This is a guest post by Danny Iny. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.
How do you feel about a blank screen?
I mean when you sit down to write — does it taunt you? Does it remind you that you’ve got to hit “publish” in two hours, and you’ve got nothing to write about?
I wouldn’t be surprised if it does, because the blank screen is the tormenter of many a blogger.
Not me, though.
I’ve written 30+ guest posts in the last few months, on top of a regular posting schedule on my own blog. I was able to do this, and not run out of ideas, because of a process that I use to make sure that I’ve always got a fresh supply.
I’m going to share that process with you. It starts with a formula…
The Blog Post Idea Formula
Sometimes, you’re inspired — you know exactly what you want to write about, and you just need to sit down and get started. In that case, you don’t need any help at all.
But other times, you don’t know what to write, and you need some help. That’s when the Formula comes in.
The formula follows one of the following formulations:
“What [EXAMPLE] Can Teach You about [SUBJECT]”
“What We Can Learn from [EXAMPLE] about [SUBJECT]”
“Lessons on [SUBJECT] from [EXAMPLE]”
Do you see the pattern? You just need to fill in the blanks, like this:
Subject — This is the subject that you’re writing about. Be as specific as possible; instead of “writing”, try “writing great headlines”, instead of “health”, try “a healthy heart”, and instead of “finance”, try “managing your savings”… you get the idea, right?
Example — This could be anything and everything, and I’ll give you a long list of ideas just a little further along in the post. The important thing is that it should be at least somewhat unrelated to your subject — this makes people wonder what you mean, and compels them to read your post.
Once you’ve got the headline, think about what single insight your example can convey about your subject — and then write the post!
Okay, now let’s get to the heart of this post: places you can look for ideas…
The A to Z of Places to Look
Just for fun, and to give the post a little structure, I’m going to follow the A to Z model — one idea for each letter of the alphabet. Many will plug into the formula that I shared above, but there will be some other places to look, too.
Apples and Oranges — Look for a situation where two things are compared to each other, but shouldn’t be, because it’s not an “apples to apples” comparison. Why do people make these comparisons? What’s wrong with these comparisons? An explanation could make a great blog post! Good examples of these posts are Why Getting Funded Is Not the Same As Succeeding and Nonconformity is not the same as Individuality.
Brainstorming — Sit down with a piece of blank paper, and divide it into two columns. Label one column “subjects”, and the other column “examples”. Now set a timer for 3 minutes, and start jotting down ideas. Don’t filter, just write. Non-stop. For three minutes. When you’re done, go through the list, and circle the ones that you like. Now put them together, and start writing. If you don’t like making lists, try a process like mind mapping instead.
Celebrities — Celebrities are great examples, because they’re in the public eye — this means that people will recognize the name and want to read the post, and it also means that it shouldn’t be hard for you to think of something that they might have to say about your subject! Good examples of this sort of post include Has Steve Jobs Overturned the Apple Cart and How To Keep Kevin Costner From Ruining Your Blog and Business.
Diary Writing — Imagine you’re writing a diary entry. Share your most memorable experience from the last week — what happened, and why it was meaningful to you. Now explain what you learned from the experience. Voila, you’ve got a blog post — you might have to sanitize it a bit if you don’t want to share too much personal information, but with a bit of editing, you’ll have a captivating post that your readers will love. A couple of good examples of posts like these are Breakfast Misadventures: How to Destroy a Customer Relationship in 30 Minutes or Less and High Impact Entrepreneurship: Confessions, Milestones, and Focusing On What Matters.
Everyday Activities — Your example could be an everyday activity — something that is part of your weekly routine, like brushing your teeth, driving to work, going to the gym, or making dinner. Since most people have similar routines, they’ll relate to your example, and enjoy the post. Here are a couple of examples: Give Your Business the Workout of Its Life and Book marketing is like brushing your teeth — you have to do it every day.
Free Writing — Set a timer for ten minutes. Get some paper and a pen, or open up your word processor. Shut down your email, and turn off your phone. Start the timer, and start writing. The rules are simple: you have to keep writing. It doesn’t matter how nonsensical or inane — write whatever comes to mind, but keep on writing. You’ll probably go through a minute or two of nonsense, and then hit onto an interesting train of thought that you can develop into a post.
Gesture — Gestures are a form of alternative communication — we use them when we can’t communicate with words. Think about a common task related to your subject, and then ask yourself — what would you do if you couldn’t do it in the regular way? How would you get the job done? Why would you do it that way? It might make for an interesting post…
Hiatus — Sometimes taking a break from regular content is a good idea. What if you decide not to put up a blog post, and instead just put up a short message saying “I’m out of ideas and taking a break — leave a comment to let me know what you’d like to read about when I get back!” Like my friend Stephen Guise did with Off To The Beach.
Interview — If you’re stuck for content, plan an interview blog post. Make a list of the 5-10 most interesting people that you’d like to talk to, and fire off an interview request. You’ll be surprised how amenable people are to the idea — that’s how I landed interviews with Guy Kawasaki, Randy Komisar, Corbett Barr, and many others!
