Figuring out what to write about next can be daunting – whether or not you’re writing with a deadline in mind. We turned to some of our favorite writers to find out where they get their inspiration – and get their takes on how to stay topical without becoming overwhelmed by the pressure of staying timely.
If you’re feeling stuck, turning to your existing readers – no matter how big or small that pool is – can be a source of inspiration. Asking questions that build on what you’ve already created creates a dialogue that stays topical but also leads to new directions or angles you may not have considered on your own.
When asked about how he generates new topics for Superorganizers, one of the portfolio publications of his ever-growing newsletter bundle, Everything, Dan Shipper looks back to the initial stages of growing the publication.
“For a while, anytime anyone signed up for a paid plan, we emailed them directly asking if they were interested in a one-on-one productivity coaching session.
I met so many readers that way, which was really fun and created a lot of value in their subscription right off the bat. And this process gave me a ton of stuff to write about. Every time I had one of those conversations, I had a bunch of ideas for what I wanted to write about next.”
The idea of figuring out what to write about next becomes just a little bit less daunting if you consider your next piece as an extension of an existing one.
For Anne-Laure Le Cunff, creating value for her readers is one of the biggest drivers behind choosing what to focus on next. Le Cunff explains that the more she writes, the more her readers become a source of inspiration for new ideas.
“I initially started getting feedback because if you publish regularly, people are just going to tell you what they think about it.
Some people will tell you directly, but you also can look at your analytics to get a sense of which articles your readers are spending more of their time on.
This allows you to start learning about what kind of content performs better than others. It also naturally creates an emergence of topics that you not only enjoy writing about but also receive real-time validation for.
The next step is consciously steering your editorial line towards the kind of content where you're both going to enjoy writing it and your readers are going to actually get value from it.
I combine these two methods to decide on the general direction and the topics I'm writing about.”
If you don’t have a large readership base just yet, no sweat. Neville Medhora recommends a few other ways writers can take time to discover what their potential readers might want – such as by trying to identify the questions you’ve not yet given them answers to. This is an approach that marketers use to rank their content in Google, but it’s a helpful framework that’s useful beyond SEO.
“When you’re looking at keyword or SEO research, for example, you’ll notice there are certain questions that everyone asks.
I would start by going for the top keywords in your domain, and at least write a post about those top three keywords. And then, you write about what's interesting about the top questions in your industry.
You don’t need to turn to SEO for every post, but you can certainly use it to see what topics are in high demand so you can make sure to answer the top couple of questions in your industry.”
Identifying the questions your potential readers are asking ahead of time can help give structure to your ideas. This technique allows you to curate the topics you’re already interested in to something that’s focused and specialized for your audience.
Current events can certainly be a catalyst for what to write about next – but if those events aren’t necessarily positive (or just downright devastating) it can be tough to harness your emotional response and turn it into an actual narrative.
So when it comes to the news, Journalist Cherie Hu suggests going in with a plan. She recommends using specific events in the news as a springboard for your own interpretations around a bigger picture – and not necessarily dwelling on the urgency or timeliness.
“You can interpret the news as a clue of something to write about next.
Your job as the writer is to give a little bit of context that then can go a bit deeper and give readers some backstory. Then, if you can tie your idea to a bigger narrative about the past and the future – you can turn it into something readers could see six months from now and still resonate with.
So even if the excitement or the energy around a specific event might have faded, the underlying piece still remains very valuable because it reflects on the bigger-picture, more long-term impact on the industry.”
Not only are you getting that spark of what to write about next, but you’re actually growing that spark into a larger narrative that creates new thoughts and ideas as it develops over time.
As a writer, you’re not always going to fully nail something the minute it happens, but it’s important to give yourself the freedom to run with it in the moment. Packy McCormick urges writers to listen to their gut and embrace something if it grabs your attention – even if it means diverting from your ideal writing schedule.
“On Monday I publish my longer-form pieces and I treat Thursday as more of an experimental day...I pretty much don't know what I'm going to write about until Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.
I do have a backlog of ideas that I know I want to write about…but even though I may be dying to write a certain type of piece, something else often pops up that becomes timely.
I try to find things that aren't totally overdone or overly written about but at least have some relevance to what’s going on.
If something grabs me and I find it interesting, I know at least a good portion of my audience will think it’s interesting as well.”
It can take time to fully develop your perspective – and Packy urges aspiring writers to embrace taking that time – even if it means that particular idea might end up living on the shelf for a little bit. Just because the moment in the media may have passed doesn’t mean that moment can’t be used to spark inspiration. And, odds are, something else will happen soon enough to bring you back to that piece and keep it moving.
Just because you’re not physically writing doesn’t mean your writing process has to come to a stop. Anne-Laure Le Cunff recommends regularly taking note of your surroundings and then returning to your notes when you’re ready to write later on.
“I don't wait until I sit down in front of a page to generate ideas. I generate ideas all the time, which means sometimes I'll be walking on the street and I’ll stop to write something down...I get my phone out and I’ll have a running note I keep for myself.
Where or how you write at that moment doesn’t really matter – just write two or three words that help capture the idea. Whether I'm listening to a podcast or having a conversation with a friend...it is a completely normal thing for me to be like, ‘wait a second, that was so interesting, I just need to write it down!’
So I have a bunch of very messy notes where it's just a couple of ideas, and when I get home or whenever I have a little bit of time, I’ll organize them in my actual note-taking system.”
This way, you’re constantly building out your idea bank so you’re less likely to find yourself stuck with the dreaded writers’ block.
There’s no “one way” to pick what to write about next and any approach is likely to blend some combination of the above. Striking a balance between engaging with your audience, keeping up with current events, and taking note of your ideas as they strike can help find that sweet spot for inspiration. And while it might take a bit of time, so long as you’re consistent in your efforts, the writing will follow!