As a subject matter expert who is freelance writing for a brand, you’re not only a storyteller, you’re helping to push the industry forward with great content. Whether you’re a technical writer specializing in C++ development, an experienced marketer covering digital trends, a travel and tourism photojournalist, or a food and wine connoisseur, your clients rely on you to keep them on top of industry trends. When you embarked on this brand storytelling adventure, you had a bottomless bucket of ideas, but recently, your supply has begun to deplete. Here’s what you need to know so you can keep it creative every month.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask; for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein
Consistently demonstrating your bona fide expertise, an essential part of your job as a freelance writer is ideation. You must research and submit multiple pitches to your clients on a monthly basis. Ideation is a creative process that begins at the birth of the concept and continues through development and into communication.
Back in 1926, social psychologist and researcher Graham Wallis conceived a model to illustrate the four stages of the creative process:
1. Preparation – learning and defining the task at hand; collecting relevant and helpful information
2. Incubation – stepping back; taking time away from the task to let the mind wander
3. Illumination – connecting the pieces to form an idea, either partially or wholly
4. Verification – crafting and developing the idea to determine if it meets the criteria
Wallis did not specify the length of each stage except to note that illumination is often brief—just a few minutes or hours—while incubation can last weeks or even years.
To further understand the creative process, compare it to problem solving:
Notice the striking similarity. In the quote above, it’s clear Einstein was highlighting the importance of his incubation stage. If only we could go back in time and ask him to describe what was going on inside his head.
The New York Times recently featured a thought-provoking op-ed piece by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, which advocated for the role of procrastination in creativity. To back up his claim, Grant referred to a series of experiments where two groups of participants were asked to come up with new business ideas. One group completed the task right away, while the other first played a computer game for a few minutes. Interestingly, researchers found the ideas generated by the group who played the computer game were 28 percent more creative than those generated by the group who jumped right into the task. They eventually concluded that waiting some time before getting to work—in essence, procrastinating—encouraged divergent (read: creative) thinking.
Grant explains, “In every creative project, there are moments that require thinking more laterally and, yes, more slowly. When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander.” Procrastination described this way and Willis’ incubation stage are the same—both of which are identical to Einstein’s above-mentioned 55 minutes. T. S. Eliot, Alexander Graham Bell, and Lewis Carroll have all echoed the value of incubation each in their own way, continually highlighting the significance of taking the time to process and slow-cook ideas.
So how does this relate to you? With deadlines to meet, it makes sense to jump into ideation, but research—not to mention some of the most well-known creative geniuses—suggests the most creative ideas won’t materialize right away. Brainstorming aside, you need to give yourself time to ponder and mull things over for your utmost creativity to emerge.
Research suggests creative people tend to be open to new experiences. Openness to experience is “the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities” says psychologist Art Markman. Indeed, some people are born with this trait, but it’s also one that you can work to improve. Engaging in various activities, such as meeting new people, studying a foreign language, tasting new foods, working on a crossword puzzle, or simply “pondering complex issues and varying viewpoints” can enhance this quality, says historian Cody Delistraty in The Atlantic.
In addition to nurturing your openness, there are other ways to boost your creativity, too. Mike Mitra, art director at ad agency Drumroll, says he and his team stay creative by exercising their “creative inspirations.” They introduce new methods outside of their comfort zones into the way they work by completing “perspectives assignments,” which consist of various forms of storytelling. “The goal is to come up with creative solutions to any problem, and do it quickly,” says Mitra. What are some of these assignments he gives his employees?
One of Mitra’s perspectives assignments just might be the spark your creativity needs to jump into gear. Fortunately, the list of potential assignments is endless. Here are a few more:
Keeping up with the expectation of your clients can be overwhelming. In fact, people often reject and dismiss creative ideas, so here are a few more tips and tricks of the trade from our most experienced and successful writers:
Do your homework and stay informed. Read newsworthy content from credible sources such as the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. Download a helpful news app, such as Newsify, which turns RSS feeds into a newspaper-like format. Stay active on social media; follow clients, brands, and industry-related blogs. “I do a tremendous amount of research on the topic,” says freelance technical writer Eric Bruno, who recommends working with related industries as closely as possible.
In short: Be an active participant of your industry.
Come up with as many ideas as fast as possible, taking care not to immediately judge or eliminate the “bad” ones. Writer and content strategist Liz Wellington notes, “I am most creative when I can be in the flow and turn off my inner editor. I follow Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Every morning, I write stream of conscious for 30 minutes. I like to think of that practice as a warm-up that unblocks my creative juices.”
Inspiration can arise from anywhere, so be sure to just let your ideas flow.
It’s incredibly helpful to have a reservoir of ideas at your disposal. If you already have one, add to it regularly. If you don’t, start by jotting down quick notes or recording spur-of-the-moment ideas. “I have lists of ideas and notes on my smartphone, a notepad in my purse and on scraps of paper floating around on my desk. I now keep a camera and notepad handy to snap photos and jot down notes,” says Angela Tague, brand journalist who offers freelance writing tips at Web Writing Advice. When a deadline is approaching and there’s no time to incubate, you’ll be relieved to find that little post-it note from last week.
Perhaps most importantly, make space for time away from writing. (No, the incubation period doesn’t count!) “Taking weekends, or at least Sundays, off to rest your mind is important. On Sundays, I switch off my laptop and resist any urges to share or go on social media to have a digital detox,” notes Jessica Festa, writer and editor at Jessie on a Journey. Time off is revitalizing. Since you can do your job anytime, anywhere, you might forget to take nights or weekends off. Keep in mind, you need to rest just like everyone else.
Creativity is crucial in many jobs, but not all require the degree needed to produce so many original concepts like freelance writing, especially for subject matter experts. Indeed, sometimes ideas come easily and other times it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall looking for inspiration. If you find yourself in desperate times, try to remember what Maya Angelou once said: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
Interested in creativity and storytelling? Sign up for the Content Standard Newsletter.