Tag Archives: Writers’ Block

Podcast Episode 71: Content inspiration – 19 top ideas for when you run out of steam

What You Need To KnowSome days you will be bursting with ideas, ready to write about anything and everything. But we also all have those moments when the Word document is empty – and so is our internal bank of inspiration! This solo podcast episode is full of ways to get content inspiration, so have a listen, and enjoy!

Show Notes

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PW: Hello, and welcome to episode 71 of ‘A Little Bird Told Me,’ the freelance writing podcast that tells you all the tricks of the trade. You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and from there you will find any links we mention in this episode and links to my websites and social media pages. From there you’ll also be able to subscribe to the podcast, and whether you prefer RSS, iTunes or Stitcher, it’s all easy to do from aliitlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

I am Philippa Willitts and today I’m going to be talking about where to find content ideas when you get stuck. We’ve all been in that situation where we need to write a blog post or come up with an idea for an article and we just hit a complete blank. There are no ideas in our brain. It happens to everybody at some point or other, so I’m going to go through a list of many, many places and things that can help you to find new ideas and come up with something exciting to write about.


News (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, without further ado, number 1: look at real life news. What is topical? What are people talking about? And see if there’s something that you can tie in to the topic you need to write about. So if you write for a tech blog, for instance, there something that you could use at the moment is the Heartbleed security flaws that are going on at the moment. Everybody’s talking about them, everybody wants to know which passwords they have to change, what they need to do to stay safe, and that is an example of something topical that will just give you an idea of what to write about.

Alternatively, if you write about health, there’s always an international day of a particular disease or an international month of a particular body part, so things like that. Check in with what’s going on at the moment, look at newspapers online, follow the news and see what inspires you.

Idea number 2 is related but not the same, and that is to look at blogs. What are the blogs in your industry talking about at the moment? This isn’t to say you need to copy them, it’s to say that you can use them as something to bounce off, to develop your own ideas. I use Feedly to keep track of blogs in all different areas, some just that I enjoy reading, some that are relevant for different clients and different niches. So if I want to know what’s been going on in a particular field, I will use Feedly to look at all the different blogs in that field and scroll through what people are talking about, until I get a new idea to write about.

Idea number 3 is YouTube. There are YouTube videos about everything, so if you do a search on YouTube for key terms related to your topic, you’re bound to get some ideas and inspiration from the kind of things that people have made videos about.

Idea number 4 is online courses. As you will know if you’re a regular listener, Lorrie and I are both strong proponents of keeping up your skills and learning new things on an ongoing basis to keep yourself able to offer competitive services. And if you’re doing a course in one of your areas of expertise, maybe you’ll learn something new that would also be of use to the readers of your blog or your client’s blog.

So, as well as using online courses as a way to keep your own skills and knowledge up to date, you can also use them to get ideas. Again, you’re not copying here, but maybe you’ve just watched a video on a particular topic and you think there’s an angle I could take with that topic that would be of interest to my usual readers.

The next idea is to search on social media. You want to see what people are talking about in relation to your topic, search for some keywords and see if there’s something you’ve missed, if people have something to say about a particular topic. Maybe this is a good way to find out what that is and see whether that’s something you can expand into a blog post or an article or a white paper, or whatever it is you need to write.

Topsy is a tool that can be very good for helping you to search social media and see what people are really talking about and what people are really saying. The links to Topsy and Feedly and everything we mentioned will all be in the show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, so don’t worry about trying to memorize everything I say. Just head over there when you’re ready and then all the links will be there.

Now an alternative to doing social media searches is to browse your social media contacts’ updates. Often people won’t use the keywords you might search for. Rather than doing a search for particular keywords, make use of your Twitter lists or Google+ circles to see what relevant people are talking about, regardless of whether they are using the particular keywords you might search for or not. This, again, can give you some great ideas for not just what people are talking about, but also what people want to know, because really what you need to write is something that people want to know, because then they will click through and read it.

Idea number 7 for finding content ideas is to look on the website – in the literature of relevant organizations. Look at the press releases they send out, look at their news feeds, if they have a page of news updates, and see what they’re talking about. If they’re talking about a particular topic it may well be that your readers, as well, or your client’s readers, as well, want to know the same information. So keep an eye on what maybe industry leaders are talking about, or industry regulators, or bodies or government departments related to your topic – all of that kind of thing. What are they talking about? What questions are they answering? And can you use those as jumping off points for your own content writing.

English: Podcast or podcasting icon Français :...

English: Podcast or podcasting icon Français : Icône pour les podcasts ou la baladodiffusion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Idea number 8 – podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and they’re great for giving me ideas for things to create content around. From a podcast you can get really specialist information from people who are the absolute experts. And so take advantage of that. The more you listen to, the more you will learn anyway. And so why not also use them as inspiration to give you some ideas and get your creative juices flowing.

The next suggestion is a bit different, and that is to stop trying so hard. You know how it is sometimes, you think and think and think and there is just nothing coming into your mind. And then the moment you stop trying you’re suddenly full of ideas, like when you get in the shower or you start doing the washing up or you get on a train. You suddenly got more ideas than you can deal with, and that’s because you can push it too far, and that’s because… You know, there are times when you just need to give yourself a break, and trying to force a new idea will just get you nowhere.

So if you’re really, really stuck, take a break. Have a change of scene, go for a walk around the block, go get yourself an apple to eat, go have a shower, do something completely different from searching your brain and searching the web for ideas, and see if anything comes to you naturally.

