My writing practice has taken a huge leap forward this past year. I’ve had more ideas, discovered more creative connections, and encountered fewer creative blocks. I’ve completed a major writing project and made significant progress on another, plus made notes for a dozen potential tie-ins. All these improvement have occurred despite the ups and downs of sickness, travel, and other minor crises. And let’s not forget the normal life busy-ness that most creative types face, such as chauffeuring kids, paying bills, and trying to keep a house that’s reasonably safe, happy, and healthy.
This improved writing practice is due to one change. Astonishingly, that change doesn’t involve more time writing, less stress, OR chocolate. (Weird, right?)
I started keeping an idea log.
What’s an Idea Log?
An idea log isn’t exactly a journal, where you might figure out thoughts, explore feelings, or record daily events. It isn’t like morning pages, either, where you freewrite whatever your inner self has to say before starting the day.
Instead, an idea log is a tool for cataloging ideas. It’s a catch-all for thoughts you might want to pursue, intriguing snatches of conversation, and compelling questions. If you’re a designer, your idea log might include sketches or color swatches. For writers, the idea log provides a place to collect quotes, cool facts, news snippets, and concepts for blog posts, stories, and poetry.
If this sounds like the standard writing/creativity notebook, think again. The power of an idea log lies in its consistency. Every day–usually around 10:30 pm, because I tend to procrastinate–I drag out my notebook and dutifully jot down my ideas. Usually, that means turning my brain to whatever I’ve been working on that day, and usually, I start the process convinced that I have nothing to say. I’m tired, my inner lazybones whines. I’m not inspired. I don’t have…
And then: Oh, wait–what if I were to…. and before I know it, I usually have a bullet list of ideas that didn’t exist when I began. My “official” goal is to write down 5 ideas–and they can be about anything, ideas for nonfiction articles, blog posts, character quirks; or, if I’m feeling ambitious, they might be 5 ideas for how to get character A to plot point B, or maybe 5 ideas about how magic works in my current work-in-progress, or ideas related to any of a hundred other story questions.
Something about doing this every day for the past six months or so has yielded a steady stream of ideas and inspirations. Some ideas fade when I review them the next morning, but others have helped me to puzzle out plot problems, or given me the starting gems for winning characters.
How to Keep an Idea Log
The best thing about keeping an idea log? It takes almost no time, so even on the busiest of days, it will fit into your schedule. Why not give idea logging a try for a week and see if it boosts YOUR creativity. Here are a few tips for creating a successful idea logging practice.
- Commit to regular idea generation. This may be the single most important aspect of idea logging. When you make your brain scrounge for new ideas on a daily basis–even if it’s only for a few minutes each time–you set an expectation for yourself. You WILL come up with 5 or 10 (or whatever number you choose) ideas. Your subconscious will try to meet that expectation.
- Commit to a number. By planning a certain number of ideas to come up with ahead of time, you push yourself to push past the obvious, easy ideas. Sometimes you need to write out a few stupid ideas in order to get to a GREAT one.
- Permit imperfection. Attitude is everything here: remember that the idea log is for your eyes only, and it can be as messy, goofy, silly, and crazy as you like. This log is a place to help you think, NOT a place to seek perfection. Embrace imperfection and watch how the most unlikely, most surprising ideas end up taking you in new directions!
- Keep it convenient. Find a “capture method” that suits your lifestyle. I happen to think more easily with pen and paper; others would rather type up ideas on the computer or record voice memos on the go. Many of the new smart phones come equipped with pretty darned good voice recognition software, which makes capturing ideas a snap even when you’re on the go.
- Keep it simple. Just as the capture method should seamlessly fit into your day-to-day, your logging process needs to stay simple. I’ve tried keeping several different logs–one for craft ideas, another for blog posts, another for interesting plot and character ideas. Although I’ve heard this works for some people, I found that I never had the right notebook in the right place at the right time. The result? Instead of creating 4 neatly organized lists of ideas, I created nothing.If you want to add some structure to your idea log, start off with something simple. You might color code ideas with highlighter or Post-It flags; or record ideas for different projects in different sections of a single notebook. If you find that the organization interferes with the free flow of ideas, though, consider taking a step back and making one list. You can always sort out the best ideas later!
- Prepare for success. This is the second Most Important Tip on the list. (It’s my list, so I get two if I want!) What can you do to make your idea logging have a greater chance of success? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Set an alarm so you don’t forget.
- Tie your idea-logging time to another daily event, to help you establish the idea-logging habit. (The link leads to an overview of B.J. Fogg’s habit-forming research at Stanford University. His 5-day Tiny Habits program is THE BEST tool for creating new habits that I’ve ever found. And it’s free.)
- I find it helpful to keep a sticky note listing current plot questions and topics I want to brainstorm in my idea log notebook. If I don’t have ideas when I start, looking at the list will get my creative wheels turning.
- Consider listing some thought-provoking questions and strategies inside your idea log. Gayle Curtis lists a number of creative jump-starters in her handout, What Is an Idea Log?
- Have fun! The idea log is a place to explore, to play with ideas. A sense of play can decrease pressure and spark creativity…not to mention that you’ll have better luck maintaining your idea log if you see it as something fun, rather than an dreaded chore.
There’s no one-size-fits-all process for keeping an idea log, any more than there’s a one-size-fits-all process for any creative endeavor. You may need to test places, times, and methods in order to hit a combination that lets you establish a regular practice of idea logging.
Are you going to try an idea-logging practice? Or do you already keep an idea log? Please share in the comments!
I’ve kept an idea log in the past, but have let it go in the past month now that I’m working on a new book. This post was a good reminder that I need to keep my idea log going… especially now!
I love this idea and will try it out. Thank you. I like to use mindmaps, different color pens and get the ideas from my jumbled brain onto paper! This sounds like something that would be really useful for me.
Cheryl Reif says
I loved your idea of using different colored pens and such so much that I dug out my markers for my brainstorming today! I find the use of mind maps really useful as well, especially when I’m trying to see (or discover!) relationships between ideas.