Ideas and Creativity

The most common question I get asked is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. To which the most accurate answer is ‘poverty’. The fact is, ideas are what I sell for a living, which means that I can’t just sit around waiting for them to happen. But for all of us, whatever job we’re in, creativity is important.

So how do you go about enhancing your creativity? How do you find and develop ideas? Here are some tools which I use to help me come up with, develop and remember ideas.

Look sharply after your thoughts, They come unlooked for, like a new bird seen in your trees, and, if you turn to your usual task, disappear. Ralph Waldo Emerson

How many times have you had a great idea, only to find that a few moments later you can’t recall what it was? My top recommendation for getting ideas is very simple: just write them down. Keep track of your ideas in a an ideas bank – a place where all your ideas are written down or recorded in some way.

More ideas are lost through forgetfulness than anything else. Of course some people argue that if it is a truly great idea then it will lodge in the memory. There is a case for this, but the truth is most great ideas are good ideas grown large. Not only that, but plenty of times I’ve had an idea which was not right for one project, but which proved to be a perfect solution somewhere else. So store your ideas up. You never know when they might come in handy.

It doesn’t matter what you use. Some choose a notepad, others index cards. Some speak into dictaphones or type into a computer. I use my Palm Pilot or a special section in my Filofax. If you are very rich, you can have a scribe follow you and jot down your every thought.

Posh management speak calls it ‘environment scanning.’ Normal people call it ‘keeping your eyes and ears open.’ What it means is that you need to get a lot of input. For example, I don’t think anyone can be a writer who does not read widely. But more than that, ideas and inspiration come from across the different media – so take time to visit websites, read magazines and newspapers, listen to the Radio, watch TV (but watch it, don’t just collapse in front of it). All these are catalysts to trigger ideas and fresh thinking.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of those times when everyone gets together in a room to ‘have a great idea.’ Too often a certain desperation creeps in, largely because expectations have been set too high. Instead the best thing is to regularly make space for ideas, to create time when inspiration can strike, or not. Give your brain some elbow room. Put aside some ‘thinking time’ for the project you are working on; time that can be spent mulling it over. You might find it helpful to have some music on, or just to sit and think. You might choose to go for a walk or take a swim or have a bath – it doesn’t matter as long as there is a chance for you to just think about things.

Whenever I travel, I always try to travel by train which gives me space to think. Indeed, given the way the British railways are at the moment, it gives me almost too much time to think…

When I start on a project I often start with a huge piece of paper on which I write the title or idea in the middle. After that, it’s no holds barred – doodles, scribbles, random thoughts, ideas, associations, they all go down on the page. It gives me space to spread out all the topics, themes and areas I need to cover, to see the big picture. And if you spend most of the day hunched over a keyboard, it can be a very liberating experience to get the crayons out…

I try to use as many ‘non-linear’ approaches to planning as possible. Mind maps are essentially pictorial representations of projects or ideas. Far more flexible than a simple list, they allow you to make connections between different themes and ideas, and also to get an overall picture.

There are lots of different books and courses available, but you can see some examples at Tony Buzan’s website – the man who created the technique.

This is just a way of looking at the problem from the opposite angle. I got the idea for In Search of the World’s Worst Writers because I was in a bookshop looking at anthologies of all the world’s best literature. Suddenly it occurred to me to look at it in reverse: what about collecting all the worst literature? If you have something to communicate you can break the mould by imagining the least appropriate way of communicating it- it may well lead you to something new.

Posted in