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099 A Better Way to Find Big Ideas (That Make You Stand Out)
31st August 2015 • Rough Draft • Rainmaker.FM
00:00:00 00:18:13

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Some astronomers and philosophers make the grand, if not absurd, claim that we are ten thousand things, but one substance. Perhaps ancient stardust. Fair enough.

I have my own absurd claim: behind one single article by a seasoned writer is the weight of one thousand books, one hundreds movies, hours of lectures, a litany of song lyrics, countless days of conversations, dozens of poems, and so on.

And it s this sort of commitment to working, learning, and playing hard that separates the good writer from the great.

So the question to you is: how far are you willing to go to be absurd? How far are you willing to go to find that big idea. Because it is that big idea that will rise above the noise. But where do those big ideas come from? How do you find them?

Well, that is what this episode is all about. And yes, there are two ways to go about finding big, absurd ideas: passive and active.

In this 18-minute episode you’ll discover:

  • The simple thing you must do if your big idea is hiding from you
  • What a sinkhole and a great writer have in common
  • Why publishing ideas on a consistent schedule is a good thing
  • How being well-traveled can help you find that big idea
  • A lesson from a popular film director’s cutting floor
  • And more!

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The Show Notes

The Transcript


A Better Way to Find Big Ideas (That Make You Stand Out)

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Demian Farnworth: Howdy, and you are listening to Rough Draft, your daily dose of essential web writing advice. I am Demian Farnworth. Your host, your muse, your digital recluse, and the Chief Content Writer for Copyblogger Media.

And thank you for sharing the next few minutes of your life with me.

Some astronomers and philosophers make the grand, if not absurd, claim that we are ten thousand things, but one substance.

Perhaps ancient stardust. Fair enough. To quote Harlan Ellison, “We are all entitled to our informed opinion.”

I have my own absurd claim: behind one single article by a seasoned writer is the weight of one thousand books, one hundreds movies, hours of lectures, a litany of song lyrics, countless days of conversations, dozens of poems, and so on.

And it s this sort of commitment to working, learning, and playing hard that separates the good writer from the great.

So the question to you is: how far are you willing to go to be absurd? How far are you willing to go to find that big idea? Because it is that big idea that will rise above the noise. But where do those big ideas come from? How do you find them?

Well, that is what this episode is all about. And yes, there are two ways to go about finding big absurd ideas: passive and active.

Now, active is exactly how it sounds. You are given an assignment that requires you to chase down a particular topic. If you are like me, you pour yourself into every inch of material you can get your hands on on this particular assignment. Interview transcripts, articles, reports, research.

The more the merrier.

But there always comes a time, however, that you have to decide what is the big idea. The deadline is looming. What is the overarching angle. But that thing — what some people call the hook and we ll simply call the big idea — it will hide from you.

The Simple Thing You Must Do If Your Big Idea is Hiding From You

That s why I like to start by knowing the customer or audience inside out. Their dreams their hopes their fears. Then the product or topic like the back of my hand. Next I look at the surrounding environment. The competition, the government, the national scene. Then go one more to the international. Across disciplines, industries, looking for clues. My eyes wide open for clues to where that big idea is hiding.

But still. The big idea may hide from you. No. No. It will hide from you. Your big idea is like a sasquatch. It exists in grainy photos and backwood anecdotes. My advice to you is to keep hunting. You never know when you might get lucky and spot that damn beast.

What a Sinkhole and a Great Writer Have in Common

Something similar happened to me a couple years ago when I was working on a series on Google Authorship. I had my dense whiteboard outline finished, but I needed a hook.

Some uncommon theme to tie all the articles together. That theme appeared in the character of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

He would become the mascot of the series. Our ideal. Our standard. The shadow that swept across every paragraph.

And I stumbled upon this idea by following a rabbit trail that terminated on his entry in Wikipedia. I had no reason to read the article. But I was curious and bored.

Besides, I had a hunch.

It was a long entry, but Thompson is enough of a wild card to even make a Wiki entry entertaining. Fortunately I landed on what I was looking for in no time, a quote about obscurity.

I pushed away from the laptop, looked at the ceiling, and smiled. “I found it. I can t believe I found it.”

Here s the quote:

“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I m not sure that I m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says, you are nothing, I will be a writer.”

— Hunter S. Thompson

It was an accidental insight, a discovery I couldn t control, but nurtured by way of constant curation. As if that is what my entire life is all about. The sieve engaged every moment of my waking day.

In other words, nothing is sacred. Swallow the world around you like a renegade sinkhole. You just never know where you might discover your next big idea.

And let me get this out of the way.

Why Publishing Ideas on a Consistent Schedule is a Good Thing

Some times I wish I d not published a certain article on my site (or a guest blog) so I can publish it on Copyblogger.

While I ll reach the largest audience there, the wait list is long, meaning I d be sitting on more ideas than I m comfortable with.

Thus, the conclusion I ve come to is this: that that content is out there is a good thing. It is territory I ve already covered …

I covered it out of necessity because the schedule demanded it and the audience needed it.

Since that idea is published, I can now move onto something else. And this is important. I can move on to a new challenge which is this: how to write something without repeating myself.

Let me repeat that: how to write something without repeating myself. How to repackage an old idea so it seems new.