Idea number 10 for content ideas is brainstorming. You might want to do this using a mind map online or a big piece of paper and a pan, but write down in the middle what you need to write about, what your general topic is, and then start connecting ideas from that. Write down any keywords that come into your mind. Connect things that are connected and then write down what springs to mind when you think about those keywords. Write down whatever comes into your head, whether it seems relevant or not. Get it all down on paper, and soon you will start coming up with content ideas that make sense for the platform you’re creating for.

Idea number 11 is a great website called Quora, which is a question-and-answer website. But what makes it different to, say, Yahoo Answers, is the depth the responses go to, and the quality of the responses. There is some incredible information on Quora that people – there are real experts and real specialists will respond to. And often when you’re writing what you need to know is what your potential readers want to know. And so by looking at Quora you can see the exact questions that people are asking. And you can get some tips on how to answer them by the answers that are provided.

In a similar way online forums can be a great way to get ideas for content. Again, if you’re looking to find out what your potential readership wants to know, then go to forums where people are asking and answering questions. If you write about SEO then go to an SEO forum, look at the most recent 20 posts and see if there are any themes in what people are trying to find out.

Do people want to know how to build natural backlinks? Do people want to know how they need to sort out the rel=”author” tags on their site and take advantage of that insight into what people are looking for and provide that information yourself.

Idea number 13 – unlucky for some – is surveys. You can look for the results of surveys that people have carried out in your topic area to find out all sorts of information and to get plenty of ideas for blog posts, articles, social media content – all of those things. Alternatively or additionally, you can create your own surveys, especially if you’ve got a decent social media audience, then this can be a great way of getting really detailed information about what people want to know, about what they think blogs don’t cover well enough. All that kind of thing you can find out by setting up your own survey. You could do that using a site called SurveyMonkey, or you can do it using a Google form which will just drop all the results into a spreadsheet for you.

Idea number 14 is to use to a brilliant little site called Google Trends. Now through this you can find out exactly what people are talking about right now. You can break it down based on geography, on time, and you can look at the results in different visual ways. You can see basically what the trending topics are on the web and find out exactly what’s topical, exactly what people want to know, exactly what people are searching for and take advantage of that to give yourself some ideas to write about.

Suggestion number 15 is to use a keyword suggestion tool. Now I’m going to mention two here, and they’re both free. One is the Google Adwords Keyword Planner, which is the replacement for the Google Adwords Keyword tool that people used to use. Now with this what you can do is type in some keywords related to the industry you’re writing about, and then it will tell you what people are searching for and how many people are searching for that thing, plus how much competition there is for that search.

So if you’re looking to write a post that you have a chance of ranking well in the Google search results, this is a great way of finding topics that a decent number of people are searching for every month, but that isn’t already highly competitive to rank for. So you might think you’ve got a great topic but only 20 people a month search for it. So using the keyword planner it will give you alternatives, different phrases, different words, so you can find the best thing to write about.

The other tool I’m going to mention is called Ubersuggest. And what this does is you put in a keyword and it tells you for every letter of the alphabet different things that people search for alongside that keyword. So if you type, for instance, “health and safety”, then what it does is it gives you a long, long list of the other things that people search for along with those terms. So, for instance, it’s giving me “health and safety jobs”, “health and safety games”, “health and safety institute”, “health and safety engineer”, “health and safety plan”, “health and safety in the workplace.”

And then it goes through every letter of the alphabet. So for A, it gives me “health and safety at work”, “health and safety authority”, “health and safety articles.” For B, it’s “health and safety book”, “health and safety blog”, “health and safety benchmarking” and so on, and so on, going through the alphabet and then on to numbers, as well, if they’re all things that are being searched about that include numbers, which this doesn’t have any results for.

And then for each of these results you can click on those and it will give you even further ideas. So for Y it gives me “health and safety York”, so I clicked on that and from there I get “health and safety York University”, “health and safety jobs York”, “health and safety executive York”, “occupational health and safety York”, all these kinds of things. And so you can drill down and get more and more specific. And this tool really is great for giving you ideas to bounce off. You know you need to write about a particular topic, and you’re completely stuck for what to do with it. Then try out Ubbersuggest. Again, the link will be in the in the show notes.

Suggestion number 16 is to look at the trending topics on Twitter and Facebook. These won’t specifically relate to your industry area, usually, but it will tell you what people are talking about. So if everybody is tweeting about Britain’s Got Talent or everybody on Facebook is talking about some celebrity gossip, then see whether there’s a way you can tie in those topics to your suggested area. There are always, always blog posts doing the rounds about… They’re usually quite spurious, but it gives you somewhere to start. Something like “what Gwyneth Paltrow’s divorce can tell you about social policy” or “what such and such libel trial can teach us about SEO”. It’s a controversial approach but it often will get plenty of hits, even if it feels a bit icky to write about sometimes.

Idea number 17 of 19 – Google News Alerts. You can set up within Google – you just do a search for Google Alerts – you can set up a system where whenever something new is written about a particular topic, Google will email you. Now this can be news topics specifically, or it can be any search results at all. And the way it works is you can set up to receive instant email notifications or once a day, or whatever timing suits you. And you can set it up for just new sources, just blogs, or anything on the web. You can also ask it to tell you everything, or to make its own judgment and only give you better quality things. But this way you can get things direct to your inbox that will give you ideas to write about.

I get news alerts on various topics that I write about. Because I use Gmail, I’ve set up filters so they skip my inbox and go directly to their own particular folder, so that then, when I need some ideas I head over to that folder and see what the latest is.

This is icon for social networking website. Th...

This is icon for the StumbleUpon social networking website. This is part of Open Icon Library’s webpage icon package. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the penultimate suggestion for finding content ideas is a service called StumbleUpon. This has been through various iterations in its life and, basically, it’s a way of finding new websites or new content without having to search for it. It can be entirely random or – and this is more relevant for finding content ideas – you can set it up in certain subject areas. So you might want health or technology or craft or whatever is relevant to you. And then, basically, there’s a button at the top of each page that says StumbleUpon. You hit it and it takes you to a random website in the area you specified. And then you can look at that site and then hit StumbleUpon again, and it will take you to another. Hit it again, it will take you to another, and so on, until you come up with something that inspires you.

As well as this, and there’s an alternative to hitting the StumbleUpon button, you can hit a Thumbs Up or a Thumbs Down button, depending on what you think of the sites it’s given you. And this is particularly good because StumbleUpon thing uses that information to try and only deliver sites to you that it thinks you will like. So you basically teach it what you like and what you don’t, and that can improve the results you get.

And my final suggestion for finding content ideas – number 19 – is your own website stats or your client’s website stats. You want to know how people are finding you. You want to know which pages are the most popular because then you know what people want, you know what they’re looking for. If a lot of people find you via a particular search query, then write a post responding specifically to that search query. If you’ve got particular pages that get far more visitors than your other. If you’ve got particular pages that get far more visitors than the rest of your site, then look at what’s on those pages and find out if there’s something, you could go into more detail to gather more of that kind of traffic.

You might get your stats through Google Analytics, in which case you get a lot of detailed information, or you might use a more simple plugin or third-party service. But whatever it is, you want something that gives you the ability to see how people find you, what’s the most popular part of your site so you can build from there and create more of the content that your specific readers are looking for.

And so that is my top 19 best ways to find content ideas. Do you have any others? Is there anything I’ve missed off? If so, head over to our Facebook page at facebook.com/freelancewritingpodcast and tell us. Comment on one of our updates, and let us know the places you find ideas for content when you’re running out of inspiration.

And so now it is time for the Little Bird recommendation of the week where I give a suggestion of something I’ve enjoyed, something that I think will be useful to listeners or just enjoyable or interesting. My recommendation this week is from Mashable and it’s an article called ‘How to Succeed in Business without Becoming an Alcoholic.’ And it’s got some really nice suggestions, and it’s really well written about different ways to keep your business a success without ending up in a position where you can’t do anything else, you can’t ever wind down.

And it’s quite simple. It’s not particularly necessarily new information, but it’s presented really nicely in a way that might give you some ideas if you find that you are working far more than you’re not, and you really need a break. And so, as ever, I will link to that in the show notes and I recommend that you go over and have a read from there.

And so that is the end of episode 71 of A Little Bird Told Me. Make sure you head over to allittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and follow the links to all the places I’ve mentioned in today’s podcast. Make sure you also check out our Facebook page and feel free to check out my own social media feeds and websites, as well. From our Podomatic page you can also subscribe to make sure that you never miss an episode. Thank you very much for listening. I’ll be back with Lorrie next time for a dual episode, and we will see you then.


Podcast Episode 40: What to do when you run out of ideas, AKA what Pippa Middleton’s bum can teach us about finding writing inspiration

Every writer, at some stage or another, gets hit by a sudden lack of ideas. It’s depressing and can even be frightening, but there are ways to jolt your mind back into thinking creatively again. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I discuss several tips and tricks you can use to reboot your creative mind and shake writers’ block off for good.

Show Notes


Google Alerts

The guy who got a job by targeting PPC ads to vanity searches

The guy who lost his entire Google, Apple, Amazon and Twitter presence in 15 minutes after his password was hacked

Limit Login Attempts free WordPress Plugin

Featuring the hat stuck in the tree story: 47 Hilariously Underwhelming Local News Headlines

Safestyle Windows Secret Door


There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

Subscribe via RSS

Subscribe via iTunes

Find us on Stitcher Smart Radio

And finally, please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be the first to hear our news and to talk with us about what you hear on the podcast!


LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 40 of A Little Bird Told Me. My co-host Pippa and I are two freelance writers on a frankly heroic mission: we’re here to help you avoid the pitfalls that plague our profession and become the most wonderful wordsmiths you can be.

Freelancing is tough, and it can be a really lonely old world out there, so our hope is that this podcast will be a little ray of sunshine in a world where you can find yourself  working from bed, eating cornflakes from the packet for lunch and not seeing another living soul for four years straight.

To make sure that you don’t miss this little sunbeam of writerly wisdom, we’ve made it easy to subscribe – you can tune in via iTunes, RSS feed, Stitcher smart radio or Podomatic. No matter how you want to listen, make sure you stop by our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there’s a whole range of linksydinks and resources on there to accompany the episodes. Blog posts, transcripts, funny videos and websites – they’re all there. You’ll also find links to both my and Pip’s social media profiles and websites so you can come and chat to us. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn….

PW: And I am Philippa Willitts. Today we are going to talk about what to do when you run out of ideas to write about. You may have a complete blank and have no ideas at all, or you may have decided on, or been given, a topic, but you just have no inspiration about how to approach it. If you do primarily commercial work, you might get given subjects and write to order, so think this doesn’t apply, but at some point you might well find yourself in a position where you can suggest things to write about to your clients. In this case, you will need a steady stream of ideas. Or you might write for magazines or newspapers, in which case you will need to generate constant ideas to pitch to them. Once you get known, editors might approach you with a story, but until then – and in most cases – you need to do all the legwork of planning stories yourself.

LH: Totally. And when you write for a living, it can be surprisingly easy to hit a wall. Writer’s block, creative burnout, whatever you want to call it, it affects every writer I know – as Pip says, no matter which subject they tackle and which area they work in. It’s a part of the job, which is why it’s important to have some go-to techniques when “uninspiration” strikes!

Writer's Block... Why bother...

Writer’s Block… Why bother… (Photo credit: Arnett Gill)

PW: Exactly. You will have times when you have so many ideas that you can’t write them down quickly enough, but you will invariably also have times when it seems there is nothing interesting in the world at all. We are going to look at some different situations that you might find yourself in, and go through some suggestions to get your creative juices flowing.

LH: If you’re writing for your own website or marketing activities – say, you’re blogging or fulfilling or searching out guest blogging opportunities, you’ve got a certain level of freedom when it comes to getting inspired. You can decide what’s appropriate and what isn’t, and if it gets to a point where you really need some content on your blog, you can feel free to mine the subjects you find interesting or easy to write about. If, on the other hand, you’re writing for a client or an external platform, you’ll need to bear in mind any limitations or conventions that will apply when you consider the tips we share in this episode.

PW: Yes, because you might know your general subject area really well but find it hard sometimes to find an angle that makes it worth writing about. If you write about a particular subject, you can quickly get to the end of your ideas for that subject. If you’re writing for a third party, the amount of flexibility you have in the subject will very much depend on who you are writing for, how much they trust you to provide good subject ideas, whether or not you’ll start sneaking in photos of hunks to otherwise innocuous news stories, and that kind of thing.

LH: One thing that you can get away with on your own platforms occasionally – although not too often – is the trusty opinion or commentary piece. Spotted something on social media that made you completely furious, or made you laugh out loud, why not write a short blog post on that – something quite flippant and humorous? You won’t need to research too heavily and you can be a little freer in terms of tone.

Obviously, this is something to consider doing when you’re writing under your own name, rather than if you’re ghost-writing. Of course, you can do an opinion piece for a client, but you’ll need to make absolutely sure that you have a good handle of the client’s official line on the subject you want to write about and full clearance – preferably in writing – to go ahead with anything that might be in the slightest bit controversial.

PW: Yeah. The frequency at which you can get away with opinion writing does depend very much on the niche you work in. If opinion writing is where you earn most of your money, then fill your blog up with it! If you are strictly a copywriter in the insurance industry, then probably not so much at all.

LH: Absolutely – if you’re a commercial copywriter in the B2B sector, for example, it’s going to be OK to have a few bits and pieces about writing, copywriting, marketing etc. but you’re going to want to showcase mostly informative pieces that will appeal to commercial clients and prospects.

PW: Yup. In terms of where to get ideas, Lorrie just mentioned social media, and that can be a great way to find topics to write about. The people you follow will probably already be posting about your areas of interest, which is why you follow them, so seeing what is being talked about today can give you that spark you need.

LH: Definitely – and that’s one more reason to be discerning with your social media following rather than falling into a trap that many businesses find themselves in: following as many people as possible in a bid to attract mutual followers. If you resist this urge and follow people who have something to say about the sectors you work in or the subjects that interest you, it’ll be such a valuable mine of information – both for general knowledge and, as Pip points out, for times like this when you need some inspiration rather than just a tweet-feed full of people going “Please follow me! Please retweet me!”.

PW: Long-term listeners will know that Twitter lists are one of my favourite things. They really help me manage the people I follow and they’re also a good way of getting ideas – I have lists for top social media, SEO and media people. So if I need to write a blog post about SEO, I go to my SEO list, which cuts out even the people who are generally relevant but who aren’t relevant right now.

LH: And Twitter lists are also a really good way to see exactly what people are talking about and to make sure you’re not selling old news.

PW: Oh yes, definitely.

LH: You can actually use a tool we’ve mentioned before, called Topsy. It’s something we’ve mentioned before so we won’t go into it here, but on Topsy, you can search for blog and social media posts across various platforms that cover a certain topic. Again, it’s pretty much what Pip’s just described with her Twitter lists – it’s just a good way of searching for topics of interest to you.

PW: Brilliant! And speaking of blogs, following the blogs of the industry leaders and the people you respect can also provide ideas ripe for the picking. Is everyone talking about a news story but there’s an angle that nobody’s covered? I know sometimes I’ll read four different reports about a new social media innovation and think, “But why has no one mentioned X, Y and Z?” Make yourself the person to do that.

LH: Yes, and that leads me on to thinking that, if you’re not the person to cover that angle but you spot someone else doing it, it’s another way to get a quick refresh on your blog – if you’ve had a post sitting there just a bit too long, for example – you can share material you’ve found elsewhere and make a comment on it. Obviously don’t share it if they’re your direct competitor! But say, for example, am not particularly au fait with technical writing. Say I spot a writer who’s done a brilliant job at writing about an industry development, I can share part of that post on my blog and link to the rest of it.

PW: Yes, round-up posts are really popular in every niche, really.

LH: Yes, and you have to be careful not to reproduce too much copyrighted content. Quote people, and a good way is to take a screenshot of what that person’s written and then link and attribute clearly and add your own thoughts. Say why you liked or didn’t like about it. And another thing that’s really great for this, that’s infographics.

Infographics are really quite new, they boomed in 2013. They’re full of interesting titbits, easily digestible information, and they’re colourful and attractive things to share on blogs. Every infographic will have information on it about the author and the site on which the graphic was originally featured – those things are there specifically because these types of media are supposed to be shared.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with posting something on your blog, saying, “Found this really interesting because A, B and C…” and then popping a link back to the site you got it from. It shows you’re reading widely, it gives visitors to your platforms material of value and it can actually be a helpful way to build contacts in your sector, particularly if you let people know via social media that you’ve shared the material.

PW: Yes, I got a tweet the other day, which said, “We’ve done a round-up of our favourite posts on a certain subject” and there was a list of posts, including one of mine. So I retweeted it because it’s good for people to know I’m being quoted elsewhere, but for them too – they get clicks, retweets and everyone benefits.

Often when businesses want you to write blog posts for them, or if you write your own blog, the best topics are answers to the questions that people are commonly asking. I know on my personal blog, which these days is rarely updated, I still get hits from people searching for particular answers. Years ago, I got a particular virus on my computer and I Googled how to fix it, but there was no information because I was one of the first people to get it – how exciting! – so when I solved it, I wrote a blog post on how to do it, and five years on, I still get hits for people for that search term.

And so, if you write about social media and you can answer something that people search for a lot – for example “how to get an RSS feed for a Twitter account since the latest update”

LH: And even include a date in there, as well.

PW: Yes! Something I do quite a lot is go to the places where people ask questions. The first place I check is Quora, which is a question and answer site where people really take time to give very in-depth responses to any manner of questions. It may be that somebody has just asked a question that I think would be perfect for my blog, so I instantly have an idea. The second place I look, to find out what people want to know, is discussion forums. Either general or subject specific ones, depending, but a look through the subject headings gives you a clear idea of what people really want to know.

LH: Brilliant set of ideas – if you answer key questions that people are searching for answers to, and you’ve not only come up with an engaging idea for a post, but you’re targeting really good keywords and phrases. And as you’ve pointed out, Pip, five years on, you’re still reaping the benefits.

Another point to add to that is that it’s not just the questions people are asking that make ripe content for blog posts, but also the stories people are talking about. I have subscriptions to the newsletters from all the major trade press publications in my clients’ industries – everything from property to plastics recycling to cosmetics to compliance schemes. And although it’s a lot of reading, I know as soon as something big happens and I can advise my clients to post something about it (or let me post something about it, more to the point!) so that it’s clear they have their finger on the pulse. Again, this is not just great for readers, but for SEO purposes as well.

One of my clients got a promotional back link from The Guardian this morning as a direct result from SEO copywriting that was done for them.

PW: Yes, because these kinds of posts are great for SEO is so many ways. I’ll try and give a quick summary, just because it’s come up so many times. Firstly, Google and other search engines like regular updates on a website. If a site isn’t updated, it loses its ranking, generally speaking. Also, you’re using long-tailed key words and phrases, which is when people search for a phrase or sentence, rather than a word. And if you can get those in, they have lower competition in the search results but tend to have higher conversions. However, with that in mind, something I learned the other day is that 17% of Google searches have never been searched for before.

LH: Oh wow, that’s really interesting! Surprisingly high. Another good way to keep your finger on the news pulse is to set up a whole load of Google Alerts for subjects of interest. Now if you haven’t done this already, do it – it’s content searching 101. Slap on the wrist for you, it’s one of the most simple things out there. For anyone that doesn’t know how to set up a Google alert, come out of your cave and into the beautiful age of internet.

Go to google.com/alerts, type in a search query and decide what kind of news you’d like to read about with that search term in it – you can go for just news, or anything, or blogs. It’s really simple and you’ll get a notification to your inbox (and you don’t have to be with Google Mail, you can do it with any email) every time something with that search term is published. If you chose a search term that’s very common, and have the news delivered immediately, or you can choose to get a digest of the news periodically so you’re not spammed. It’s just another good way to keep on top of all the latest current events.

I’ve stuck a Google Mail filter on my Google Alerts – now this is specific to Gmail, so if you’re in Hotmail, thinking, “I DON’T HAVE A GMAIL FILTER!”, then this is why. So yes, my Google alerts are set to skip my inbox, be marked as read and be put into a little folder, so I can dip in and out when I want.

PW: Definitely! I had an experience with Google Alerts this week that really proved their use.  Because I write opinion pieces, you can come in for hassle and abuse, and I have a Google Alert set up for my name so I know if anyone says something nasty (or nice!). Earlier this week, I got a Google Alert telling me I’ve been named as one of the most influential disabled people in Great Britain.

LH: Hurrah!

PW: Hurrah! Without Google Alerts, I still wouldn’t know and it’s rather nice to know, however bewildering it is!

LH: I think that’s wonderful. Although this week, I’m not a big fan of Google Alerts! Because, listeners, Pip emaileme to say, “Ooh, I did this whole Google Alert thing and I’ve found out I’m one of the most influential people in Britain!” and because the words “Google Alert” were in the email, poor Pip got filtered away and I didn’t respond for about ten hours. So poor Pip was there, celebrating alone and not very influential in my inbox at all! So yes, be careful to check your Google Alerts!

PW: Yes, I’ve made sure to include the words Google Alerts only if they’re in the subject. But yes, my first few were quite dodgy as well, so don’t worry.

