Idea Management: Keeping Track of Ideas When You’re Away From Your Desk

As a writer I often find inspiration in the most unlikely places and, more specifically, at the most inconvenient times. I love my muse but sometimes she can be a flake. She will spark my creativity when I’m standing in line at the supermarket, or at work trying not to go insane or driving in my car swerving to avoid little old ladies that appear out of no where. (Where’d you learn how to drive grandma? Sears?)

Hardly ever am I inspired in a place where I can actually sit down and explore the ideas that come to mind. So today we are going to talk about different methods of capturing lightening in a bottle while the storm is raging or, in layman’s terms, recording those ideas the moment the light bulb goes off.

1. Pocket Notepads

Some years ago I worked with an older gentleman, around retirement age, who had a penchant for white shirts and miniature notepads. One day I finally got around to asking him about them (the notepads not the shirts). “Young lady,” he said. “The older you get the less you can leave to chance.” It wasn’t until I started suffering from CRS that I finally understood what he was talking about.

He used the notebook mainly to log things he needed to remember like picking up his white shirts from the dry cleaners but he also used the notebook to jot down thoughts and ideas that occurred to him during the day which he would then explore when he had time.

This method is, by far, the quickest and the easiest and only requires minimal investment of money, time and effort especially if you know shorthand.

2. Index Cards

Index cards are also great for capturing writing ideas and if you do it right, they can be seamlessly integrated with your home filing system. The way I used this system is that I would label my index card with the aspect of the story it concentrated on.

For example, if I had an idea for a setting, I would put ‘Setting’ at the very top and then write the idea beneath it. If it was an idea for a story that I was currently working on, when I got home, I would just add it to that story’s file otherwise I would put it under the appropriate section in the box I kept for general ideas.

3. Voice recording

In the movie Batman II, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Catwoman. Somewhere around the beginning of the movie she’s in her apartment listening to her messages, one of which is from herself. She had called her answering machine earlier in the day to remind herself to pull out some important paperwork for a meeting her boss had with Bruce Wayne.

This idea struck me as particularly brilliant however if the thought of calling yourself on the telephone and leaving yourself a message seems kind of corny and strange or you live with people who erase messages all willy nilly, there are other more secure ways of recording your bursts of inspiration.

There’s the good old fashioned tape recorder which I’ve used on occasion. They are incredibly cheap and much more sophisticated now so I’m sure you won’t have any problem finding one that works for you. If you want to be hip and cool, there are also digital voice recorders on the market that let you record on the go and then upload to your computer.

4. Cell Phones, PDAs and PSP

Since everyone today seems to have a cell phone, PDA or all of the above, you can even rope your cell phone into the role of a temporary idea storage unit by sending yourself a voice mail and/or a text message. If PDA technology is more your style, most units have software installed where you can write and save notes.

If you have a PSP then you probably already know that you have the capability of going online with it wherever there is a wireless connection. This is where having a Google account becomes beneficial as it will allow you to use Google Docs and Spreadsheets (formally Writely).

Google Docs and Spreadsheets is an online text editor that allows you to write documents and save them in your account, upload documents from your computer and allow others to collaborate with you on the project. This makes it perfect for note taking on the go.

5. Sticky Notes

Post It Notes are the best thing since pre-sliced bread. For this week’s Audio Monday, I’m including a Podcast by Merlin Mann of 43Things that details the various things you can do with these little 8th wonders of the world.


I hope these tips help you keep up with your muse. Feel free to add anything I might have missed or tell me about what worked or didn’t work for you. This is the first article of a series dealing with idea management. Next week we’re going to talk about ways to manage your writing projects. Aack!

Happy Writing 🙂

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