How to Get Ideas for Books and Articles

by Herman Holtz

Early Difficulties

Editors often seem to be people who don't know what they want until they see it, because they do depend on writers for most of their ideas. Ideas are what we sell, even more than our skills in presenting the ideas. Ergo, your success as a freelance writer depends on your ability to produce fresh ideas in abundance. That means that you can make the numbers work for you: Generate and offer editors enough ideas, and even a small percentage of acceptances will keep you busy writing and selling books or articles -- or both.

I would guess that not more than about 20 percent of my ideas for book proposals -- one in five -- work out and result in contracts. Whether that is a good or bad rate of success I have no idea. but it is enough to keep me busy earning a living.

Not all ideas are really new. Many are old ideas in new costumes -- with a new twist -- but they are fresh in some way. They may be old ideas presented in a fresh and different way or they may be fresh and different ideas presented in the old way.

Generating viable ideas constantly can be made a much easier task by training your mind to be always looking for ideas automatically, almost instinctively. It can be done, we are assured by a study of some years ago, in which inventors and other highly creative people were asked where their ideas come from. Here is the formula we were provided.

The Creative Process

The creative process involves three phases or functions:
1. Concentration
2. Incubation
3. Inspiration
Concentration is the conscious effort to solve a problem or get an idea. Work on it as long as you can and for as long as you think you are making some progress.

Incubation begins when you have decided you have done all you can to evoke a useful new idea consciously. You then put the effort out of your mind, incubating it. (You are turning the effort over to your subconscious.)

Inspiration comes to you when your subconscious mind sends a solution to your conscious mind. This normally happens when your conscious mind is relaxed. (Example: When that name you could not remember an hour ago now pops suddenly into your mind.)

In time, when you have done enough of this, it will become second nature. You will always address your problems this way. your subconscious will come to be always on the alert for ideas, and you will find them popping into your head unbidden. You will recognize leads you would not have recognized before. You will have more ideas than you can use. (I worked hard to get an idea for a second book, after I had written and sold my first one. Now, more than 70 books later, I am still getting ideas for new books, and they come to me at odd times, when books are the last thing on my mind. The supply of ideas is free and yet it is not free. It must be fed and stimulated. You must expose yourself to sources of ideas and feed them to your subconscious. Let's talk now about these sources.

Sources of Ideas

There are many fonts from which to draw ideas and idea starters. Other published material is one prime source, especially the daily newspaper. One story in the paper recently was that of a federal employee who stole $1.7 million in freshly printed currency at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. What other cases of stealing directly from the government's printing presses have there been? What other robberies of equal magnitude in dollars? How about a book of "million-dollar robberies"? Or maybe "The 10 largest robberies in history"?

Even the classified ads stimulate ideas. I see column after column of classifieds advertising garage sales, estate sales, and auction sales. How about visiting a few of these and doing some articles, such as tips for the bargain hunter. Or maybe insights into what drama is behind these kinds of sales: Deaths of loved ones? Families breaking up? Or maybe a piece on who frequents these sales: Antique dealers? Hobbyists? Housewives? How about interviewing some of the dyed-in-the-wool shoppers at such sales. (If you visit enough of them, you will begin to see some familiar faces.) What stories do they have to tell of finding rare treasures or adventures they have had?

I went to the dentist yesterday to have my dentures checked. They don't seem to fit as well as they once did. I learned that my upper denture is so badly worn down that it ought to be replaced. I hadn't thought about it wearing down over the 22 years it has been in my mouth, since it appears to still be in perfect shape. But how long should a denture last? What are the differences in quality among available options for dentures? What ought the denture wearer to be reminded of? These and many other possible articles would be good candidates for the several periodicals for older folks, although there are plenty of not-so-old-folks who wear dentures of various kinds. In fact, the market for such material is not only the denture wearers of society; some of the stories are amusing enough to appeal to everyone -- George Washington's false teeth made of wood (or so it is alleged), for example.

My wife suffers from inner-ear problems -- vertigo and nausea. After she developed this problem and it was diagnosed, we researched the subject. We found that it is a problem much more common than we realized, that it is second only to back problems in frequency. No doubt we could turn some of the research we did into popular articles on the subject. (In fact, the National Enquirer has carried such articles.)

I have read magazine articles that inspired ideas for books because the subject of the article merited a book. Or I have read a chapter in a book that inspired an entire book on the subject. Or I have read books that were on subjects more people ought to know about, but the book was much too heavy technically to be of much use to any reader who is not a technical expert, so I wrote a book on the subject that anyone could read and understand. Or I found that a chapter in one of my own books was really a condensation of a subject broad enough to merit a book of its own, and have gone on later to write that book.

Ideas Must be Slanted

Getting a raw idea -- e.g., an article (or book) on garage, estate, and auction sales -- is only the beginning. Most ideas can be turned into more than one article by slanting them to different audiences. Frequenting such sales can be a business idea -- looking for items to resell, for example, in which case you want to write for and address it to a specialized periodical. But the idea can also be slanted to other interests, such as how to find rare coins, in which case it ought to be addressed to a periodical for coil collectors and perhaps coin dealers.

Using Others' Ads as Idea Stimulators

I read advertisements to get ideas. I saw one recently under a "Miscellaneous" category that began "PROTECT YOURSELF and your loved ones." The rest of the wording makes it appear to be an advertisement for some protective device, such as a chemical spray or perhaps an alarm.

I wonder how many different kinds of personal protective devices are sold today? I wonder how you can tell which are worthwhile and which are not? Suppose I were to research the subject and compile an article -- or perhaps even a book -- on the subject, with descriptions and some expert opinions for qualified people, such as police officials. Wouldn't that make a good article or book in today's dangerous world?

How about another spin-off idea: How about finding and interviewing some experts on what to do and not to do if you are assaulted, surprise a burglar in your home, or otherwise encounter such a dangerous situation. Would that not be meat for a book or article?

Another small ad offers a recipe for a "miracle diet soup." Cook books sell very well. Suppose you collected several dozen proven diet recipes and made them into a book? Or perhaps did an article on how to evaluate a new recipe for its value in dieting? You would, of course, have to interview and quote a few people who had some kind of credentials as experts, such as nutritionists or well-known authors of diet books that have done well and been accepted.

Herman Holtz **Herman Holtz has been writing and consulting all his life, even during a first career as a corporate executive. He retired from the corporate scene to a second career as an independent contractor, writer, and consultant. He has since turned out more than 75 books, in addition to many proposals, articles, and other custom writings. Some of his popular books include How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant (John Wiley & Sons), The Consultant's Guide to Proposal Writing : How to Satisfy Your Clients and Double Your Income (John Wiley & Sons), and Proven Proposal Strategies to Win More Business (Upstart Publishing). He may be reached with your comments at

His proposals (the only thing he writes on spec) have won more than 80 book contracts, with cash advances. His new book, Getting Started in Sales Consulting (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), is just off the press.

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