How to come up with good ideas?

While creative writing demands an imaginative mind, free of any burdens or preconceived ideas, the same is not true in academic writing. To have an ‘idea’ in this context can mean a few things:

  1. It could mean challenging a preconceived idea or theory
  2. An idea can be the discovery of a question, where didn’t seem to be one
  3. An idea can account for the dissonance of something, when something doesn’t fit well, together
  4. An idea can answer a question, explaining something that needs to be explained

(Rossenwasser, Stephen; 2003, p.17)

So, when Newton said that he saw further than others, only by standing on the shoulders of giants, he meant that his ideas were reformulations and rearticulations of others’ ideas. In as much as Newton was original, he was also someone who improved on and adapted others’ ideas.

So, depending on your field of study or research, a ‘good idea’ can be quite banal or exciting. I say banal because it need not be ‘ground-breaking’ in that it challenges all conventional ideas and positions you as a ‘genius.’ It can be a simple idea that may question an existing assumption, for instance.

Using an idea from my own field of research, philanthropic studies – a good idea, formulated as a research question, could be the following: What are the motivating factors for people to give money to nonprofit organizations? A related sub question can be : how is technology impacting people’s philanthropic behavior. Note, however, that this seemingly simple question has been researched extensively already. So, my own contribution to this can be either in a specific demographic – Asian Americans, Afro-Americans or others. Or it can be over a limited period of time – between 2000-2016.

As Rosenwasser and Stephen point out, any good idea will analyze existing information. In addition, one must also aim to ‘notice more’ than just what meets the eyes. And finally, there is a genuine need to go beyond dichotomies of good, bad; easy, hard. One must also challenge one’s assumptions about things that one knows. All of this is part of analytical reasoning and thinking through an idea.

After you read this, try this exercise: Pick a topic that you are familiar with. List all the key points you know about it and some research questions that come to your mind, based on that. Now, try to recast one of the research questions that piques you, and write a research question that brings out a ‘good idea.’

What is it? Share it with your colleague/ someone you know and see if you passed this test, of going beyond just seeing the obvious.

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