Many people say they need a good idea before they can sit down to write their book. But rather than trying to pick one good idea, generating multiple ideas that you can iterate, test, and work on is much more helpful.
You could test them by writing short stories, blog posts, articles, or even creating other types of content.
Then you can use all of this real-world information to decide if it's something that your ideal audience is interested in and if it's also something that you want to write about at length.
This week, I caught up with a creativity expert. Her name is Robin Landa. She is the author of The New Art of Ideas. She's also a distinguished professor who has written and lectured on creativity for years.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Robin: No matter which idea generation method you use, you need to know your subject matter. The more you know, the better because you can start really making connections.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: The best way to come up with a good idea for your book is to generate lots of them. Then you can weed through them all and pick one that works.
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. A lot of people say that they need a good idea before they can sit down to write their book. But rather than trying to pick one good idea, it's a lot more helpful if you just generate lots and lots of little ideas that you can iterate, test, and work on. You can test them by writing short stories, or by writing blog posts, or articles, or even creating other types of content. Then you can use all of this real-world information to decide if it's something that your ideal audience is interested in, and if it's also something that you want to write about at length.
This week, I caught up with a creativity expert. Her name is Robin Landa. She is the author of The New Art of Ideas. She's also a distinguished professor who has written and lectured on the topic of creativity for years. In this week's interview, I was particularly intrigued to hear about the Three G Method, which will help you come up with ideas for your book or for your creative projects. Now, Robin also has experienced mentoring aspiring non-fiction writers around the United States. She has some practical advice if you're considering embarking on a non-fiction writing career, or perhaps you want to start a blog or write your first non-fiction book. She also talks about her specific writing routine. And I was fascinated to hear about this, because she's quite prolific and manages to balance her writing with a busy academic life.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Robin. Her new book is called The New Art of ideas. And if you want to read my book on creativity, that's called The Power of Creativity. Both are available on Amazon. If you do enjoy this week's interview with Robin, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store because your reviews and ratings will help more people find the podcast. If you know another writer or another creator who would find this week's interview interesting, please do share the show on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you're listening because your shares and your reviews really do help.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Robin.
Robin: Thank you so much, Bryan. I'm thrilled to chat with you today.
Bryan: You've had quite a prestigious creative career. You've written multiple books on branding and creativity, as well as your work as an academic. Could you give the listeners a flavor about your work and about who you are?
Robin: Sure. As you said, I'm a distinguished professor at Kean University, which is a public university in New Jersey, in the USA. My expertise is in the creative side of advertising, branding, graphic design. I also write about idea generation, which is really I'm fascinated by. Because I have to teach my university students to generate ideas daily. They'd go into creative professions where that's required of them.
Bryan: These are students who are going to work in corporate advertising and branding?
Robin: Exactly, yeah, and on the creative side. And so, not only do they have to come up with an idea, they have to come up with many ideas to present to their creative directors and to clients.
Bryan: I feel like a lot of that type of work today will be informed by data and analytics. Is that right to say?
Robin: Yes, absolutely. Oh, yeah, you need to research. You need the data. But you still need to be able to generate worthwhile ideas, creative ideas that will resonate with your audience.
Bryan: So, when I'm talking to new writers, sometimes they say, "I have lots of ideas, but I don't really have a good idea for my book." What would you say to them?
Robin: Well, I would say that, first, you want to have a goal of what you want to write about. Then you want to really do some research. Research is, no matter which idea generation method you use, you need to know your subject matter. The more you know, the better because you can start really making connections.
I read what you wrote Brian, about letting it incubate and sit with it for a while. And so, you want to really examine what you know, how you can make connections, how you can offer a twist. Creativity is a twist on existing things. Innovation is something new. And so, I can explain the method that I use with my students to help them generate ideas, if you like.
Bryan: Oh, please do it. I'd love to hear it.
Robin: So, it's called the Three Gs, the first new method since the mid-20th century. The Three Gs are: goal, gap, and gain. The goal, as I said, is what you want to achieve. A lot of people think that the goal is the idea, but it's the goal.
The gap is what's really fascinating. That's where you're looking for something that's missing that you can fill. Is there an underserved audience, an audience who's ignored? Is there a way to address the world's endemic crises like hunger and lack of housing? Is there something that you can merge in your field with another field? Is there a crack in the research? Is there a crack in literature? Is there a subject that nobody is writing about or talking about? So, that's the gap.
Then the gain is, how will what you want to address benefit people or society, individuals, creatures, or the planet? Because I believe that we're at an inflection point that we really have to think about the impact we have on others and on the planet.
Bryan: So, when somebody's thinking through the Three G Method, are they talking through these ideas with other people in their group, or are they journaling about it? Is it a similar approach that they would take?
Robin: All of the above. It really depends on you and what you prefer to do. I think speaking to somebody who's in your field is helpful, although you want to be careful about sharing ideas. Because sometimes people steal ideas. So, if it's a really extraordinary thought, you may want to have somebody agree to not disclose it to anyone else, and even sign a non-disclosure agreement. It could be used in a session, in a group. I always think of it as more of somebody who is writing it down and figuring it out, and then thinking about it as they go.
Bryan: It's interesting that you say about people stealing ideas. Some of the books I've read about creativity, they talked about how there's no such thing as a completely new idea. It's just all ideas told in different ways.
Robin: Except that there are new ideas.
Bryan: Okay. Go ahead.
Robin: Yeah. Well, there are new inventions, right? There are things that didn't exist before that exists now. Whether it's ChatGPT, whatever it's called, AI, there are new models of things. So, if you think about something like Khan Academy, it didn't exist before Sal Khan created it. Tutoring existed, but the way that he created it didn't exist before. Luis von Ahn created CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA. That didn't exist before. So, there are new things.
Bryan: Perhaps, it's the execution on the idea that would hold commercial value or that should be trademarked or protected?
Bryan: So, the students who take your courses, do you find that they sometimes have emotional obstacles that they need to overcome when it comes to creativity?
Robin: Oh, absolutely. I think that even my students who are innately creative — because they're attracted to being in design or in a creative profession — still engage in negative self-talk, where they say, "Oh, I'm not really creative." I think that's part of a personality trait. They can just feel that they're blocked, and they're not thinking of anything at the moment. I think people have to really get over that and not engage in negative self-talk. It's not productive to say, "I'm not creative." That doesn't do any good for you.
Whereas engaging in behaviors that enhance your creativity will help. For example, being a mindful listener like you are, Brian. You have to be a mindful listener because you're engaging in the podcast conversation. Listening carefully for something that you might learn, listen to learn, being a mindful observer, watching people's behaviors — all of that enhances creativity.
Bryan: I was interested in what you said about, "I'm not creative. I don't feel like I'm a creative person." That's something a lot of new writers might say. "I'll have a book. I'm not creative enough to write it yet." So, how can somebody get over that kind of limiting belief?
Robin: I think you just have to — well, there are different ways to do it. But one way is just to tell yourself that negative self-talk is really truly not productive. It won't get you where you want to go. And just eliminate that. Or try to think of things that you've done that have been creative, whether it's the way you threw a party or the way you wrapped a package. It doesn't have to be a big creative act. It can be a small creative act. But all of us can be creative. We were, as children, really investigated and looked and asked wonderful questions like, "What if I did this or what if I did that?" And so, it's really much better to think of ways that will enhance your creativity rather than shut it down.
Bryan: Are there any specific habits or routines that you found that can help people with the creative process or that you'd recommend to your students?
Robin: One of my favorite ways to enhance your creativity is to ask what if. Neil Gaiman, the great sci-fi writer, and writer in general, has a blog. I urge you all to go take a look. He went to speak to a class of children. They said, "Where do you get your ideas?" He hesitated to answer it first. Then he thought, "Well, I'd better answer these children." He said, "I used the what if question."
And if you really look at a lot of science fiction, you can see reverse engineer, how they're posing what if we could time travel? What if we could clone ourselves? What if we could create a second brain? So, this what if question is a wonderful question. And if you have a family, you can even sit around the dinner table and go around and say, what if?
Bryan: Is that a similar problem-solving technique that entrepreneurs use, asking the five Whys, to get to the root of a problem?
Bryan: When you're working with your students, is there anything that you recommend they do in terms of having an idea, but then figuring out if it's what people actually want?
Robin: I think what I do is, we talk about finding insights into the audience. So, you have to know who your audience is. Whether it's an advertising campaign, or you're writing a novel, who would you expect is going to read this? What interests them? What would benefit them? What do they find compelling? What would resonate with them? And so, I always encourage students to observe behavior and do some social listening, which is really easy to do. And it's free. It's free research. You go on Twitter or Instagram and hashtag certain words, and see what people are saying.
Bryan: How does somebody balance consuming a lot of information on Twitter, and then you just end up going on a social media rabbit hole or doom scrolling versus actually turning that research into something that you're going to create?
Robin: Well, you want to limit yourself, right? I mean, we all are very attracted to social media. We'd be on there for hours. I think some people actually set a time limit for themselves or will have it switched off. There are probably apps that do that for you. But if you have this one task that you're going to do, limit it to that.
Bryan: Yeah, I use an app called Freedom. It restricts access to Twitter and social media on my phone at certain times during the day. There's an app called RescueTime, which is quite good. Because you can use it to track what you're looking at while you're on your desktop. It's a good toggle for managing distractions.
I was also interested about how you teach your students about tapping into different disciplines. So, when somebody has had a few years of experience in one discipline — let's say, psychology, for example — how could you encourage them to look outside of their discipline and bring those insights back into their work?
Robin: I think that's crucial. I always tell them to read. You don't have to necessarily read heavy stuff to learn about something else. But you can read the biography of someone, or you can read magazines that address many issues. There are general magazines where you can read good reporting, or reading a newspaper like the New York Times is really important. Go to museums that you normally wouldn't go to. Let somebody else take you there. Let somebody else recommend a great film or actually even a prestige television show.
You think about somebody like Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote Hamilton. After he had created In the Heights and it was running off Broadway for many years, it was about to go to Broadway, he needed a vacation. Rather than pick up a light beach read, he picked up the biography of Alexander Hamilton. If he had not been curious about early American history, we wouldn't have one of the greatest musicals of all time. Plus, he actually altered musical theater by how he did it.
Bryan: Yeah, that's not an easy read for a holiday. But yeah.
Bryan: I'm also interested just to go back to the gap method again. So, there's always a bit of tension between creative work and then actually setting a goal if you think something from the business world. What does a good goal look like for a creative, or would you have any examples that you could give?
Robin: Well, I think a goal could be that you either want to make a statement, that you have an insight into life or into a behavior, or into society, or into business that you want to share with people. And so, that could be your goal. Or you're following a passion, something that you are really interested in. Let's say, it's fashion for people over 50 years old. I mean, that could be a goal that you want to share information about that, or you want to use that as a point of departure.
A goal can — you can enter an idea, forming an idea, in any way in my method. It doesn't have to start with a goal. It could start with a gap that you've noticed, or it could start with a gain. You want children to understand their emotions. So, that would be a gain, right? Then you work that way.
Bryan: Did it take you long to write your new book? Are these ideas and principles that you've been working on in your academic work?
Robin: The EAST framework, the Three Gs framework, I've been working on for many years with my students. I realized that students were finding existing methods — the five-step method from Graham Wallas and James Webb Young — in brainstorming frustrating. Because it requires that you have this aha moment. That's very hard to find, that aha moment. And so, I codified that after many years of teaching. But the actual writing of the book fell out of my head. That was not so hard, although finding case studies took a lot of time, to write case studies.
Bryan: Yeah, I mean, you have lots of experience as an academic writing papers and other books. So, for non-fiction writers or newer, could you give some tips for research and organizing ideas?
Robin: Yes, I mentor faculty around the country about how to write a non-fiction book. One of the best things to do is, once you have your table of contents — that is something you should start with after you write a short description of the book or a pitch, if you're going to pitch it to an editor. But once you have your table of contents, under each chapter, write five takeaways that the reader should be able to learn from each chapter. That really helps you clarify what you want that chapter to be about and the content. That has helped people tremendously.
Bryan: And the five takeaways, are they like an outline in a way that would then go on to form the wider, bigger chapter?
Robin: Exactly. However, as a professor, I know how to write this in terms of outcomes. And so, it's really important for you to couch it in terms of what will the reader learn from this, what are the learning outcomes? Those are the takeaways.
