own version of these popular stories. And if it’s the kind of group that doesn’t read the book, there are still some pretty good conversations that go on during these meetings, even if they go way off topic.
Sometimes the best ideas come from ordinary conversations. Find someone whose opinions you value and go out for coffee or lunch. This relaxed setting will help to bring out the topics that interest you.
Don’t even worry about writing anything down right then and there – unless you find it absolutely necessary. You can always write about it later in a journal or even in your everyday notebook while the ideas are still fresh but won’t ruin the relaxed nature of the meet up that will allow these ideas to come out.
Final thoughts on inspiration
When all else fails, go back to basics, and try to remember why you want to write in the first place. What type of stories do you want to share with the world? What do you want your body of work to look like? How does it reflect the person you are, what you’ve learned, and what is going on in your head?
Vada wanted to take that poetry class for a reason. She just didn’t realize how hard it is to turn thoughts into writing and how to capture those good ideas as they floated by. In the end, it clicks, and she comes up with a great poem to read to her class. And sharing these raw, personal, and vivid words helps her to externally become the great writer that she always was in her head.
About the author
Laura Smith is a middle grade author, blogger, and book and movie reviewer from Pittsburgh, PA. She earned her B.A. in Creative Writing from Carlow University in 2007. Since then, she has written for several blogs and websites, self-published three middle grade novels, and is currently working on her first middle grade trilogy. You can find her past and present work on her blog.
You can also follow her on social media: