When we first start coming up with content ideas, we have the best of intentions.
We’re going to publish more frequently.
Stick to a schedule. And, of course, make sure all of it is high-quality stuff that people actually want to read.
The first week or two are good … and then …
You fire up your WordPress dashboard. You click to add a post. And you spend more time than you want to admit staring at that depressing expanse of blank white space.
It sucks — but it rarely happens to folks who write for a living.
And that’s because professional writers have a “secret weapon” tucked into their toolbox that you don’t have. But you can get it … today, if you want to.
That “weapon” is a solid, reliable process for capturing interesting thoughts as they float past your head.
Because the best way to have more ideas is to capture more ideas.
How to capture more creative content ideas
When you capture as many creative content ideas as you can on the fly, you’ll find that your brain starts to make more ideas.
It’s like there’s a part of your brain (Stephen King talks about the muse in the basement) that has the job of coming up with ideas.
“Hmm, it seems my person is very interested in ideas these days. I’d better start making more of them.” – The muse in the basement
Some of your ideas will be total garbage. Not a problem. Capture them anyway. A few of the really stupid ideas will turn out to be the seeds of something interesting. And the rest won’t do any harm sitting there in your system.
If you want a fun, creative jumpstart, challenge yourself to write down 10 blog post ideas today. Give yourself permission to include the wildly stupid ones. Do that for a week.
At the end of the week, you’ll have a bunch of okay ideas, a few nutty ones, and a couple of gems.
Do it for a month to feel a genuine shift in your creative productivity and how you face writer’s block. Plus, it’s easy and fun to capture 10 ideas a day.
Different writers approach this task in different ways, but nearly all professional writers have trusted systems that let them catch that lightning in a bottle.
Here are some options.
Option #1: The notebook or bullet journal
Some of us just really dig paper and pen.
I use a hardcover bullet journal to keep track of what I need to do, when I need to do it, and the tools or resources I need to get it done. And I keep a running list of ideas for all kinds of content — from lesson ideas for courses, to blog post ideas, to topics for video ads.
It’s also a great place to doodle, scribble with colored pencils, and use a half-dozen different fountain pens (all running different colored ink).
Some people have gorgeous Instagram-ready bullet journals with fancy headers and beautifully designed “spreads.” I have the other kind. My notebook is ink-splattered, coffee-stained, scribbled, lumpy, and defiantly messy. Just like (in my opinion) a creative journal should be.
A writer’s notebook is like a painter’s sketchbook. It’s a place to hold ideas, develop them, capture new ones, and spark experiments and creative connections. You can even brainstorm and take notes about how to create digital products related to your blog.
It’s not a place to hold yourself to an unreachable standard of perfection … although if you want to practice your calligraphy in there, go for it.
If you use a physical book to capture content ideas, it’s helpful to have a way to find them quickly again. I use a dedicated color of washi tape to mark my “Content Ideas” pages. Colored post-it flags would work well, also.
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Option #2: The index card
My friend, speaking coach Victoria Labalme, is a big proponent of the index card. It’s flexible, it’s super portable, and you can shuffle and shift them around when you’re planning out your content.
She uses them to plan out presentations and talks (in other words, complex, long-form content), and I find them particularly well-suited to that. The ability to spread the cards out on your desk or floor, and rearrange them over and over, works really well for complex projects.
They’re also just handy to make stray notes about creative content ideas. I keep a few index cards tucked into a wallet or bag if I don’t feel like carrying my notebook somewhere. It’s a great way to catch fleeting ideas … no matter where I am.
Option #3: The phone app
Most of us, of course, carry a pocket computer around that can be an excellent tool for idea capture.
There’s one kind of idea that I’ll tend to put into a digital format (I happen to use Evernote, but use any app you like): an idea, reference, or resource that I’ll want to refer to later.
URLs are obviously easier to capture (not to mention click-through) digitally rather than writing them out.
This category includes things like ideas for courses (or lessons within courses), series or ebook ideas, useful reference materials, and potential cornerstone content ideas that I want to explore in the future.
Option #4: The giant bag of content ideas
One nice thing about digital tools is that they make it easy to switch between devices.
Evernote makes it easy for me to grab an idea on my phone — in text, audio, or a quickly snapped photo — then bring it up on my laptop when I’m ready to start working.
Evernote becomes my “giant bag of content ideas,” with all kinds of connections, links, sparks, and tangents. Like my bullet journal, it’s messy, with minimal formal structure.
Unlike my bullet journal, it’s very easy to find things again when I need to.
Option #5: The ninja version
So, do I recommend physical capture with ink on paper or digital capture into an app?
Actually, I think for many of us, especially as you learn how to make money as a freelance writer, there’s a lot to be gained by combining the two.
The process of making words with ink has a kind of magic in it. There’s richness that comes from slowing down and thinking through the words — even if it’s just a rough-idea capture.
Paper and pen is also the lowest-friction way to create simple drawings, diagrams, and mind maps. No software to launch, no learning curve to master.