LH: It’s the first time it’s happened. I just kept thinking, “I’m sure I had an email from Pip, but it was nowhere to be found. And of course I wasn’t going to check Google Alerts for you, was I? But no, there you were! So sorry about that!

PW: Actually, if you are a freelancer, it’s a good idea to set up a Google Alert for your name. It may be that a client recommends you on a forum – that’s the kind of thing you might never know otherwise, but if you do find out it’s a lovely confidence boost.

LH: Or the other way round – if someone says, “Never hire this person, they did A, B, C” – it might be true, it might not, but at least you have the right to reply there.

PW: That’s it – or if someone tweets what you’ve written, you might not see that otherwise. It can be an ego thing sometimes, but often it just seems like a sensible thing to do if you’re running your own business.

LH: I don’t think many people out there who can say they don’t Google themselves – so why not set up a Google Alert and it’ll do it for you?

PW: A few years ago, there was a man desperately trying to find a job and failing. A lot of people have copied it since, but he was the first. He used the fact that everyone Googles themselves once in a while, and he created a pay-per-click ad that would only appear when the names of the top guys at Apple, Google, Facebook etc googled themselves. So it was a very low-cost ad, because not many people googled “Larry Page” for example, and certainly no one would click on it. So he created an ad saying, “Hey Larry – or whoever – hire me!”

And it led through to a job request and he was offered a job because of it. He got a bit of publicity for it, so I bet there are loads of ads doing the same. You want to be the first person doing something like that, because it worked incredibly well.

LH: Ground-breaking. And no wonder he did so well.

PW: It might be that you’ve done your Google Alerts, looked through your blog subscriptions and read every tweet for the last hour. Rather than desperately trying to find something new, there are other ways of getting a new story written.

LH: Definitely. For one of my clients, I produce a large number of stories every week on very specific industrial topics. And although I usually manage to find 30-40 news stories each week, sometimes I do need some help and I go in-house. And what I’ve done for that is created an article submission form for the client to fill out – it’s just a list of simple questions as though I were interviewing the client: what’s the story about, when did it happen, who was involved, who’s the target audience – that kind of thing.

PW: …quote from someone…

LH: Yes, and I do the same thing for press releases. And I’ll send that over to the client sometimes to try and get some internal news from them. It’s nice to have something that reflects their corporate social responsibility, their commitment to the environment, and charity – a bit of human interest, which is really important for B2B clients. OK, people want to talk about technology, industry developments etc, but they still want to know who’s behind it.

PW: Definitely, because even if it’s B2B, there’s still a person at that business who’s reading it. You might be trying to attract business from another business, so human interest is always good to incorporate! It’s easy to dismiss B2B as entirely technical or financial or whatever, but that’s a mistaken approach.

LH: One slightly sneaky way to find something to write about is to go through material that you’ve already written for the client and see if you can build on something you’ve already written or researched.

PW: Yeah, and as Lorrie says, that can be sneaky, but that’s only really if your aim is to minimise your workload, but if you do it correctly, and truly do provide a new story with that as a basis or inspiration, then it can be good practice. In a lot of commercial sectors, things are very repetitive! So a new angle can be just what is needed, even if it’s an old subject.

LH: Yes, you need to be very careful to make sure – as Pip says – that you’re not short-changing a client. If only because you won’t get away with it! As a copywriter, you can produce 40 beautiful original posts a week, and get nary a word, but when a client’s not happy, you’ll know immediately. Even if there’s just a comma out of place – which there never is in my writing, thank you very much! – they’ll let you know.

But yes, this particular tip is really for those times when, say, you need a blog post to be written and submitted by tomorrow and you’ve exhausted your other inspiration options. Have a think about how you can do it without producing something substandard.

For example, one subject that both Pip and I write about (and around) is health and safety. So say, for example, that I’ve written a blog post for a client on health and safety at work, with a focus on fork lift trucks. I might decide to do a similar piece on working on mobile elevated platforms. And there’s no need to be sneaky about it – you could make the posts into a series of informative features.

Building on that idea, this is another way to change things up a bit when you write regular content for a client: deviate slightly from the style of writing you normally produce for them. If you normally cover current industry events, write a news story about something that’s happening in-house. If you normally cover what’s happening in-house, go the other way and do a summary of a few big stories that are in the trade press currently. Do a comment piece, or a feature, or something light-hearted, or some tips from your client to customers in their sector: just think outside your normal parameters.

PW: Yes. I have a client I write a couple of posts for every week. Normally, they’re very technological – the ins and outs of pay-per-click, or a particular SEO technique, but once in a while, we’ll do something more like a news report. Mix it up a bit, have a story with a different tone. It brings a freshness to you and them, and their content.

LH: Yes, and showcase your client’s different sides. If your writing ends up being a bit paint-by-numbers, it can switch readers off. Changing things up is always a good thing, as long as your client’s OK with it!

When I’m feeling uninspired, one of the most intimidating things is a blank page. And while it’s not OK to self-plagiarise (and yes, rewording something ever-so-slightly and passing it off as original material is definitely self-plagiarising!), it’s OK to take inspiration from your previous work – or indeed, from the work of others.

Now, if you’re getting inspiration from other people, it’s important to be respectful and not get too close. Have a read through what’s there and summarise the key points or structure. Paste those notes into a new file and build from there – having a framework to support your poor tired mind as it struggles to write a blog post or news article can be just the prop you need.


crumpled paper - writers block

PW: Yes, I totally agree. I’m another one who finds blank pages intimidating, so if I can get down anything, it breaks the spell a bit and enables me to get going. Write notes, write ideas, write a plan, write about how awful it feels to not be able to write something, but get something down, some ink on the paper or some words on the screen, and you will start to flow.

