Non-Fiction Ideas: Finding and Corralling the Elusive Beast

Image courtesy of iosphere/
Image courtesy of iosphere/

Please tell me I’m not the only one: I’m ready to write, the blank page is there, and …. yeah. Nothing.

Frustrating isn’t even the word for it. It seems like the longer you sit staring at the page, the less the ideas jump into your head.

After years of dealing with this problem, I decided to start looking for ideas on getting ideas. (If nothing else, it would fill the time while I wasn’t getting any writing done.) I found some great ideas, some that worked for me and some that didn’t. And of course I tweaked things, as you do… The end result? I rarely, if ever, have trouble knowing what ideas I want to write about.

Coming up with ideas for writing, at least for me, is a different process depending on whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction. I find non-fiction ideas a bit easier, so that’s where we’ll start.

But before we even get to “Where to find ideas,” I want to mention “Where to store ideas”.

Get Your Ideas Organized Before They Escape

One of my biggest self-created roadblocks to having ideas on-hand when I wanted to write was my conviction that I’d remember ideas that I came up with when I wasn’t in front of my computer.

Yeah, right. I have this tendency to come up with concepts that seem totally brilliant while I’m doing other stuff – washing dishes, going for a walk, brushing my teeth. Usually by the time I’m done with whatever I’m doing, my brain has taken off in a different direction like a dog who spotted a squirrel.

I had to come up with a way to keep track of my ideas. And here is where I’m going to confess something: I have a bit of an iPhone addiction. I carry mine around almost everywhere.

My addiction worked in my favor this time. I downloaded the Evernote app onto my phone, put the extension in my browser, and even downloaded the software for my computer. Overkill? Well, yeah. I use them all, though, so it’s all good. When I get an idea, I make a new note in one of my different categories (Fiction, Non-Fiction, etc.) and type in the idea, any relevant links to information if I have them, pictures, whatever I want to add to help me remember the concept. Since Evernote syncs between all my devices, I can refer to those ideas almost anywhere I am.

If you’ve never encountered Evernote, it’s a program that lets you store and categorize notes and files. It’s really simple to use but has advanced features you can do a lot with if you take the time to figure them out. OneNote is a similar program, and I’m sure there are others out there.

If that much digital-ness isn’t for you, people have been using notebooks (or the equivalent – chiseling on stone tablets, anyone?) forever. I’ve known people to use highlighters and colored sticky-tabs or sticky notes to help organize things.

Whatever you choose, make sure you have something close at hand to keep track of your ideas. There’s no telling what brilliance you might be forgetting otherwise.

Find Non-Fiction Ideas

Sadly, you can’t depend on those strokes of genius that come when you’re doing household chores. They come when they want to come, and they’re terrible about honoring your deadlines.

Clearly, a back-up plan is in order. Where can you go to get non-fiction ideas? Well, the answer does somewhat depend on what you’re actually writing, but this list should give you some places to start your search.


Probably the most obvious place to look for ideas for writing non-fiction is in books on the subject. Just not the way you’re thinking. While I’m all for reading as much as you can on any topic you intend to write about, when you’re looking for ideas, you may not have time to read the whole book. You also don’t want to directly copy the ideas of the author.

However, you can take a look at what categories the author covers in the handy-dandy list provided to you: the Table of Contents (ToC). Odds are, if something got a whole chapter or section of its own, it’s something your audience will be interested in.

Libraries and bookstores are great for browsing the ToCs of a variety of books on your subject.

Another source of ToCs that’s a little closer to home is online bookstores. Both Amazon and Barnes&Noble have the ability to preview many of their books just by clicking on them. Amazon calls their preview “Look Inside” and makes it pretty obvious that you can click and, well, look inside. B&N isn’t as straightforward. If you hover over the picture of the book on the order page, a button will display that says “Open This Book”. Click on that to see a sample of the book with a ToC.

Tip:  While you’re at Amazon or B&N, take time to browse the reviews of some books in your topic area. Look in particular for ideas the customers wanted in the books and didn’t find.


Find forums on your topic. An easy way to do this is to Google “topic forum” (ex: “weight loss forum”). Browse through the threads, looking for those threads that have a lot of comments, question threads, and “help, I can’t figure out X” threads. Again, you’re not trying to copy the information you find in the forums, just look for ideas for your own writing. (And really, if you do find information you want to include, for the love of Pete, research it and make sure it’s accurate. Not everything posted on the Internet is accurate. Except that statement.)


Find popular blogs on your topic (Google “topic blog” as a starting point). Look for popular/heavily commented posts. If the blog is giving away or selling a report, book, etc., take note of the topic covered. Skim comments and see if anyone has questions or mentions a problem that sparks an idea for you.

Tip: If it’s offered, subscribe to blogs you like using their RSS feed. Include industry blogs if you find any. You can keep track of relevant news, trends, etc. without having to check out each blog separately.

(If you don’t know what RSS is, this article at Problogger explains it pretty well. It’s a dated article, though; it mentions Google Reader, which doesn’t exist anymore. However, here’s a  list of alternatives. I use Feedly myself.)

Google News

Or Yahoo News, Bing News, whatever. The point is, most search engines let you type in a topic and choose “News” to get (surprise!) News about the topic instead of websites, blogs, etc. The news can be an unending source of idea inspiration.

Tip: Google, at least, gives the option at the bottom of a news page to subscribe to news alerts for that topic. If you subscribe, you’ll get alerts in your email whenever a new news story on that topic comes out.

Putting It Together

As you find ideas, jot them down/type them up/chisel them in. Whatever floats your boat, as they say.

Then go do your own research. You don’t want to regurgitate the information in the sources you used for inspiration. You want to get ideas, then put your own spin on the topic based on your own research and personal knowledge.

Think about the ideas you wrote down when you’re doing mindless tasks. It’s amazing what your brain can do when your hands are busy. Just be sure to write down whatever you come up with.

And last but not least, keep track of any non-fiction ideas you have – but don’t use – when you’re writing. You never know when a discarded notion can become your next gem.

Do you use any of these techniques? Got a good idea-finding tip? Let us know in the comments!

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