Bryan: Yeah, good non-fiction, unless it's literary non-fiction, should really offer something practical that the reader can take away, something informative, or something that helps them overcome a problem of some sort. One way to do that is, of course, through research and reading widely. So, are there any tips or advice that you offer new non-fiction writers for organizing their research?
Robin: That, I think, is so personal. But a lot of people — a colleague of mine who I co-run a fellowship with, she uses a rather old school method of handwriting her notes on a yellow pad, so that she knows exactly where she got her research. The reason she handwrites it is so that she can't inadvertently copy something. Whereas if you could do that, if you're copying and pasting or typing it, you might not remember where you got it from.
It's very important for you to keep a running citation list or bibliography, just so you know where you're getting your material from. I mean, I've often been too quick myself. I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, where did I get that from?" Then I have to go backwards and search. And so, you really want to be meticulous about your research and keeping a running record of it.
Bryan: I use something called Zettelkasten or a slip box. It basically involves taking notes like you've described, then interlinking them and then citing sources. But the software, you can use as well. Non-fiction writers, particularly new ones, often don't have a good writing routine. So, considering you've written a lot of books and papers, what does your routine look like?
Robin: Most people find it hard to believe, but I write almost every day unless it's a day where I'm teaching all day long. And so, I will write any moment that I have time. I usually get up early and start writing. I even write while I'm on the elliptical machine. I put my laptop over there anyway.
Bryan: Oh, really? Your laptop was on the controllers?
Robin: Yes, and I really actually find that that's very productive for me, because the endorphins are really flowing as I'm exercising. Then I'll go back and refine that. But I write for long periods of time because I really like the endorphin high of concentrating and the flow. I really love writing. And so, it's not a chore for me. I look forward to it.
Bryan: How do you test your ideas? How would you figure out your next book is going to be one that people want to read, or that's going to help you with the message that you want to spread?
Robin: I do look for that gap. I use my method myself, and I try to see what has not yet been written about. Is there a way that I can write it so that it addresses a somewhat underserved audience or an ignored audience? For example, right now, I'm writing about careers for young professionals. Most career books are just about careers for anybody entering at any point, but I'm really focusing on people who are just starting out. So, it really depends on the publisher, who I want to address, who my audience is. So, right now, I'm thinking about more trade on answers and general audiences, whereas I used to focus on designers and art directors and copywriters.
Bryan: Yeah, copywriting is interesting because it's one part scientific. You're looking at the data and what people are opening and what they're doing with the sales copy or copyrighted materials. But it's also a little bit creative, because you have to have a good hook and something that can captures people's attention.
Robin: Absolutely. People aren't going to give you more than a couple of seconds if it doesn't interest them. It either has to capture them with words or with images or with both. So, you want to grab attention right away.
Bryan: Have you used ChatGPT much lately?
Robin: I have not. My husband, who is a physician, has been playing with it quite a bit to test it and to see how accurate it is. He says it's not accurate in terms of his specialty, which is endocrinology. But I do think that it's really a great stepping stone to the next level, where people will be able to use it to do their research. I think, right now, it's an accumulation of all the information that they're putting in. It's not a creative element yet.
Bryan: Yeah, I spent the past few weeks using it. I would have a similar takeaway. It's great for summarizing or for writing outcomes for a chapter, like you described there a few moments ago, Robin. But if it's something technical, something that an endocrinologist would write about, it will produce something quite confident or with competence, but it's often completely incorrect. But it's really an impressive technology. I think it's going to change how people approach their research and approach their ideas. It's quite good for things like creating citations and so on, too, and for summarizing longer papers into shorter ones. A lot of academics are worried that newer students are going to start using it to write their essays.
Robin: Yes, there was a Princeton University student on CNN last night, on Anderson Cooper's show, who's created a new software to test that, to see how much of it has been taken from AI. It's really interesting. I guess anybody can search that on CNN and look him up. He's a prodigy, just a brilliant, young man who will help all these teachers and faculty figure out what's been taken and what is original.
Bryan: As somebody who's been working in the field for a few years, do you think the way content online has evolved and the way the Internet has changed, how we consume information, that creativity is becoming less important as algorithms? It changed how we consume and create content?
