A Technique for Getting Ideas

By James Webb Young

Prefatory Note
How It Started
The Formula Of Experience
The Pareto Theory
Combining Old Elements
Ideas Are New Combinations
The Mental Digestive Process
"Constantly Thinking About It"
The Final Stage
Some After-Thoughts


Let me express my gratification at the number of letters which have come to me from readers of the previous editions. The most gratifying ones have been from people who say the darn thing actually worksthat they have followed the prescription and gotten results. Many have been from other creative people, in advertising and out-including one poet-who say I have described their own experience. This supporting evidence will, I hope, encourage the beginner. A few correspondents have been good enough to send me references to other literature in which they have run across discussions of this subject. This has helped expand my own knowledge of it. From my own further experience in advertising I can find no essential points which I would modify in the idea-producing-process: There is One, however, on which I would put greater emphasis. This is as to the store of general materials in the writers reservoir. I shall beg leave to illustrate this by it personal reference. Some years ago I established my home in New Mexico, and have been living there part of each year since. As a result I got interested in a whole new range of subjects, including Indian life, our Spanish history, native handicrafts, folkways of primitive peoples, etc. Out of this grew some ideas about the possibilities of marketing some of the products of that region by mail. I started with one of them-hand-woven neckties-wrote some advertisements about them, and copy-tested them. The result is a very tidy and interesting little business. The point is this: not only did the idea for starting the business come out of a general knowledge of the Southwest and its people, but all of the particular ideas for individual advertisements come from this source. If I had never gotten interested in Indian lore, Spanish-American history, the Spanish language, the handicraft philosophy, and so on, for their own sake, I would have none of the reservoir of material which I believe makes this advertising effective. I have seen the truth of this principle a thousand times in practice. There are some advertisement you just can’t write until you have lived long enough – until, say, you have lived through certain experiences as a spouse, a parent, a business man, or what not. The cycle of the years does something to fill your reservoir, unless you refuse to live emotionally. But you can also enormously expand your experience, vicariously. I is like the author of Sand Harbor, I believe, who had never been to South America, yet wrote a corking good adventure book about it. I am convinced, however that you gather vicarious experience best, not when you are honing up on it for an immediate purpose, but when you are pursuing it as an end in itself. Of course, if you consider that your education was finished when you left college, and wouldn't be caught dead with a copy of, say, one of Jane Austen's novels under your pillow, go no farther. In that case you will probably never know how the landed gentry of early nineteenth century England scorned people "in trade," nor have any ideas about why the Hudson Valley Squire strain in this country does the same. And that just possibly, some day, might keep you from producing a really effective series of "snob appeal" advertisements for the "carriage trade." Of course, this is a disappearing race, so maybe it doesn't matter. But the principle of constantly expanding your experience, both personally and vicariously, does matter tremendously in any idea-producing job. Make no mistake about it. Another point I might elaborate on a little is about words. We tend to forget that words are, themselves, ideas. They might be called ideas in a state of suspended animation. When the words are mastered the ideas tend to come alive again. Take the rather recent work “semantics” for example. The chances are you will never use it is an advertisement. But if you have it in your vocabulary you will have a number of symbols which will be of very practical value indeed. Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary but couldn’t get the hang of the story, simply missed the point that it is a collection of short stories.