Avoid These Common Idea Killers

The idea-gathering stage is a magical place, full of imagination and inspiration. I haven’t met a writer yet who doesn’t relish the free flowing ease that the term “invention stage” connotes. Invention is fun. This attitude may be partly to blame for the planning stage’s bad rap. As we transition from invention to planning, we think, well, invention was great while it lasted. Now, the fun’s over. It’s time to get to work. Sigh.

But is invention as easy as we like to think? The purpose of the invention stage is to discover all the things that are available to say about a given topic.

I suspect that writers think of invention as easy because they stop gathering ideas when they don’t feel like gathering them anymore. In the other stages, however, you can’t just declare a stage complete. If you only have half an outline, for example, you can’t say that you are finished with the planning stage. Similarly, if you don’t have an introduction, body, and conclusion, you’re not finished drafting. So why should you be able to stop inventing if you get stuck?

The following tips will help you get the most mileage possible from the invention stage. When you’re ready to give up, check these tips to see whether you are succumbing to one of these common idea killers:

Idea Killer #1: Brainstorming for Good Ideas. Brainstorming can be a great invention strategy because it’s easy. You just list as many ideas related to your topic as you can. It’s also an effective group idea-generator.

In the invention stage, you should be casting as wide a net as possible. In terms of brainstorming, that means that no idea should be left unrecorded. No idea should be labeled “good” or “bad.” Doing so will only stifle the other ideas waiting in the wings: sometimes, you have to have some inane ideas before you can have a brilliant one. That’s just the nature of the human mind. If you stop the inane ones from surfacing, however, that brilliant idea may remain buried in your unconscious. So brainstorm for ideas. All ideas.

Idea Killer #2: Not Freewriting Long Enough. Freewriting is another classic invention technique. To freewrite, you take out a piece of paper (or open a word processing document or text editor) and write whatever comes to mind. The only rule is to keep the pen (or your fingers) moving at all times. Perhaps you will start by writing, “I don’t know what to write…” several times, but eventually your mind will start offering thoughts. And when it does, your pen will be poised to catch them as they come.

Sound like a promising technique? It is: you can come up with fantastic ideas this way. However, many writers stop freewriting after a few minutes. It can seem tedious, but if your mind thinks you’re not willing to put in the time it’ll just doze until you give up. So don’t give up! Set a timer for 10-15 minutes.

Idea Killer #3: Not Carrying A Writing Surface and Implement With You At All Times. How many good ideas have been lost because they came to you when it wasn’t convenient to write them down? A few months ago, I was sitting in a parking lot when a good idea for my John Donne article struck. Because I didn’t have any note paper, I had to write it on the back of a gas station receipt. If I had had a notebook in the car with me, I probably could have developed a more articulate, detailed point instead of the panicky scribbles I found in the bottom of my bag three days later.

Another benefit of carrying around writing tools is that you always have something to do with the little bits of down time that seep in around the edges of our days. Got ten minutes worth of waiting to do in your optometrist’s office? Sounds like a perfect time for freewriting (see #2).

9 out of 10 writers and productivity gurus agree: your life will be much more “together” if you carry around something to write on and something to write with. (What’s wrong with the 10th guy? He’s an eccentric web fanatic who has sworn off paper. Not sure what he has against PDAs…)

Idea Killer #4: Not Returning to Your Invention Notes. Because the invention stage is so haphazard and messy, many writers don’t return to the invention stage once they leave. In other words, once they have collected the valuable ideas from the brainstorming, freewriting, or idea mapping they have done, they move on to planning without a backward glance.

That would make sense if you didn’t continue to have ideas about your subject as you plan, draft, and revise. But as we all know, you do. Many times, you discover a new focus in the course of drafting: what started out as a long tangent suddenly became your piece’s main point.

Since all of these important shifts are likely to take place, it makes sense to return to your invention materials as you revise. Sometimes, ideas that seemed out of place initially will fit nicely into your revised version. It doesn’t always happen, but it happens often enough to make not reviewing your invention material a bad idea.

Idea Killer #5: Not Practicing Focused Invention. Once your mind gets going, it can be a virtual idea factory. But when your mind is spewing out ideas right and left, there is a lot of wasted energy. Once you feel the ideas begin to flow during invention, keep your mind on the right track by gradually narrowing its field of attention.

You typically begin the invention process with a broad topic or assignment. To practice focused invention, you begin the same way. But after you have produced a bunch of ideas, review them quickly and pick one idea (or one subtopic) to develop further. Then, repeat your invention process. But this time, you’ll stick to your narrowed topic rather than the super-broad one you started with. After you have generated a bushel of material on the narrowed topic, review it and repeat the narrowing process. If you pursue a line of thought that is ultimately unproductive, just back up one level and narrow the topic a different way.

This technique adds a recursive element to the invention process that moves your ideas forward without prematurely shutting down your imagination and inventiveness. I hope you’ll try these techniques today: the next idea you save may be The Big One.

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