How You Can Recognize Good Ideas And Shape Them Into Something More

Where do you get your ideas? It’s a question people ask all the time. It’s a question that gets asked of anyone who creates anything. I don’t find ideas. Instead I create an environment for ideas to find me or rather to help me recognize the ideas that are always present around me.


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Creativity is a process. Generating ideas is one part of that process and there’s a process to generating the ideas themselves. I’ve talked about the way I write before. Most any finished piece I’ve written goes through a series of stages. It moves from idea to notes to drat to edit to finished work.

I go through several rounds of editing starting with the general and big picture and working toward specific and detailed editing of words, sentences, and paragraphs. The last round of editing is mostly a proof before publishing.

I’ve worked with the same process for a few years and I trust it. I trust that I can take most any idea through my process and turn it into something worthwhile. I’m not suggesting anything I eventually publish is great writing. I’m saying the finished piece is more a result of the entire process than the original idea.

I try not to get too comfortable with my process and I’m constantly experimenting and tweaking and trying to improve it. I’ll talk more about this next week. Today I want to focus on the pre-draft part of my process. I want to talk about ideas and what comes before what most people think of as writing; facing the blank page.

I want to answer three questions about ideas.

  • Where do ideas come from?
  • How do you recognize a good idea?
  • How do you take an idea and turn it into something more?

Again I’ll focus on the pre-draft of my writing process, but understand it’s really what comes before what most people think of as the creative part of anything. I’ll be talking in the context of writing, but what I say shouldn’t be limited to a written piece of content.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

I get all my ideas from a store down the road. They have plenty for sale and they offer a deal where you can by a package of 12 ideas for 10 cents. If my attempt at humor missed, I’m saying ideas are a dime a dozen, which is an expression that probably needs to be updated to be in line with today’s prices.

My point is ideas are plentiful and much easier to come up with than you think. You probably have dozens of ideas every day, but don’t yet recognize them for what you can do with them.

Most ideas are garbage. Good ideas aren’t quite as plentiful as all ideas so you need to give yourself permission to come up with a lot of bad ideas. You need to come up with many bad ideas before you recognize the fewer good ones that you can turn into something finished.

The idea for this post occurred to me after reading an article that was also about ideas.. The article, How To Become An Idea Machine, offers an exercise in which you write 10 ideas every day.

The exercise helps you practice using your creative muscles. You have to practice coming up with ideas because most will never go anywhere or should go anywhere. To practice, the article recommends writing 10 ideas every day about a particular theme. For example:

  • 10 businesses I’d like to start
  • 10 ways I can become more efficient

My first theme was 10 themes I could write 10 ideas about. I haven’t yet made the exercise a daily habit, but I like the reason behind the idea which is to exercise your creative muscles and give yourself permission to have bad ideas. You need to give yourself permission to fail.

Note: Since recording the audio for this post I have made the 10 ideas exercise something of a daily routine. I like it and plan on continuing.

I do something different that also helps practice idea generation and performs a similar function to the 10 ideas exercise. I do something fairly common to creative people. I maintain something similar to a swipe file.

I collect any idea that comes to me for later use. My goal is to have a single location (in my case the app nValt) where all my ideas are collected, but they seem to end up in one of several places (several apps). For a couple of years I’ve been writing in Ulysses and sometimes I’ll place the idea in Ulysses, because I feel confident I’ll turn it into something finished.

The vast majority of the ideas I collect are awful. I’ll never turn them into anything beyond an idea. I won’t act on them and some are so bad I won’t even tell anyone what they are.

However, many of those bad ideas lead to good ones. Some needed to be combined with another idea. Some needed to wait for an appropriate time. Some needed to wait for me to grow to where I was ready for the idea. Bad ideas can turn into good ones so don’t throw them away.

I collect ideas from all sorts of places, though reading is probably the prime idea generator for me. A lot of my ideas start with a title and a link to the article that inspired the idea.

Most of the time I’ll add a little more. I’ll add some quick initial thoughts so I can later know why I collected the idea.

Idea collection falls under the case of the more you do it, the better you get at it. At first you may not recognize the ideas you have or when you do you may not write them down and forget about them.

I used to set aside time each week to brainstorm. I would write down whatever came to me for a set amount of time. Now I collect more ideas during the week than I’ll ever need. On occasion I might brainstorm, though it’s less for the ideas and more for the practice in being creative on demand.

Ideas are like seeds. They aren’t fully formed plants. They need to grow and you need to nurture them. With seeds you create conditions in the sold to help them grow. You need to be attentive and take care of your seeds by watering them and protecting them from harmful insects, animals, and weather.

Your seeds may still not grow, but you’ve done what you could to increase the odds of a healthy plant. You also wouldn’t plant one seed at a time. You’d likely plant many seeds and prepare the soil and care for all them.

It works the same with ideas. You have to collect as many as you can. You have to set the conditions so you’ll notice them more. You nurture your ideas and you nurture your process.

Some of this will come solely through practice. Do something more and you get better at it is as close to a universal truth as anything. Write down any idea no matter how awful you think it is. You’ll choose the better ideas to work on later.

Over time you’ll find your ideas get better and you’ll better understand how to set the conditions for the arrival of new ones. You’ll what do to when you see one you think you can turn into something more.

Help your ideas grow. Add some quick thoughts and notes as they come to you. Add links to resources for further research. Connect multiple ideas into a single one. As you surf the web and notice something that works with an idea you have add the new information to wherever you recorded your idea.

The main thing is to set up a place to collect ideas, build on them by adding notes and resources, and to continue to add new ideas to your collection. You can use an app on your phone or you can collect ideas in Evernote, or you can write them all in a notebook or sketchpad.

Collect them wherever works for you, but ideally have it be something that’s with you all the time. You can even have multiple places where you initially collect ideas and then funnel them all into a single location.

How Do You Recognize a Good Idea?

In the case of this post, the topic is one that’s always popular. How do you get ideas is a very common question and I could probably write about it and say the same thing every few months and most people wouldn’t get tired of it.

Most of the time I have no idea which ideas are the good ones. I don’t think anyone really does. Some ideas scream greatness and I’m sure other people are better at recognizing the good ones than I am.

But an idea by itself isn’t really good or bad. It just is. A lot of things are like that. An idea needs to be executed before it really amounts to anything. It’s why you can’t patent or copyright an idea. it doesn’t mean ideas are nothing until they become something finished, but the execution of an idea has more to do with its eventual success than the idea alone.

Some ideas are clearly better than others. It’s a better idea to play the video game Frogger than to try to play Frogger in real life, with you trying to dodge vehicles on a multi-lane highway. You don’t need to try both to see which idea is better. Most of the time it isn’t so clear.

The ideas we have aren’t fully formed when we get them. You need to work with them and shape them before they become something.

Sometimes I need to let an idea sit for awhile before I know what it is. Sometimes I need to combine one idea with another before I have anything to work on. Sometimes I pick any idea and trust I can shape it into something through the remainder of the process.

I think when people ask about how to recognize a good idea, what they’re really asking is how can they know in advance that an idea will turn out to be something good and the answer is you don’t.

I’ve written posts based on ideas I thought were great and the posts went nowhere. I’ve also written posts from ideas I didn’t think all that special and I’ve watched them shared for months in different social communities.

Some of the most popular posts here are ones I wrote last minute from a throwaway idea because I was facing a deadline. From an idea I didn’t think that great to going as viral as anything I write can go.

It’s a process. Trust in the process and trust that through your process you can turn most any idea into something worthwhile. You’re not going to know an idea will turn out well before you work on it. You pick an idea and trust that through your process you can turn it into something good.

How Can You Turn an Idea into Something Good?

After reading the article about 10 ideas a day, I copied the link and pasted it in a new sheet in Ulysses. I had a few thoughts and starting writing them down.

My thoughts were random. I wrote down anything and everything that came to mind. I didn’t worry about what I was writing or edit anything after I’d written it. I didn’t worry about typos either. I’d rather add something new than edit something I already wrote when I’m adding notes to an idea.

My notes are fragments of sentences. I write something down and let that thought lead to the next one. I create notes in bulleted lists. When a different idea comes I leave a space and start another list. My notes are automatically organized into related thoughts that way.

With this post I had 500 words of notes in about 15 minutes. Some were the same thought written different ways. Some of my notes made no sense when I went back to them. Some formed the basis of what you’re reading now.

When I finish jotting down my quick and initial thoughts, I glance over what I’d written to see if any themes emerge. I look for commonalities in my notes. I look for a theme or a specific point I can drive everything toward. In the case of this post, my notes led to the three questions I asked at the start and which form the main headings of the post.