Because outside of obscurity, one of my greatest fears is going stale. Falling into a rut. Repeating myself.

So publishing what I write on a regular basis forces me to stay fresh. To limit over thinking and encourage more writing. It forces me to come up with new ideas.

And even if I don t always succeed, I m still practicing. Still clocking those hours. And the more ideas you clock, the more big ideas you can actually generate.

How Being Well-Traveled Can Help You Find That Big Idea

Speaking of, ideas also emerge through interaction with the world. The real world. The flesh and blood one outside your door where cobblestone streets and switchback trails and coffee houses and ferris wheels exist. Loaded with people. Strange and familiar.

Jeff Goins says the discipline of traveling to another country disrupts our comfort, educates us in other cultures, and can help us find new ways to solve old problems. That s curation we can control. Active curation. Traveling will open you up to big ideas.

Then there are curation opportunities we can t control.

Twentieth century Russian novelist Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn says of his time in Stalin s corrective labor camps, “Bless you, prison!” An experience that nearly broke this man granted him a knowledge of how “a human being becomes good or evil.”

His years of forced imprisonment became fields ripe for harvest.

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Chances are you ll never rot for a decade in a gulag. And most of your experiences won t kill you or anyone close to you. But if you ve at least made it to your twenty-first birthday, as Flannery O Connor was fond of saying, then you ll have a lifetime of material.

A lifetime of material at twenty-one. A life-time.

Here s the thing: don t be afraid of the world. Or the people or circumstances you can t control. Odd as it seems now, that junk — the trials and heartache, the hurt and trouble — will one day become your creative cache. Life will suck when you are in it. But the other side is seasoned with meaning and truth if you are willing to fight for it.

Lessons, baby. Lessons. Keep in mind that while you are about the world looking for new, big ideas, don t forget to look underneath the table.

Let me explain what I mean.

A Lesson from a Popular Film Director s Cutting Floor

Johnny Depp, based on his performance in the television crime drama 21 Jump Street, acted in Oliver Stone s anti-war movie Platoon. This included two major dialog scenes with William Defoe. You might be scratching your head and saying wait a minute: Johnny Depp wasn t in Platoon. You are correct, because those sections of the film, fell to the cutting room floor, victim of Oliver Stones ruthless editing.

This is not unusual.

Directors cut scenes for many reasons: a subplot doesn t push the story forward, a scene disrupts pacing, or the director has entirely too much material.

But deleted scenes aren t thrown out. Instead, they are labeled and stored for later use.

Writer, you, too, have deleted scenes. Content that hits the cutting room floor. Don t give up on it. Repurpose it.

  • Fish through cut material when looking for new ideas.
  • Keep a series alive with related chunks from the past.
  • Resurrect once two-bit content when the topic finally becomes hot (for whatever reason).

And where do you find your cut material?

  • Look through your revision files on WordPress (section just below your text editor).
  • Label Word documents different versions as you rewrite, keeping a history of the changes, the deletions.
  • Dig through old emails to find older versions of your documents you sent to a friend or editor.

Who knows, you might find an idea you once thought lost.

So let me end with this little story: long ago I was in the middle of an article that was filling out at around 1,300 words. At the time I was about two-thirds of the way done. I still needed to close it, and I had a pretty good idea on how I was going to do that.

But there was one problem: a glaring hole in the middle of the article. It wasn t really that big. I mean I could have brushed it aside, and moved on, but in my mind I was searching for the right word. The right metaphor. To fill that hole.

And I wouldn t settle for anything less. I was determined to find it.

For some reason I got the bright idea I would watch Apocalypse Now: 1979 the American war film set in Vietnam, which was a take on Joseph Conrad s novel Hearts of Darkness.

The movie directed by Francis Ford Coppala, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvell, and a young Dennis Hopper playing a gabby photo-journalist.

It was actually a Hopper monologue that I heard sampled in a song by American a producer/remixer Greg Scanavino called “Over and Out.” Let me see if I can do justice to the monologue:

“Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man.

Do you remember the scene? The line? Well it was that monologue that seeded my mind with the movie Apocalypse Now. And so that day when I was writing that 1,300 word article, I thought perhaps my metaphor was in there. The crazy thing is, that s a 2 hour and 38 minute movie.

A 2 hour and 38 minute movie. Would it be worth it? For one metaphor? Perhaps.

And just to let you in on a little secret, I did not find the metaphor in that movie. But I don t regret seeing it. Because some day down the road — a scene, a character from that movie — will fall into my lap at the right moment. It could be 2 years down the road.

That s exactly what happened with the opening to the article “How to be an exceptional writer.” A scene from the documentary called it might get loud — the scene where older Jack White is counseling the younger Jack White that he had to fight the guitar and he had to win. The moment I heard that line I knew I need to use it. But it didn t find a home until two years later.

Here s the deal: How far are you willing to go to find the perfect word? Sentence? Metaphor? How far have you gone in the past? Nothing is ever wasted. You never know when you might get lucky. You never know when you might need long-forgotten material left on the cutting room floor.

Do me a favor, share examples of the great lengths you went to to find a big idea .

By the way, stick around for the next episode. it s episode 100. A big milestone in the life of Rough Draft. And like everything else in life changes are afoot.

Good changes, I promise. I ll explain more tomorrow. Until then, take care.

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