The perks of graduating as an English major is that, unlike many of my engineering friends, I actually want to keep the books I bought for my classes. One of those books is A Technique for Producing Ideas by James W. Young. It’s smaller than most PDFs, totaling to about 28 pages.
While it felt silly at the time to spend money on it, I found the information it contained to be quite useful. It’s aimed primarily at those in advertising, but since I’m not the greatest generator of creative ideas, I thought it could help me a bit. Here are the steps it provides for trying to come up with brilliant ideas, whether they’re needed for a new campaign or your next novel:
- Gather Information: Learn as much as you can about the topic you’re working on, be it your target audience or the concept that’s intrigued you. Learn everything you can—from the menial to the exciting. Don’t forget to keep track of your information! The author suggests writing down each fact on a 3×5″ index card.
- Digest the Information: This mental process means you re-examine all the facts you have accumulated, becoming well acquainted with them, finding new facets of them. At this point, the author encourages some tenacity. Looking over facts again and again can be tiring, but it helps them cement in your brain. Don’t give up here.
Note: If you get any ideas during this stage, make sure you write them down (regardless of how silly they may or may not be).
- (Temporarily) Drop It: In order to let this information marinate, you must try not to think about it at this point. The author compares this part of the process to a Sherlock Holmes mystery, where midway through the story, Holmes would sometimes drop everything and drag Watson off to a concert. Give your brain a deserved break.
- Keep Thinking: After a short break, your brain will naturally drift back to the information you now know so well. The author says at this point that this is the stage where the ideas come. Like many ideas, these may pop into your head without warning, so keep a pad of paper and a pen ready.
- Develop the Idea: Submit this idea to other people for input, and keep turning it over in your mind. The “Eureka!” moment you have will not contain the final product, merely the raw idea. In this final step, it’s your job to keep massaging your great idea into something brilliant.
Both the good and bad thing with this book is that, in a way, its advice is too simple. And the author knows it, stating that “the formula is so simple that few who hear it really believe in it.” He also calls it the “hardest kind of intellectual work to follow,” which I can agree with. Most of us, whether we have articulated it or not, tend to let our ideas marinate a bit before cutting them out entirely. But we do not always take the time to truly absorb and digest—what we may call a “bad idea day” could just be laziness.
Since its subtitle is “the book that demystified the art of creativity,” this book is obviously meant for people who are in advertising more so than people in editing. Since I tend to do more administrative and cleanup work rather than be a big-idea person, I do not use the lessons from this book on a daily basis. However, I do find it helpful. Though the ideas are rather obvious, it’s easy to get flustered when stuck in a creative rut. Skimming through this book is a good way to springboard into thinking about ideas again.