Often I get asked a variation of:
I’ve been writing for a couple years, but I have no more inspiration, and little readership. How do you write? Where do you get inspiration? How do you get out of the rut and get people to start reading?
We all get this way. But here’s a few things that have helped me keep pushing through that, and eventually ended up with some stuff that’s done well on places like my blog Ninjas and Robots, or Signal v. Noise, and have even found their way into The Huffington Post and Fast Company.
1) Create a schedule, and go with what you got.
Years ago I felt I was doing a somewhat decent job writing, but I just wasn’t getting any traction. Dustin Curtis had just launched a new blogging platform called Svbtle that was getting a lot of attention and was only publishing authors he had invited. I didn’t have an invite. But I knew his attention could rub off on me. So I took a shot, emailed him and showed him some samples of my work.
As I hit send, I felt very pessimistic about my chances. The other folks writing on Svbtle were much better and had better followings than me.
No way I’m getting an invite.
I got an invite.
Huh, I should stop assuming things won’t work.
But writing on his blog network came with a caveat, publish one thing a week. I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t, but I assumed he’d kick me out, and I really didn’t want that. I needed this opportunity. So I kept publishing once a week. If I was up against the end of the week and hadn’t had inspiration, I would just find something to even take a picture of. Like that truck I saw as I walked down the street.
Or I saw an interesting article in Esquire about Bill Murray. Again, under the gun to get something published that week, I wrote up a few sentences on why I thought it was interesting.
Not my most brilliant post — turns out to be one of my most trafficked posts.
Don’t worry so much about meeting the schedule with the same quality and quantity. Running up against your schedule deadline, find a picture of something interesting and write a hundred words about why it’s interesting. That’s it. Write a yelp review even. Get some personality in that review and put it on your blog. Just do something, anything, to keep the momentum going. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself.
The momentum will actually push something through that your weird brain pessimistically thought was terrible and turns out awesome. As journalists like to say, “Go with what you got.”
2) Stop writing the same thing.
If you write about yourself, start writing about other people. Or vice versa. I personally like to share a lot of anecdotes about my life, but I find I get into a rut. I don’t want to talk about me all the time. Especially if I’m going through some really tough struggles. But there are so many interesting people to write about. Here’s: a great example on my blog. I took myself completely out of it. Just wrote about someone in the news (James Garner) who had recently passed away and how cool his life was. A lot easier to write about him, when I feel stuck writing about myself.
3) Take a class!
I don’t know why we as writers stop taking classes. They are great places to learn new things and get yourself on a schedule. There’s probably a ton of places to find a fun writing class. I took one at Gotham.
It was in that class actually that I wrote that article above about James Garner that went gangbusters. It was another thing pushing me to write something different. If you’re stuck on your blog, I’m sure a homework assignment can shake some new stuff loose.
4) Bands don’t keep playing the same song in the same place. Write somewhere else.
Find a new place to share your stuff. Stop the blog for a bit. Get your stuff in a magazine, the Huffington Post, wherever. Go pitch some editors for some guest posts and articles.
5) Bands also don’t keep playing completely original songs at each venue either.
They repeat their hits or their latest album. They might improvise and riff on old songs, but they reuse a lot. That’s beauty of #4’s advice about finding new outlets to write — you can recycle some of the ideas you are most proud of. James Altucher is great at this. It’s like the guy is a writer Everywhere. And you see some of the same stories. But that’s fine. Very few people are like me and reading his stuff on all these different places. He’s out there making new audience members constantly from these new channels.
6) Practice your idea muscle.
It’s been super interesting hanging out with Jason Fried these days since I took over Highrise. The guy always has an idea for something. A new book, a new blog post, a new product. Only executes on a tiny fraction of those things he thinks are worth it, but man does he have a wealth of things to pick from.
Need a little push to do the exercise? Come up with lists. Everyday, push yourself to come up with lists of things to write about. Most will suck. But don’t let your brain atrophy. Keep coming up with stuff.
7) Get out and do some new things.
Go to a new museum, or weird place. Pick up a new or strange hobby for a bit. Go buy some strange magazines you’d never ever buy. Learn what other people are reading and caring about. Lots of interesting things to draw from those experiences.
8) Copy someone else’s template.
I’ve literally taken writing I’ve liked and dumped it into my writing software and just written on top of it, working to match the flow and structure, deleting their stuff as I go.
Go find a writer that you like, and write something using their piece as a template. Maybe you try and copy their tone. Or structure. How they use analogies, or anecdotes. Or even copy the argument. Try to make their same argument with a different analogy or method. It can be freeing to use the constraint of someone else’s writing.
9) Stop writing. Talk.
Pretend you’re giving a talk instead. Or some kind of presentation. Get out of the chair and walk around with your phone recording your voice. Moving and talking have a way of loosening up whatever it is.
10) Put together chocolate and peanut butter.
Take two unrelated things, stories, or people and show everyone what makes them so interesting together. Why was writing Frankenstein like stealing cars? What does Elon Musk have in common with a boy who wants a pet moose?
Take things that people haven’t put together before and put them together to show what an interesting combination they make. Fries and milkshakes? Yes, try that.
11) Buy books like they’re free.
When you’re broke, like I’ve been many many times, you need to find some creative ways to get by and you get to complain all you want about the prices of books (Like wtf college? Why do you keep releasing new versions of the same text book when all that changes is mostly page numbers and not the physics of the universe. There goes another $80 down the drain for the “new edition”).
But I don’t get most other people’s hangup with how much books cost. If you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, and buying a $20 book isn’t going to change the food you buy your family, give yourself a huge budget to buy books.
If there’s something I’m really interested in, I’ve turned off the nag in my head, “oh man, this should be 15% less. I’ll wait.” Or “I’ll wait for the library”. I need more ideas, quicker; instead of waiting for the rare library visit.
The other weird thing people feel about books is that they’ve “invested in it”. This leads them to feel, when they realize they hate the book they “invested in”, they can put it down for fear they’ll waste their investment. But they never finish the terrible book. So they rarely get to another.
Throw more books away. It’s a sunk cost. Forget about the past “investment”. Move on to something interesting.
I buy books like they are free. I saw a physics textbook that looked interesting. Maybe there’s something in there to help me think about problem solving. Oh it’s $99. I don’t care. I didn’t even finish it. I got something interesting out of it after a couple chapters, might make its way into an article, and the book is there if I want to learn more physics.
Again, if you live on a tight budget, you have to be a lot more careful. But if you want to introduce yourself to new thinking and options as a writer, and your budget has money for clothes, drinking, eating out, vacations, cable, televisions, etc., I’d rethink the lack of allocation you have to books, magazines, and anything that can potentially get new ideas across your brain faster.
12) Stop hitting the delete key.
I want to create something out of nothing but nothing isn’t a great place to draw from. -Mitch Hedberg
Just write. Free write. Take your writing software or notebook and just go nuts. DO NOT DELETE or edit yourself. You need a body of thoughts before you can edit. You need that place to draw from.
Don’t underestimate paper either. It’s a great place to just flow. Typing can be too slow to get all the thoughts out there.
I hope that’s helped some. If there’s something else on your mind and you feel like you could use some more help, please don’t hesitate to ask. It would be awesome to meet you on Twitter, or see where all this writing stuff led to what I’m now doing with Highrise.