LH: Yup. I find notes less intimidating than the first sentence of something. You’re more than likely to just delete that and end up with a blank page again. Bullet points are an absolute life-saver. As is the copy-and-paste function! And this is where you have to be careful not to be lazy, greedy or overly tired. If you copy and paste information from somewhere else, make sure it’s in a different font or colour, so you know exactly what’s yours and what isn’t.

But yes, get some information on that page – even if it’s just pasted from a website you’re looking at – and you might well feel far less intimidated.

PW: Yes, as long as you take precautions to make sure you don’t plagiarise…if you plagiarise even accidentally, it’s your client who’s liable – they’ll get in trouble, as will you, so be really careful.

LH: Absolutely. It can be so easy to delete loads of stuff and miss one paragraph and switch everything to Arial, you might not spot it.

PW: Yes, it’s easy to do, so take as many precautions as possible.

LH: Another way to take inspiration from previous work is to do what I’d call an inverse selection – bit of a Photoshop term, there! – with a piece you’ve already written. What I mean by that is using the negative space around something you’ve already written. I’ll explain that a bit more: if you’ve done loads of research for, and written a piece about  the top six rules for writing copy about stock exchange trading bots, why not write a post about the top six don’ts for stock exchange trading bots? That kind of thing – you have a lot of the work in place, but you’re producing entirely new material.

PW: Yes, this is something I’ve done too. If someone wants one in-depth article on a subject I need to do a lot of research for, you might as well get more use out of that. So if a client wants one article about getting rid of migraines, you will also know about migraine causes, myths and misconceptions, pros and cons of certain treatments, so pitch those ideas elsewhere.

LH: Good point!

PW: What I do, if no one at that point wants those stories, I write them up and submit them to Constant Content. It’s nothing like copying the original article – there’s no relation really – but I’m also not wasting all the work I’ve done.

LH: Yes, very good idea actually. And what that makes me think of really, is if you’ve done loads of research on, let’s say migraines again, but your client only wants a 500-word article on the subject, by the time you finish your post, it might be 1,100 words. That’s 600 words spare, and you can use that content elsewhere to build another article.

LH: If you do submit these kinds of similar topics to the same client, you’ll need to spread these things out, but you’re effectively producing a mirror image of the post you’ve already written without replicating the content itself.

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber (Photo credit: cukuskumir)

PW: Yes, it’s really transparent if you have four blog posts in a row that are the same! But if you split them up and intersperse them, that works. A lot of the big blogs will take a really common subject and do a (quite often annoying!) topical angle on it. But say Justin Bieber does something, you just know that, the next day, there’ll be a blog post on “What Justin Bieber can teach us about Content Marketing!”

LH: Oh, I hate that so much!

PW: Me too, but it’s good for SEO and it’s basically link bait. Someone sees it on Twitter and they’ll click. It’s the same content but tenuously linked to something topical. “What Kim Kardashian’s latest pair of shoes can teach us about migraine treatment!” I think it’s clear that neither Lorrie nor I are particularly fond of this, but it is another option depending on your platform.

LH: I’m trying to imagine my clients faced with an article about what Kim Kardashian has to say about waste management, “What Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy fashion has to say about compliance!”

PW: “What Pippa Middleton’s bum tells us about working at height on a ladder!”

LH: She’d probably bounce!

PW: You know, the day of the royal wedding, I was on Twitter and I spent the whole day watching people say, “Wow, isn’t Pippa’s bum wonderful?” and I’d respond and say, “Oh, thank you!”

Now, quite often, however, finding inspiration is nothing to do with getting Google Alerts on your core topics, or analysing discussion forums. Sometimes it’s more about injecting some creativity into your life, or taking your mind off work altogether. People don’t envisage professional writers sitting at a desk at a computer all day, filling out spreadsheets, and it’s really not a natural state to be in, especially if you’re creatively mind as most writers are. It can kind of sap your soul, and sometimes the reason you can’t think of anything is because you need an injection of something really inspirational, not more of the same.

LH: Definitely. As you say, it can be soul-sapping to sit there facing the same wall, writing the same things – often complex things – over and over. You need to concentrate and be fresh in your mind to make sure you don’t make silly mistakes.

PW: Something like reading a novel, going to an art gallery, or going for a walk in a park might seem unrelated to a lot of the reality of writing for a living, but sometimes it’s just what we need. There’s a well-known phenomenon where people have their best ideas in the shower, and that’s because their mind is away from work, they are thinking about random things, and suddenly inspiration will strike. Sitting and trying to force an idea can be a really pointless task, whereas taking yourself away from it, even for an hour, can replenish your mind and leave you full of ideas.

LH: Yes, even if it’s not for hours – if it’s just a 15-minute stomp around the block. It’s nice to get out and get some inspiration, or just some fresh air. You feel a bit more alive, really.

PW: Definitely. So, sure, the Picasso exhibition isn’t directly related to your copy for a packaging company, and your press release for a local butchers doesn’t have any direct connections to your favourite author’s latest novel, but something in them can spark the ideas you need. It can be the tiniest thing that gives you the angle or the topic you have been looking for, but if you really feel drained and tired and uninspired, then do something totally different for a few hours. You need an element of creativity even in the most mundane of writing tasks, so don’t neglect that need for the sake of corporate staying at your desk attitude.