Justice — Do you know someone who isn’t getting what is fairly owed to them? Either they’re getting way more than they deserve, or they’re working hard and the recognition isn’t there? Write about it — if they deserve more credit, then give it to them. If they deserve less credit, then you don’t have to mention them by name, but you could explore why they are getting the undeserved attention that they’re getting.
Karma — Why not go out of your way to do something nice for someone else? You could repay a favor, or just be the first one to take that positive action — either way, you’re making deposits in your Bank of Social Capital, and creating good work to boot!
Lateral Thinking — You know the game where you start with one word, and then write down a related word, and then a word that is related to that one, and so on? Play that game, and let the thought process lead you to an interesting blog post idea.
Movies — Like celebrities, movies make for great examples, because they’re a part of popular culture. This means that a lot of people will read the post and relate to what you are saying. Good examples of these posts are The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words and The Blockbuster Secret to Seducing Your Audience.
Nature — Go for a walk in the great outdoors. Go camping, and have a picnic. While you do, pay attention to the world around you. What is beautiful? What is peaceful? What is unpleasant and annoying? Make a list of all these things, and then pick one as an example to plug into our formula.
Obvious — Go back to basics — what are the obvious fundamentals about your subject area? I mean the ones that you take completely for granted that everyone in your audience already knows about, but if you think about, you realize that a lot of them don’t. Write a “back to basics” post about that, and you’ll be surprised at how well it performs. Good examples of this sort of thing include Getting to Know SEO! and A New Look At the 4Ps of Marketing.
Parents’ Wisdom — All parents have stories that they tell us again and again, either because they forget having told it to us the first thousand times, or because they’re hoping that we’ll finally get the message! Well, what is the message? How does it relate to your subject of interest? Why not write a post all about it? If you do, make sure to give credit to your parents — they’ll appreciate it!
Quirky Facts — Do you have a favorite quirky factoid? Maybe it’s the one about frogs not jumping out of pots of water that are slowly brought to boil, or maybe it’s compasses spinning at the South Pole, because every way is North… what’s your favorite factoid? And what lessons can you draw from it about your subject?
Read Fiction — Fiction is fun — it transports you to another world, and connects you with a set of characters that may or may not be more interesting than your real friends. Read about one of those characters, and then ask yourself what questions they might have about your subject of interest. Then write a post answering their questions!
Scientific Journals — Speculation can be nice, but cold hard facts are even better — especially when you take interesting research and then apply it to your topic of interest. That’s what John Medina did in his blockbuster science books Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby. So what research is relevant to what you write about? Why not explain that to your audience?
Television — Like movies and celebrities, television is a great way to tap into popular culture in your writing. Think about your favorite television show or television character, and what they can teach about your subject area. Then write a post about it! There are tons of examples of this — a couple of them are The Mad Men Guide to Changing the World With Words and Desperate Housewives on Marketing, Storytelling, and Selling.
Upset — What makes you upset? I don’t mean mildly annoyed — what makes your blood boil at the injustice of it all? Ranting about it might make you feel better, and if you’re going to rant, why not do it in writing? Make sure to edit it after the fact, and edit out any identifying information — you don’t want to flame anyone in a blog post. But post-editing, you might find that your catharsis has led to an interesting and captivating post!
Victory — I love asking people what their greatest victory was. I love it because they often surprise you with their answer — they tell you about personal victories — things they did in college, high school, and in the context of relationships. Things that might not seem huge, but were very important and meaningful to them. Why not share your greatest victory with your audience? Tell them why it was great, and why it mattered to you.
Walk — Take a break. Go for a walk. Breath some fresh air. Don’t worry about the blog post, and don’t worry about writing at all. Set yourself a timer — for the next twenty minutes, you think of nothing other than enjoying the weather and the exercise. When you return to your desk, you might be pleasantly surprised by the ideas that your subconscious has assembled for you.
X Marks the Spot — Make a map of the path to mastery in your field. What are the different milestones and waypoints that travelers pass through along the way? Why not take that map, and expand it into a blog post? Maybe even outline the biggest challenges at each step along the way, and how to best avoid or overcome those challenges?
Year — Take some time to reflect on your big achievements or most interesting lessons learned from the past year. It’s a great way to share and connect with your audience, and it’ll help you gain some perspective on where you’ve been, and where you’re going. That’s exactly what I did in my post 365 Days and 9 Big Things — why don’t you try writing one, too?
Zoo — Take a break — go to the zoo, walk around, and look at all the animals. Pay attention to how they behave, and how their habitats are laid out. Pay attention to the signs for visitors, and the behavior of those visitors. You might find surprising insights — for example, Dino Dogan pointed out that the automatic response to a beware of pickpockets sign triggers a reflexive touch of the pocket in which you keep your wallet — telegraphing its location to nearby pickpockets! What odd or interesting behaviors can you point to and learn from?
Capturing Ideas for Later Use
This process doesn’t just work when you need to write and you’re out of ideas — it works all the time, and it often works best when you AREN’T trying to write!
The lesson here is that you should keep your eyes open for ideas that would work, and jot them down (I carry a small notebook around at all times for this exact purpose). Over time, you’ll develop a crib-sheet of blog post ideas that you can refer to in a pinch.
Over to you — which of these ideas could you see yourself using? Have you already tried any of them? What’s your favorite go-to strategy when you have to write and you’re out of ideas?