Inspiration. It’s not that hard to spell. But boy, does it cause a lot of head scratching.
Say it out loud and you can almost hear it whooshing past. There it goes again. Did you see it? Maybe it’s about to strike a painter staring at one of nature’s finest works – and wondering how the heck to recreate it on canvas. Or the next J.K. Rowling…
Of course, that’s the kind of thing that happens to other people, isn’t it? Leaving the rest of us scratching our noggins and chewing Biro lids?
Well, no. In 18 years of writing, people have consistently paid me money to take an idea and make something from it. That requires inspiration. And while I’m not going to be polishing a Pulitzer Prize any time soon, I do have enough ideas to keep the people with the chequebooks happy.
Where does inspiration come from?
I must confess it hits best when I’m on a sun-lounger. There’s something about the combo of sunshine, a full post-lunch tummy, brain free of a daily life admin fug and the possibility of a nap that frees my mind to wander… often to quite unexpected places.
But, before you think I’m suggesting a sun-lounger revolution in workspaces up and down the country, relax. I sit at a desk 5 days a week, 49.5 weeks a year. Just like you.
I have, however, learned a few tricks over the years. Sneaky ways to ease your brain into relaxing enough to let an idea germinate, then focus enough to get said idea down on paper.
The American author Jack London felt quite strongly that you, “can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” I prefer a softer approach. Set the scene, open the window and let it whoosh right in.
See it – think it – write it
If it sounds a bit simple, that’s because it is. As are most of the best things in life.
The first thing to do is close your eyes. Take a few breaths. Deep ones. 10 is a nice number. Then picture what it is you are trying to tell people about. This can work for anything. Be it washing machine spare parts, an accountancy package or a new deli menu.
Can you see it? Okay, now have a really good look at it. Turn it upside down, round about, any which way. Just look. And keep looking.
Now you’ve taken the time to stop and really look at it – what do you see?
This is where the thinking bit comes in.
The two key questions to ask yourself
1. What do I want to say?
2. Why will it interest people?
What you want to tell people is important. What people want to read is way more important. Otherwise, they just won’t – read it, that is.
The first time I got invited to watch a magazine focus group I was thrilled. (Bear with… this is relevant) This was my chance to wait behind a two-way mirror for people to admire the way I crafted my sentences, fine-tuned my phrases…
‘Cept they didn’t. Not one of them. Instead, they looked at the pictures, skim-read the picture captions, maybe glanced at the headline. And then – and only if their attention had really been grabbed – did they read the feature. So unless your target reader is stuck in a waiting room of the medical or dental variety you have to grab their attention early, grab it firmly – and hold it.
How do you do that?
Well, you have to harness your inspiration and match up what you want to say and what people want to read.
Think of an image, projected on the inside of your eyelids
How is it better, bigger, brighter, faster, more smile-inducing? Why will they want it? Where can they get it?
Once you’ve worked out the answers to these – and it might be best to jot a few notes at this point if your brain is anything like my sieve – then it’s time to start writing.
Then put pen to paper
Don’t freak out! It’s really not that hard. Can you talk? Then you can write. It’s just chatting with a pen – or more likely, a keyboard.
If you don’t believe me, try recording what you want to say. Then transcribe it.
See, you can write after all.
If your brain is fizzing with words but you can’t seem to shake them down your arms onto the page in front of you then try a spider chart. I think they’re called something fancy like ‘concept maps’ now, but they will always spider charts to me. Let your pen stroll around a piece of paper. In no particular order – that comes later. Just write key words or quick thoughts, all over the page. Doodle if it helps. Like a spider has taken a walk with your pen.
Maybe even more important than the writing – is the editing. And the most inspired and inspirational copy is edited at the idea stage.
Deep breaths, deep breaths
You don’t want to scare off your reader with the sheer number of words in front of them.
Think of it like packing a suitcase full of words. Decide what you want to take away with you on this imaginary holiday. Done that? Right, remember the 2nd question – why will it interest people? Cross out all the words that don’t meet that criterion. That bit about the revolutionary gubbins that only you and your friend Keith in the technical department understand… Cross it out. It’s the word equivalent of the shoes you love but can’t walk in.
Just leave what you absolutely need – in other words, what someone will really want to read.
If you’re still stuck, try the Big Hill test.
And ready, steady, go
Back when I was a trainee hack a rather brilliant tutor – who shall remain nameless to keep his already healthy ego in check – taught me the following tip for writing…
You have run up the biggest hill you can imagine, you make it into the pub, your best friend is standing at the bar, with the three breaths left in your lungs you tell them about the most incredible thing that has just happened to you.
Three breaths = three sentences.
It’s a great way to work out what you really – really! – want to say.
Now it’s over to you.
Free your brain to catch the inspiration. Focus your brain to channel that inspiration. Whoosh! There it goes again.
Have you opened the window yet?
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