To give you an example, a couple of years ago, you could write a blog post for your site. They would probably just appear in Google search results. It could be just about your thoughts on something. Whereas now you have to have the posts organized and written in a certain way. It has to contain specific ideas for it to stand the chance of ranking. So, a lot of online writers would say the Google search algorithm has taken some of the creativity out of writing online, because you have to cover certain things in the article, or it's just not going to stand a chance of appearing in Google search results.
Robin: Yeah, I think you need to have keywords. I was just figuring out, determining the title of my new book. My editor said, "Well, we need more keywords in there." And so that's kind of—
Bryan: The subtitle, yeah.
Robin: Yeah, the subtitle. So, that changed it and made this really long subtext. So, you're right. It really does change things. I still think that the content can be creative. It's just you have to address exactly what you just said.
Bryan: When you're trying to keep up with the latest that's happening in the field of creativity, do you default to academic papers, or do you look to other disciplines?
Robin: I really look to great filmmakers and great writers. Not so much academics. I read a little bit, but I mostly reverse engineer. I really love to read a great writer, or watch a great film, or go look at great art and try to figure out by reverse engineering it what they were thinking.
Bryan: Yeah, I love to read about the processes behind writers and creatives. One example is that Jerry Seinfeld published a book about his process for coming up with jokes, which was fascinating.
Robin: Yeah, exactly. Those are the kind of things. Obviously, I referenced Neil Gaiman. I read his blog. As you said, I really like to understand how these people think.
Bryan: When it comes to your students who you're mentoring to write non-fiction, at any point, do you talk to them about branding and positioning for the book? Because a lot of writers don't want to hear about that.
Robin: Yes, you can't think of it as, "I will write it, and they will come." You have to—
Bryan: It doesn't work.
Robin: It doesn't work, unless you are already a great — if you're Stephen King, well, if you write it, they will come. But if you're new or relatively new, think about all the thousands and thousands, maybe millions of books that are available, you have to market it. Having a marketing plan, I've learned the hard way, is crucial. You have to really be very specific about what you plan to do, because the publisher is not going to do much.
Bryan: Yeah, I find the same. It's quite helpful if you know who you're going to talk to about your book, or what activities you're going to engage in. For example, paid advertising, and so on. Do you plan to write a follow on?
Robin: A follow up to the—
Bryan: A new book. It seems like you write a book every year or almost every year.
Robin: Yes, I'm working on two right now. I'm just about to finish a book that I'm co-authoring, which I don't do very often, with Greg Braun, who's an executive in creative advertising. We're writing about advertising that's share-worthy for Columbia University Press. On myself, I'm working on a book about careers for young professionals for Rutland. I really always like to have something. I have to keep writing. I love it. It calms me down. It keeps me level.
Bryan: Yeah, even when you're on the elliptical.
Robin: Even on the elliptical, right.
Bryan: Yeah, I was on a turbo trainer last night. It's like a bike setup in the kitchen. I was thinking I could write here because I could put my laptop on the—
Bryan: —on the bars.
Robin: That's right.
Bryan: I haven't tried it though.
Robin: Actually, I think it's great, because you're already feeling good from exercising.
Bryan: Yeah, there is a scientific link between exercising and creativity. I wrote a book about it a few years ago. But like you said earlier on, Robin, you can get your endorphins flowing. It can help when you feel blocked.
Robin: Absolutely. Taking a walk is very helpful. Walking and talking is even more helpful.
Bryan: Yeah, sometimes when I'm stuck writing an article, I'll go for a long walk. But I'll bring my phone with me. I'll bring Apple Air Pods, and I'll dictate an outline of the article into my phone. That can be better than looking at a computer screen, I find.
Robin: I'm very impressed that you write for Forbes. That's terrific.
Bryan: Thanks. It was a few years ago now. Thanks. So, Robin, where can people go if they want to read your book or learn more about your work?
Robin: My website, robinlanda.com and my books are available at every bookseller. I donate quite a bit of my royalties to student scholarships and to charities.
Bryan: I'll put some links in the show notes. It was great to talk to you today.
Robin: Thank you, Bryan. Same here.
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