The Productive Writer generates idea equity by:
• Paying attention and practicing receptivity.
• Creating effective systems for capturing ideas.
• Storing ideas where they are easy to find and use.
• Saving every scrap of writing from the cutting floor.
• Using writing leftovers as inspiration or source material for new writing.
• Repurposing existing content in strategic ways that save time and build momentum.
It is unrealistic to expect to be seated comfortably at our desk with notebook open and pen poised every time an idea penetrates our force field. But it is realistic to develop fast, efficient systems for capturing the seed of an idea and storing it for later. Kim Stafford calls these little vessels of future writing “acorns.” And so do I.
Here are some possible systems and strategies for being prepared for what comes so you can get it down quickly without disrupting the flow of your life. You may find one system works or that a mix of strategies serves your needs, depending on when inspiration hits.
This old-school tool is one of my favorites because it’s easy to use and I am comforted by seeing my ideas in my own handwriting. I stash index cards where I sleep, work, eat, and travel. So any time I have an idea, there’s a fast and easy way to write it down.
Voice recorders are faster than writing and becoming rapidly more accessible. Your cell phone is even likely to have one. Just keep in mind that (unless you’re using voice recognition software) there’s a transcription step that involves committing your spoken notes to paper.
For years I did my freewriting in plain, cheap notebooks so I wouldn’t feel pressure to write “important” stuff. These days, I prefer prettier, more substantial journals, but I keep the same deal with myself: Don’t be too precious with ’em. Just let ’er rip. At a workshop a few years ago, Susan G. Wooldridge shared some of her notebooks that had flowers and wrappers and the multi-textured and -colored evidence of her life pasted in among the words. If a notebook appeals to you, the important thing is to make sure you’re comfortable with and likely to write in whatever style or format you choose.
Your cell phone, PDA, and/or computer are all great places to type up a fleeting thought, depending on where you are and which is proximate.
Sticky notes are a useful way to capture something fast and stick it somewhere prominent. Some folks enjoy digital sticky notes, but I find that they get buried behind what I am working on.
If positioned proximate to your moments of genius, whiteboards can be a great temporary home for a fleeting idea.
In-Box (and Then a Final Landing Place)
Toss whatever acorns you’ve collected on loose paper or small media in your in-box. Transcribe ’em into a computer document or notebook when you need a break, or store them in a special acorn receptacle, such as a box, drawer, or paper file folder, to keep your bounty safe.
I have a single computer document titled “Acorns,” where I type all ideas that need to land somewhere. I always type my most recent idea at the top of the document.
DARLINGS: RESCUES FROM THE CUTTING FLOOR
Darlings is a term I’ve been using for so long that I don’t remember its inception. I use it for both my business writing and my creative writing. If a word or line or stanza that I’m attached to in a poem just doesn’t belong in this particular poem, it gets cataloged in my darlings file. Much like the acorn file, darlings has a record of every rescue from the creative cutting floor I’ve made in recent years. Often I’ll grab a line from here to start a new poem, or even pluck a stanza into something in the works to see what happens next.
With my business writing, the darlings document tends to be per project. If I am writing a website, for example, and I cut out two paragraphs, I save them in that client’s darlings file. Often, a chunk of language that didn’t belong in one facet of a given project can find its home in some other expression—either on another page of the website or in a brochure or e-mail or press release.
Darlings have liberated me to be a far more swift and spontaneous editor. I can take action without second-guessing myself too much, because nothing is ever really lost; it’s just relocated to the darlings file, where I can always grab it again if I need it.
The main idea here is don’t let good thinking (encapsulated in good writing) go to waste. Know where it is and how to find it so you have your arsenal of extras on hand when you need them.
BORN AGAIN: BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO OLD WRITING
The beauty of having a writing platform is that it creates a context of big-picture coherence to what you are doing. One piece of writing at a time, over a period of years, you are writing yourself toward a comprehensive, integrated, and multifaceted tome of information on a topic that you are passionate about. Through this process, one piece of writing becomes a foothold for the next, until you approach vistas you never before imagined possible.
Instead of starting from scratch each time you pitch an article, workshop, or class, you can build on the wealth of information you’ve already researched and written, while finding a new dimension to explore or a new audience to educate.
BUILD ON SUCCESS: REPEAT AND REFINE WHAT WORKS
When you do something that works in your writing life, do it again. In fact, make a point of seeking out opportunities to repeat and build on successes so you can use the momentum to fuel continued success. Whether it’s a promotional strategy, a procrastination buster, a revision technique, or a craft insight, if it worked, use it whenever you can.
Templates Are a Writer’s Best Friend
The more you can easily copy, paste, and modify something that served you well once, the more efficient and effective you will be. For example, I use templates to quickly create things like invoices, bids, contracts, press releases, queries, cover letters—anything I routinely use in the course of my writing life.
This is an easy system to establish and maintain. Simply create a “template” folder that’s accessible in your computer and add templates to it as you go. Every time you need to create something new, reference your templates to see if you have a starting point to work with. Over time, you will likely have more targeted versions of these templates that you can organize by type of project, client, industry, publication, region, year, or whatever makes sense to most easily find what you need, when you need it.