I’ll use the enthusiasm I feel for an idea to brainstorm notes right away, but I like to let some time pass before deciding if I’ll work on the idea beyond that. I like to come back to an idea with fresh eyes and see if I still have the same excitement for the it to help weed out some of the bad ones.

If I don’t like the idea with a fresh look, I’ll move on to another one. I’ll hold onto the idea and any notes I write down. I’ll check the idea again from time time, but I won’t work on it right away.

If I do like the idea I start organizing my notes and adding more notes as I organize. I once again look over everything to identify related thoughts, which usually become the sections for the post.

I set up the headings and subheadings as a simple outline and decide if the outline works. For this post the outline was very simple.

  • Intro
  • Where do ideas come from?
  • How do you recognize a good idea?
  • How can you turn an idea into something good?
  • Closing thoughts

I flesh out the outline by cutting and pasting my notes into the most relevant section. I’ll add more notes as I do. Reading and organizing my notes leads to new thoughts, new notes, and continued organization.

At some point I decide I’m done writing new notes and look again for the cohesive theme or something that leads to a point or conclusion. I’m still checking and refining and shaping right up until I publish.

I ask myself what I want you to take away from reading or listening and then I ask myself if I think that take away is worth your time. If I think it is, I keep working. If not, then I haven’t found the right theme or point.

Sometimes when looking over notes that don’t feel like they say anything I write at the top “what is this about?” and then I do my best to answer the question.

Through this process of recording and organizing notes I find the theme or point that I want to write about. It may have started as one idea and become another or it may be the same idea. I won’t know until I’m working the process, though.

When I can’t figure out the theme or point I tend to think the post won’t turn out well, but just as often it does. It really is hard to predict. It’s so hard I’ve given up worrying or thinking about it. I just accept that I won’t really know in advance.

What is always true though, is if I have difficulty seeing the theme or point, the writing will be more of a struggle. It takes more trust in your process to believe something good will come out other side in that case.

Closing Thoughts

Creativity is a process. If you struggle to find ideas, make collecting any and all ideas part of your process. You’re giving yourself permission to collect bad ideas so that you aren’t inhibited when a good idea comes to you.

This recording and post didn’t emerge from my head in completed form. I read a post about an interesting way to generate ideas and in addition to making me want to give that idea a try, I realized I could build a post around the question of where ideas come from.

I had no idea if I was right. I still have no idea if I was right. I trust my process and I trust myself to come through the process with something worth publishing.

Even after publishing I’ll have no idea if I executed the idea well. Some of you will enjoy this and some of you won’t. I’ll leave it up to you if this was worthwhile for you. I trust that it will be when writing because it’s the only way to finish.

In the end all I’m trying to do is please myself with whatever I create. I certainly want others to like my work, but I can’t predict if they will so my goal is to create the best thing I can at the time I’m creating it.

In six months time I might do a better job with the idea. I might have done a better job six months ago too. It’s possible this week was the ideal time for me to record and write this and I’ll never come up with anything better on the topic of ideas. I don’t worry about.

It doesn’t really matter. It’s a process. I have a process to collect ideas and then I have a process to shape the ideas into something I publish and share. I do the best I can, decide how I could do a better job in the future, and try to apply what I learned the next time. I’m more concerned with my process for creating posts than I am with any single post.

You don’t find ideas. You create an environment for ideas to reveal themselves to you. You set conditions to help you recognize which of the ideas all around you are ideas you can turn into something.

You create a process for collecting and reviewing ideas. In working that process, you’ll learn to recognize more and better ideas and you’ll learn what to do with them. You’ll recognize which are the ideas you can do something with and you’ll recognize which are the ideas your readers will enjoy.

I’ll leave you with a quote from George Bernard Shaw. It’s about a different topic, but one I think applies to this one as well.

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself
—George Bernard Shaw

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2 comments

  1. This part: “However, many of those bad ideas lead to good ones. Some needed to be combined with another idea. Some needed to wait for an appropriate time. Some needed to wait for me to grow to where I was ready for the idea. Bad ideas can turn into good ones so don’t throw them away.”

    Definitely true… I can’t tell you how many crazy ideas I’ve had that have evolved into something good, I believe there is some merit in nearly every idea.

    • It’s funny how many bad ideas I’ve had that turned into good ones after let them sit for awhile. I rarely if ever toss an idea out. Some get dated, but otherwise they’re collected somewhere on my computer.

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