How to Transform Words Into Writing Inspiration

writing ideas

Words and writing ideas

I recently flipped through my copy of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, and after just a couple of chapters, my imagination was on fire.

I’m always looking for new ways to inspire writing ideas, and lately I’ve been thinking that we should talk more about a writer’s most basic building blocks: words. So using words as a way to come up with writing ideas sounded ideal to me.

In Poemcrazy, Wooldridge talks about collecting words. She captures words, stores them, and then stashes them in all kinds of interesting places where they might come in handy.

As I read about how this brilliant poet gathers words so she can use them to jump-start her creative writing, I saw how the idea could apply to any kind of writer, not just a poet. I also saw how physically collecting words could be exhilarating.

After all, words are the key ingredients to every concoction that we writers cook up. Some writers view words as means to an end — they’re the raw materials and nothing more. Then there are those writers who appreciate a wonderful word, writers who pause when they come across a word that’s compelling in its own right, a word that moves or grooves even if it’s just sitting there all by itself.

Chasing and Capturing Words

As Woodridge says, we can borrow, trade, steal, even invent words for our own pleasure. To find words, you have to pay attention. You’ll discover them in your environment (around the house or when you’re out and about), in conversations, in your reading material, on TV, and in the songs you listen to. They are the labels we use for ordinary objects, extraordinary moments, and anything unusual.

I plucked eviscerate from a favorite R.E.M. song. Arbitrary came from a television show. Humma humma — something my mom used to say when I was a kid (it means “ho hum” or “that’s hot,” depending on the inflection). Wooldridge’s favorite method is to take walks and grab words from nature or from field guides. She notes, “My friend Tom’s Ford pickup repair manual is chock full of great words: luminosity probe, diesel throttle, control tool, acceleration pump link, swivel, internal vent valve, choke hinge pin…”

Once you attune yourself to all the words you come into contact with every day, you need a place to stash the ones that speak to you. Jot them down in your journal, on index cards, or sticky notes. Use postcards, gift tags, or scrap paper. Lots of these are easy to tote around (a friend of Wooldridge’s always tucks a few index cards in her back pocket). Be sure to carry a pen.

Tip: You don’t always have to write your words down. If you find words in a magazine or newspaper, just cut them out and then you can tape them to your journal, note cards, or sticky notes.

Storing and Stashing Words

If you’re a word-crazy writer, your word collection will grow rapidly. What are you going to do with all those words? Woodridge keeps a few in her purse, a couple on her desk, some special favorites in a cloth bag. I keep envisioning a big, round glass fishbowl filled with colorful cards, each with a choice word scrawled on it in various colors of ink.

You could keep them in a tin, a basket, a bucket. Toss them into a drawer or slip them into an envelope. Tuck them into your journal.

The idea is to make the process fun. I’ve actually never seen the fun in collecting anything other than books and music, but words are a collectible that I can really get behind.

Using Words for Writing Ideas

The human mind is a funny thing. Ever notice how annoying, unsavory, or unwelcome memories pop into your brain at the most inopportune moments? Or how sometimes, when you sit down to write, you suddenly have absolutely nothing to say. We’ve all experienced the frustrating phenomenon of having a word on the “tip of your tongue.” You know the word, you know what it means. You even have a general sense of how it sounds. But you just can’t remember it!

With your word collection, you’ll have plenty of words at your disposal — words that will inspire a writing session or provide the perfect adjective when that other one that you wanted to use can’t get past the tip of your tongue.

When you’re ready to create, just pull out your collection and start building. Grab a handful of words, put them in an order that interests you, maybe add a few new words to the mix (off the top of your head or from beyond the tip of your tongue), and then make something out of them. It doesn’t have to a be a poem or an essay or a story. It’s a collection of words. Your collection.


For more details about Poemcrazy, check out my full review. In the meantime, get out there, start collecting words, and let them provide you with fresh writing ideas. You’re going to need them!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


24 Responses to “How to Transform Words Into Writing Inspiration”

  1. Kelvin Kao says:

    That sounds like a very interesting idea! What I have done before when I couldn’t come up with anything was IMing several friends to each give me a list of ten random words. I have come up with stories based on those words before. Carrying a collection of words with you… now that’s something I’ve never heard of. (Or rather, that’s something of which I’ve never heard, if you prefer.)

    It sounds like a fun approach for collecting ideas though!
    .-= Kelvin Kao´s last blog ..Hectic Week =-.

    • I have made lists of words but the problem is that I can never find them. I’d have to flip through all my journals and notebooks to find that one word. This is a much better method, in my opinion. I’m planning on starting my word collection by the weekend. Already have my supplies ready to go!

  2. Hannah says:

    I love to collect words and names. If I come across an unusual name, I jot it down and use it in the future.

    I recently collected the longest name I’ve ever seen and will create an extremely large character…a giant to be exact. I can’t wait!

    I’ve gotten some great words over the years but I usually just throw them out when I’m talking to The Man. He then says, “When did you make that up?” hahahaha! He knows how to make-a-me laugh.

    • I have a love-hate relationship with names. When I need a name for one of my projects, I can never find the right one. But if someone else needs a name, I can usually come up with something that works well. So this method of collecting words will be good for names too. Made up words are the best!

  3. Thank you! This was wonderful…I’ve always meant to collect words, but for some reason it is hard to start until you are given specific directions. I think keeping these tips in mind will be very helpful.

    • I feel the same way. I too have collected words but not in this fashion. I have a couple sets of tags from a photo project I did last year and I’m going to start with those. I figure I’ll just put them on my desk and when an intriguing word pops up, I’ll jot it down and then put it in a storage container. The container is the only thing I’m missing, actually. I’m going to try to find a pretty glass jar because the tags I’m using are so colorful.

  4. t.sterling says:

    It’s so reassuringly awesome I’m not the only one who collects words. And it’s no surprise to you that I make words up, but part of the fun of doing that is looking up my made up word to make sure it doesn’t already exist.
    I laughed when you said you pulled a word out of a song because I do that all the time. Sometimes a word just sticks with you and you are inspried by it or feel the need to look it up to get several definitions. The word for me this past week has been “purpose” and I even came up with a six word story for it.
    But since I have way too many sticky notes that I know what to do with, I now have use for them and will start putting words on them. I already collect words on my phone.
    In fact, forgetting a word happened to me the other night. A friend and I were discussing the word that I guess means the same thing as “reference” but when it applies to one story talking about another story in context to the current story. Rather than confuse you, the discussion was about Phil Collins and how Eminem reffered to him in his song “Stan”. However my friend didn’t think the word “reference” was the correct term. We both knew of another word but still we haven’t figured out what it was. I found some nice ones in the process of my search though.

  5. Jenny Juniper says:

    words are all I have to take your heart away… It was a pop song long ago but it’s stayed with me, along with Rilke’s poem about gathering words to make them ‘smile as they step into my song.’
    Though Walter Raleigh warned, Psassions are likened best to floods and streams/The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb./ Those who are rich in words, in words discover/ they are poor in that which makes a lover.
    What do we want most, words or love. or both?

  6. Peter MInj says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Just want to thank you for the poetry prompts. I was finally able to write down a poem after a long time and the inspiration came from one of your posts,the “Love Poetry prompts”.Here is what i came up with:

    She stands still in a trance,
    The leaves fall from the branch;
    Her eyes wander in their search,
    For her perfect match on this earth.

    Her heart has heard the harbinger’s cry,
    She is ready for another try;
    The blood gushes down in her veins
    as her heart beats with a strain .

    His steps sound, soft and slow,
    To her enchanted ears they flow;
    Carried by the blissful breeze,
    Which none of us would want to cease.

    The twilight rays brighten her face,
    One last glance she has that way.
    Through the shadows into the fading light,
    He makes his way to her delight.

    He recognizes her from his countless dreams,
    Her voice he has heard beyond those streams.
    Dazed and dazzled, she falls into his arms,
    The two of them dissolve into a trance.

  7. Yvonne Root says:

    Word collectors unite! Yes, the collecting of words is acknowledged. One of the things I enjoy doing is reading a good old fashioned, hard copy dictionary. The online versions simply don’t compare.

    I’m still in possession of my wonderful magnetic word collection, and love moving them about to create simple or complex sentences and short (terrible) poetry. But, the idea of collecting my own written version of a word collection is . . . well, for lack of a better word, exciting.

    Thanks, Melissa for letting us know about the book and the concept.

    • I have been known to read the dictionary. In fact, I was reading it a couple of years ago, looking for a perfect word (for a name) and I was on the phone with a friend who thought I was crazy. The things we writers will do!

  8. Love this post! I think I’m going to become a word collector 🙂 I’m a novelist, not a poet, but words are still important to me. Thanks for introducing this idea!

  9. What a great way to look at words – as inspiration for writing ideas. I love it. I’m going to share this post on my blog.

    Thanks for the unique way to think of our most important asset – our words.


  10. Suzanne says:

    Very inspiring, thank you!

    I like to read novels or poems with a notebook and pen handy (or my iPhone notes app) and I can jot down other writers’ inspiring words. Rather than copy them exactly into my own writing, I can juggle them around and use with my own. I recently learnt that in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Scarlett got angry and her ‘lips turned pale’. I am always looking for more interesting ways to express emotion instead of saying ‘she felt angry’ or ‘she felt sad’.

    I have also discovered something wonderful about my new Kindle that I did not realise it could do. If I email my work as a Word attachment to my Kindle email, it will appear as a download and I can read and proof read it on the Kindle, marking words, making notes for changes or else just checking for a more useful word in the dictionary that pops up. Brilliant and no paper wasted!


    • I’ve heard a lot of authors talk about proofreading on their Kindles. I haven’t tried that yet. I either proof on my computer screen or I use a printed copy. I will check Kindle for formatting. I definitely try to save paper. In fact I don’t have a printer hooked up at all. I only proof printed copies for longer projects.

  11. Cheryl Wright says:

    I collect words (from books I read) in Field Notes Notebooks – I staple two or three together along the spine and keep it handy while I’m reading.

  12. Bridget-Now Novel (@nownovel) says:

    Fun idea for getting inspired to write. It makes me think of the OuLiPo writing group who would find creative potential out of exercises such as replacing every fourth or fifth word in an existing piece of text with a word that came x number of words after it.