That’s all wonderful while you’re filling your first creative journal. But trying to find a specific idea in a stack of physical books isn’t pretty. (That’s also why I prefer to just keep one hardbound journal going at a time.)
For me, the answer is to have a reliable, consistent process for moving “long term” ideas from their first capture point to their permanent home.
You can think of it as an idea sanctuary. You capture them out in the wild, however it happens to work for you in that moment, and then you systematically move them to a digital system that allows for immediate — and permanent — access.
Common sense is your friend here. Your to-do list for this week doesn’t need to go into permanent idea storage. But the running list of blog post topics should probably get updated to your digital system once a week or so.
A reliable method for consistently finding winning content ideas for your blog
When selecting your next content idea to write about after using the system described above, you’ll often find that the challenge is rarely finding a topic; it’s narrowing down which ideas you should develop and which you should discard.
So, let’s review the basic law of business blogging:
You have to just start.
In other words, the best content ideas are uncovered once you start blogging. The same insights won’t be available to you if you keep ideas in your head or delay publishing posts because you’re waiting until they’re “perfect.”
You still need to push yourself creatively and refine your content into the best presentation possible — just don’t get too hung up on one blog post.
A blog post is not an encyclopedia entry, nor should it be.
A regular blogging practice holds the answers to many content marketing questions you’re wondering about:
- What does my target audience need help with?
- Why would they read/listen to/watch my content?
- What can I provide that you can’t find elsewhere?
- How much should I charge for my products and services?
- Where should I promote my content?
When you build relationships with your audience members, they guide you to your next steps.
Your content ideas evolve naturally as you write and publish, and write and publish, and write and publish …
Your competitors can’t duplicate this work
So, when you have a content idea, start with these three steps:
- Review your blog to see if you’ve covered a similar topic before.
- Did it resonate with your audience? If so, it should be a great topic to explore more. If not, do you have room for improvement in a new post?
- If you’ve never written about the topic before, try it out. There’s no substitute for that writing practice, and at the very least, you’ll have new content on your site.
You might even post about a topic 10 times before you decide you don’t want to write about it anymore.
None of those content experiments are a waste; it’s all part of the process of uncovering the winners.
Plus, a piece of content you might initially view as “unsuccessful” could be the exact post that attracts a new group of readers months down the line.
You’ll never know unless the content is on your site.
Ultimately, your competitors don’t have access to:
- The relationships you have with your audience members
- The experience you gain from publishing
Monitor how your audience responds to your written content, and then you can also repurpose your best work to reach more people through podcast episodes or videos.
More chances to introduce new people to your content
You’re so familiar with your blog posts that it’s easy to get into the habit of saying, “I’ve already written about that topic,” and move on to search for new ideas.
After all, you don’t want to be repetitive.
But a topic is not off limits after the first time you’ve covered it. You can make it a category you write about regularly to make your blog a resource on the topic. Any one of those articles could be the one that introduces new readers to your site.
For example, you may have five bullet points in a post you wrote last week. Could each of those bullet points become an individual blog post?
New readers then have a chance of discovering your original article with the five bullet points, or any of the five more in-depth articles.
5 content types that help fill your editorial calendar
Now that we know how blogging regularly can help generate remarkable content ideas, let’s look at five specific ways you can fill up your editorial calendar.
If you don’t have a lot of content on your website yet, the first three types will be particularly useful.
1. Schedule “recurring sketches”
When a particular set of characters resonate with viewers on a comedy series such as Saturday Night Live, the writers bring them back in future skits.
Think of “Hans and Franz” or “The Californians.”
Since they were hits in the past, no one tunes out and thinks, “We’ve seen these characters before.” They tune in and think, “We get to see these funny characters in different situations.”
What types of series would work on your blog?
2. Reveal the next part of your story
Every blog post is a piece in your content marketing strategy puzzle.
That’s why each one you write doesn’t have to be as comprehensive as an encyclopedia entry.
You have opportunities to both experiment with your own new ideas and give your audience any expert guidance they request.
- What haven’t you revealed yet?
- What do readers ask you?
- What have you learned since your last post?
3. Rotate through set content topics
If you write one blog post a week, you can decide on a topic for each week of a month and then repeat them to build up the content on your website.
For example, if you run a bakery, you can set content topics that you repeat every four weeks:
- Week 1: Muffin topics
- Week 2: Croissant topics
- Week 3: Jam topics
- Week 4: Cookie topics
You’ll likely change these initial categories as your blog evolves and you find out what readers want to hear about the most, but setting these go-to topics gives you direction when you’re wondering how to start writing and publishing regularly.
4. Promote older content to your current audience
Once your audience has grown, you can also promote your older, evergreen content on social media or through curated posts on your blog.
An article you wrote five years ago is “new” to the person who reads it for the first time today. If you discover it connects with your current audience, expand on the topic in a new post.
Remember, don’t be afraid of being repetitive. Your new post will provide updated information, and even if you mention pointers you’ve given before, we all need reminders.
