The Writing Walk: How to Get More Story Ideas Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Write

Joseph Serwach

“How do you get your writing ideas?” Start with an old fashioned walk Photo by Kriss MacDonald on Unsplash

I was 18, facing the former editor of America’s first nationwide general-interest newspaper. So I had to ask him: “How do you get story ideas?”

Today, I never worry about writing ideas (I have more ideas than I will ever have time to write). These lessons also help you prioritize what to write first and when to write it.

First step: Get up, lower your phone — and go for a walk

The late Bill Giles was editor of The National Observer (a 1962–77 national interest newspaper that was a forerunner to USA Today). He guided The Detroit News to a Pulitzer and was teaching journalism at Michigan State University when I met him.

He smiled at my question (one he must have heard 1,000 times) and told me the secret:

“Story ideas are all around you. You need to go for a walk, and you’ll start seeing stories.”

Whenever you walk or drive, be in “story mode,” asking yourself if it’s something interesting, Giles said. If it’s interesting to you, chances are you can make that into a story interesting to someone else.

Stanford University researchers found walking improves overall creativity in four different experiments. They found 81 percent of participants produced more creative ideas after walking than they did while sitting.

“I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me,” Stanford researcher Marily Oppezzo found.

The “walking boost” doesn’t mean you need one of those elaborate standing desks.

Oppezzo explained, “This isn’t to say that every task at work should be done while simultaneously walking, but those that require a fresh perspective or new ideas would benefit from it.”

History backing up the “go for a walk” strategy? Great writers famous for going on long walks to help their writing included Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, and William Wordsworth — who advised: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

Wordsworth also wrote of “wandering lonely as a cloud.” Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was known for his “walking meetings,” while Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg likes to have meetings while standing,

And while you’re walking: Turn off your phone or at least put it in your pocket.

“If you seek creative ideas go walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.” ― Raymond I. Myers, quoted in Born to Walk.

Writing secret: You’re writing even when you aren’t at a keyboard

The trick: Remember you’re always writing, even when you’re not typing or using a pen. All-day, every day (even when you’re sleeping), you’re doing one of the two key parts of writing: gathering information or translating information into written words.

Going for a walk is like writing a to-do list: it sorts scattered thoughts into a more recognizable order, the makings of a beautiful story. When your keyboard isn’t helping you write, get up and walk away. Look at something else: like the real world around you.

Second secret: When you’re goofing around? You’re still writing

Five years after meeting Giles, Rich Aregood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Daily News, took the “writer’s walk” lesson even further.

When you’re stuck, and you get up from your desk and walk downstairs to a Coke machine and stand there drinking your cola, you aren’t actually “goofing off,” Aregood said.

What you are actually doing as you stand there drinking that Coke, laughing with your friends, is writing. Walking away from the keyboard is simply another way to “write in your mind,” part of the writer’s process to sort out your thoughts and words.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”― Friedrich Nietzsche.

Going through a hard time? That’s the best time to walk

Five years after learning from Aregood and 10 years after my lesson from Giles, I was 28. My life felt like a mess. All that really worked really well was writing, so I called Marty the dog and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

We walked for miles and miles, as far east as Lake St. Clair. Because I couldn’t walk on water, we turned and walked as far west as Interstate-94. And because I didn’t want to fall into a highway, we turned and walked back home.

At the end of that long walk, all sorts of frustrating and confusing emotions were sorted into better, perfect order. Over the next 28 years, I’d own four different dogs (Marty, Jake, Morgan, and Ace). All loved the walks.

And every time we walked, the writing ideas flew through me…

How to walk and get more writing ideas than you’ll ever need

  1. Get out and get away from the distractions. Whenever I walk the dog, we have an agreement: the dog sticks out his tongue and enjoys himself, but we both stay fairly quiet so we can hear and notice more.
  2. Psychology experts call this listening to your conscience. More religious believers call it listening to the Spirit. As I think about things (without distractions), the writing ideas start to come, one sentence or thought at a time. I stop, pull out my phone, and write a good idea onto my notes app. The same technique works after getting an idea in the shower or after sleeping.
  3. A headline is half of any story. So if a good headline idea comes, you need to test it. If it’s a bad headline, no one will read it, while a great headline is everything. When I’m back home, sometimes while watching TV, I go through my notes and type headline ideas into my “go-to” headline analyzer, “
  4. If a headline offers a “yellow” average score of 70 or less, I think, “Well, maybe that isn’t that great of an idea.” If it’s in the “green zone” of 71 or higher, I write it into my writing program. I have about 76 potential “headlines” started in my drafts folder.
  5. The higher the score a headline gets, the more likely I am to write it quickly. Last week, I stumbled onto a headline that scored a perfect 100, so I quickly wrote, “The Last Great Idol: How a Whole Generation Became Mesmerized by Farrah Fawcett and Her Angelic Look.

Yes, I know that the last headline seems pretty long (100 characters), but it scored 100, and there’s a final lesson: Don’t argue with anyone who likes your writing. Just go with it.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” ― John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir.

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