LH: That’s a really good point to finish on, really. We’re freelancers, and our working style can be very different. For most of us, a guilt-free embrace of freelance working style is a really good thing. Breakfasts, brunches and lunches with friends. I like working in cafes, going to the library, being out and about. And it’s part of being a freelancer. I work evenings sometimes, admin on weekends, finance tasks… So if you find you’re uninspired a lot of the time, do something about it – you’re in charge. Just because you’re out and about doesn’t mean you’re not working. You’re your company and you have to keep happy and healthy!

PW: Yes! I used to go to a co-working space for half a day a week. I liked the change of scene, but sadly that closed last year. By about February, I was really feeling the lack of it. Periodically now, I book half a day or so and go and work in a café or bar. And I do exactly the same work on the same computer, but there’s something about working in a new environment that just refreshes me a bit.

So yes, much as there are many practical ways to find new inspiration, don’t limit yourself. We’re creative people. Even if much of what we write is commercial, you still need creativity to make it good. Don’t dismiss the need for creative outlets and creative inlets to give your brain a boost!

LH: So, really hope you’ve found this episode helpful and useful. If you have any thoughts, come and have a chat to us on Facebook or social media –all the links are on alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. We’re friendly and receptive – for the most part! – so come and have a chinwag.

So, now it’s time for that weekly joy-fest that is the Little Bird Recommendations of the Week! Philippa, over to you!

PW: Thank you, Lorrie in the studio! A couple of months ago, I wrote some really in-depth articles on internet security, particularly passwords. And what I learned during my research scared me to death. The speed and efficiency with which people can crack passwords is really frightening – a tech writer basically had his whole life deleted in about 15 minutes, which made me totally neurotic. And then, last week, I couldn’t get access to the back end of my own website, which scared me because I knew there were bot attacks happening on WordPress sites.

Fortunately, what had happened is that my host had seen a lot of these bot attacks happening and they’d limited everyone’s access to everything. Because what these bots were doing was trying to log in under every possible username and password combination, so my host had taken precautions. All I needed to do was let them know my IP address and they unblocked me.

There have been a lot of WordPress hacks recently – not because there’s anything wrong with the platform, just because a lot of people use it. I did some more research and what I found is my recommendation this week: a free plugin for WordPress, called Limit Log-in Attempts. What these bots are doing is just automating passwords and try, and try, and try to log in to your account. By default, they get into some.

What this plugin does is limit the number of retries. You can customise it and decide how many attempts you want to have. The default settings are that, after four failed attempts, it blocks for 20 minutes and after four blocks, it locks for 24 hours. So this is a free plugin, called Limit Log-in Attempts, and, amongst other general security measures, it looks to me like a really good way to protect yourself. I’ve seen it recommended on other blogs, too.

LH: Definitely, it sounds brilliant. And it’s something I’ll be installing.

PW: The technology and effort people put into breaking into accounts is phenomenal.

LH: And often for no good reason – sometimes just to be malicious. So even if you think, “My website’s small and uninmportant.” it doesn’t matter.

PW: Yes, they’re not choosing big sites to target – it’s a blanket attack. Even if they can get onto a tiny website and add links to their site from it, they’ll do it.

LH: Brilliant recommendation, and as I say, one I’ll take on. I feel quite frivolous now! “After that shocking report from Philippa, on to the weather!” There’s Pip keeping the world safe, and here’s my story on a cat getting stuck in a tree!

PW: You’re the “And now, finally…!”

LH: My recommendation for this week build on what we’ve been talking about this week. Here in England, it’s often quite rainy and horrible. So getting out and about can be tough – my recommendations are to help you get out and about when you can’t. These are inspiration tools for fiction writing. Now they’re not specifically designed as fiction writing tools, but I use them for that and I know a lot of people who do the same.

The first is called “the secret door” and, weirdly, it’s on a double-glazing website called SafeStyle UK. It’s a cute little white door that, when you click on it, takes you to a random view from somewhere in the world – you could be in the middle of a rainforest, you could be in the Antarctic, in a fairground, a sweetshop, and you can click until you feel inspired.

PW: To give SafeStyle Windows their due, this is content marketing – I can see this being handy if you just like having a five minute break.

LH: Yes, and another site I use is MapCrunch.com, which provides you with a random Google Maps street view. You can explore – it has the same functionality as Google Maps – and I’ve used it as inspiration for short stories. It’s brilliant when you’re stuck in the same room and you’re not inspired by the bed, or the wardrobe, or the desk, or your desk chair…and much as you can try going out and find something new, it’s not always feasible, so these are my recommendations this week.

PW: It reminds me of those live feeds in enclosures in zoos – I had a phase where any free moment was spent watching penguins – watching these little things bumble around was lovely. And it takes you somewhere else if you’re stuck at your desk. Sometimes, you don’t have time for a walk. These things can just take you somewhere else.

LH: Yes, they’re a bit of a hack when it comes to ‘getting out’, but it’s OK to be a baby sometimes. It’s OK to watch a panda falling off a log. It’s nice and it’s good de-stress time.

PW: Definitely, that’s a great idea Lorrie! So, that concludes episode 40 – wow!

LH: Phwoar!

PW: We hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you want to see any of the links we’ve talked about, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, everything’s linked there. Come and say hi, subscribe and tell all your friends. I’ve been Philippa Willitts…

LH: And I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and we’ll catch you next time!