Advice you previously shared could easily touch a reader in a more profound way when they hear it again later.
5. Optimize old headlines and republish
A new headline might engage someone who has skipped over your content in the past.
For example, three months ago, Rachel Reader may have seen one of your headlines on Twitter. It didn’t interest her, so she didn’t check it out. That was a shame, because the article contained the exact information she wanted …
When you republish the post today, with a damn good headline that piques Rachel’s interest, she’ll click on the article and discover your website.
If you’re crunched for time and aren’t feeling super creative, consider optimizing headlines you’ve already published and republishing them to see if they hook new readers.
Why you’re missing out if you save your best content ideas
Imagine this, if you will …
An old woman, near the end of her life. Shivering in a fleabag apartment without heat in the winter. Walking four miles each way to the food bank, to carry home unmarked cans of mystery meat.
Not even a cat to keep her company, because cat food is expensive.
Then one day she dies, and the neighbors find $2.7 million wadded up in her mattress.
It’s a natural human impulse to hold on to what we have. We figure we can handle whatever discomforts we might be facing now, and who knows how bad it could get down the line?
So we hoard, saving up our riches for some mythical later time.
What does this have to do with content ideas?
Everyone who learns how to be a freelance writer faces this at some point. We come up with a powerful idea, something we think will capture a lot of attention.
This is the kind of content we know we need to grow our blog and our business.
So of course we can’t waste it on our measly 300 subscribers (or 100, or 12).
We start scheming about how we can make it a guest post on a site with a huge audience, or convince an influencer to link to it.
We scribble our great idea on a Post-it so we remember to write it up when we hit some magic number of subscribers — 500 or 1,000 or 10,000.
The Post-it gets dusty.
We never hit that magic number. Because we took our best content ideas and stuffed them into a mattress.
We don’t think our small audience is good enough for amazing content, so we never get a larger audience.
The muse is spiteful
Your muse is a fascinating creature, but she is not necessarily very nice. If she sends you a killer idea and you don’t do anything with it, she can get downright mean.
She’ll stop sending you great stuff, because you blew her off last time.
Your muse doesn’t care if you’re a flake about your mortgage or your job or that 10 pounds you’re trying to lose.
But if you’re a flake about your writing, she’ll turn a cold, cold shoulder.
She’s volatile and she has a damned bad temper. So frankly, you need to humor her a little.
(If this sounds like a drag, sorry. Welcome to the life of a person who creates something out of nothing. You always figured there had to be a catch — well, this is it.)
When your muse sends you an amazing idea, you have to do something with it.
If at all possible, sit down and write up the idea as soon as it comes to you.
If that’s not an option, at least capture the idea and scribble down any details you find exciting. Try thinking of a couple of good subheads.
Ideas go stale quickly. Get to your keyboard and get that post written as soon as you can manage it.
Get more value out of your best content ideas
Instead of saving your best work for later, get the most out of them today with these additional content ideas.
Create a series
Spend a few minutes mind-mapping, and come up with five or seven spin-off ideas based on that original post.
A fascinating content series is a tremendous traffic builder, even more so when it starts with a strong concept.
You might try putting a well-selected, relevant keyword phrase in the title of each post to start collecting search engine traffic.
Expand it as a free ebook
Then offer it as a bonus for subscribing to your email list.
Be sure to put the blog’s URL in the footer of the ebook, so when it gets passed along, new readers know where to find you.
You don’t even necessarily have to expand the content a lot — just format it nicely in a PDF.
Offer it as a guest post … this week
A lot of us get hung up on pitching guest posts to the biggest sites.
We get all worked up trying to figure out how to attract the attention of the big guys.
That’s all good and well, but when you’re just starting out, don’t overlook guest posting opportunities that are closer to your blog in size.
As a rule of thumb, look for blogs with anything from the same number of subscribers you have to two-to-three times your numbers.
To keep procrastination from doing you in, write the post first, then figure out who to pitch it to.
You can always tweak it to suit your host blog’s readership … just follow guest posting best practices and offer it to bloggers in your topic until you find a good fit.
Hoarding content ideas is the same as throwing them away
Sometimes you’ll have magnificent ideas that are too far off topic, or too personal to share with the big wide world.
Or, even worse, they’re perfect for that next project you have planned, and you don’t want to waste them on the project you’re working on now.
Write them up anyway, even if they never get posted. You don’t have to post every great idea you have, and you probably shouldn’t. But you can’t hoard your best stuff, either.
Your reputation is being built based on what you’re doing now.
Grandiose schemes for what you’ll create when you have a gorgeous new design, a wise and loving mentor, enough time to work on your true life’s work … are just that: schemes.
Your imagination is part of your greatest wealth, but imagination without action is a drug that will waste away the best part of your life.
Don’t save your best content ideas for later. You might not get any later.
Put your sharpest, most glorious work out now, and your spiteful muse will turn into a trustworthy ally.