Vintage WD: Trapping the Elusive Idea

To celebrate our 100th anniversary, we’ve selected this article from the very first issue of Writer’s Digest on the still-relevant topic of how to record your ideas.
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Writer's Digest, December 1920

By J.J. Hoffmann

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Ideas come and go at all times and to all persons. They call upon us while we work; while we play; while we rest. To the writer, ideas represent dollars—if he can catch and hold them until they are properly developed. Ideas form the foundation upon which he is to build his success.

But ideas are not always preserved. They have an annoying way of popping into our heads when we are least prepared to accept or entertain them. It is not surprising, then, that having knocked at the portals of a writer's brain and receiving no response, these ideas slip quietly away to bury their heads into the limbo of things that might have been. One almost seems to hear them mutter their disappointed and sarcastic, "nobody home."

The writer who would make the most of every opportunity must devise some system for trapping the ideas that call upon him. Even when he is too busy with other matters to seriously entertain the wonderful visitors, he should have some method that will hold the ideas safely in someplace where he can get at them when he does have the time to consider and develop them.

One good method is to carry a small pocket notebook at all times for the express purpose of jotting down ideas as they come for future reference. The notebook may be arranged in any form most suitable to the person using it. One writer may prefer to list his ideas in a notebook arranged like a small diary, with the dates of entries carefully provided for. Another may have it arranged so that each idea may be classified by subject or under the type of work he may wish to use it for, thus: short fiction, novel, verse, photoplay, news feature, song, play, etc. The arrangement of such a system, of course, depends largely upon the kind of work engaged in by the writer, his personality, temperament, and his ability to follow any system.

What the writer jots down in his notebook, also, is largely a matter of personal opinion and inclination. Very often one word or phrase or a title will be the key to a complete novel, photoplay, or short story. At other times, it may be found necessary for the author to write an explanation of 50 to 100 words before the idea is clearly stated. However, general opinion and experience seem to indicate that the simpler forms of the notebook system are better. Even a small notebook is often found bulky and cumbersome. And to many, a system of classification of ideas by subjects or type of work contemplated will be confusing.

The newspaper writer, who, as a rule, is anything but systematic, finds it necessary to record facts as he runs. Thus are preserved the points of information which later are developed into news items or feature stories. Perhaps he does not know that he has a system, but if one will watch him closely one will perceive a very definite fact-recording device. For instance, he carries a certain kind of pad. Sometimes, it is a very small scratchpad of white or yellow paper of the kind that may be purchased cheaply at any stationers or is picked up in most offices or courts. Reporters do not carry notebooks. Usually, the pad is one or more pieces of scratch paper, typewriter size, such as is abundant about editorial rooms of newspapers and referred to by newspapermen as "copy paper." These pieces of paper are folded to fit the pocket.

The system of the news gatherer begins with the method of folding this sheet of paper. Sometimes the sheet is folded as a square, once the long way and once again across the width. One sheet of copy paper, size 8½" x 11", thus folded, will give the reporter four double pages, size 5½" x 4¼". If, by the simple process of cutting through the folded edges with his penknife, he wishes to make a book, he will have eight pages upon which to jot down names, addresses, and important facts. Some reporters prefer a long, narrow pad to fit into the inside coat pocket and fold their paper accordingly.

The second step in the reporters' system has to do with his "working pocket." Usually, this is the left side pocket of his coat; frequently, it is the right inside coat pocket, and sometimes a vest or hip pocket. Whichever pocket he chooses will contain nothing except his pad, unless it is his pencil, which, however, more frequently has its own particular pocket, when it is not tucked behind his ear.

Writers of fiction do not find ideas coming to them as rapidly as facts come to a busy reporter on a live beat, but a system of recording ideas in a manner similar to the fact-catching process of the reporter will be found an extremely simple one of advantage to any writer.

One need not resort to the crude pad as used by many news writers, but the substitution of small slips of paper of any size preferred should answer the purpose. Some writers have found that small cards of the size of calling cards or business cards are good "idea trappers."

There is nothing permanent about the reporter's pad. The notes are destroyed as soon as his items are written—the same day. On the other hand, the writer of fiction, verse, or plays must catch his ideas on the run, but he cannot develop them immediately. The recorded ideas become the subjects of careful study and hard work over a period of many days and weeks. Every idea cannot be taken up immediately and disposed of as is the news fact. Therefore, it must be filed away for future reference after previously conceived ideas have been developed to full growth and sent out to seek the writer's fortune. Small cards or even small slips of paper may be taken from the pocket and filed in a small card case. They will be constant reminders of profit-able work to be done when the writer gets to them.

Do not rely upon old envelopes or stray bits of paper stowed away in any old pocket. Least of all, do not be so foolish as to rely entirely upon memory. If you do, your best ideas will slip away from you without having been given the chance for the development which they deserve. Prepare to catch and hold your ideas by having a simple system—one certain kind and size of paper, card, or notebook reposing in your exclusive working pocket.

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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