We start out with the best of intentions.
We’re going to publish more content. Stick to a schedule. And, of course, make sure all of it is high-quality stuff that people actually want to read.
The first week or two are good … and then …
You fire up your WordPress dashboard. You click to add a post. And you spend more time than you want to admit staring at that depressing expanse of blank white space.
You don’t have an idea. You don’t know how or where to get an idea. And you really, really don’t want to write this $%&# post today.
It sucks — but it rarely happens to folks who write for a living. And that’s because they have a “secret weapon” that you don’t have. But you can get it … today, if you want to.
That “weapon” is a solid, reliable process for capturing content ideas as they float past your head.
Because the best way to have more ideas is to capture more ideas.
When you capture as many ideas as you can on the fly, you’ll find that your brain starts to make more ideas. It’s like there’s a part of your brain (Stephen King talks about the muse in the basement) that has the job of coming up with ideas.
“Hmm, it seems my person is very interested in ideas these days. I’d better start making more of them.”
– The muse in the basement
Some of your ideas will be total garbage. Not a problem. Capture them anyway. A few of the really stupid ideas will turn out to be the seeds of something interesting. And the rest won’t do any harm sitting there in your system.
If you want a fun, creative jumpstart, challenge yourself to write down 10 ideas today. Give yourself permission to include the wildly stupid ones. Do that for a week.
At the end of the week, you’ll have a bunch of okay ideas, a few nutty ones, and a couple of gems.
Do it for a month and you’ll feel a genuine shift in your creative productivity. And it’s easy and fun to capture 10 ideas a day.
Different writers approach this task in different ways, but nearly all professional writers have a trusted system that lets them catch that lightning in a bottle.
Here are some options.
Option #1: The notebook or bullet journal
Some of us just really dig paper and pen.
I use a hardcover bullet journal to keep track of what I need to do, when I need to do it, and the tools or resources I need to get it done. And I keep a running list of ideas for all kinds of content — from lesson ideas for our courses, to blog post ideas, to podcast topics or video ads.
It’s also a great place to doodle, scribble with colored pencils, and use a half-dozen different fountain pens (all running different colored ink).
Some people have gorgeous Instagram-ready bullet journals with fancy headers and beautifully designed “spreads.” I have the other kind. My notebook is ink-splattered, coffee-stained, scribbled, lumpy, and defiantly messy. Just like (in my opinion) a creative journal should be.
A writer’s notebook is like a painter’s sketchbook. It’s a place to hold ideas, develop them, capture new ones, and spark experiments and creative connections. It’s not a place to hold yourself to an unreachable standard of perfection … although if you want to practice your calligraphy in there, go for it.
If you use a physical book to capture content ideas, it’s helpful to have a way to find them quickly again. I use a dedicated color of washi tape to mark my “Content Ideas” pages. Colored post-it flags would work well, also.
Option #2: The index card
My friend, speaking coach Victoria Labalme, is a big proponent of the index card. It’s flexible, it’s super portable, and you can shuffle and shift them around when you’re planning out your content.
She uses them to plan out presentations and talks (in other words, complex, long-form content), and I find them particularly well-suited to that. The ability to spread the cards out on your desk or floor, and rearrange them over and over, works really well for complex projects.
They’re also just handy to make stray notes. I keep a few index cards tucked into a wallet or bag if I don’t feel like carrying my notebook somewhere. It’s a great way to catch fleeting ideas … no matter where I am.
Option #3: The phone app
Most of us, of course, carry a pocket computer around that can be an excellent tool for idea capture.
There’s one kind of idea that I’ll tend to put into a digital format (I happen to use Evernote, but use any app you like): an idea, reference, or resource that I’ll want to refer to later.
URLs are obviously easier to capture (not to mention click-through) digitally rather than writing them out.
This category includes things like ideas for courses (or lessons within courses), series or ebook ideas, useful reference materials, and potential cornerstone content ideas that I want to explore in the future.
Option #4: The giant bag of notes
One nice thing about digital tools is that they make it easy to switch between devices.
Evernote makes it easy for me to grab an idea on my phone — in text, audio, or a quickly snapped photo — then bring it up on my laptop when I’m ready to start working.
Evernote becomes my “giant bag of notes,” with all kinds of connections, links, sparks, and tangents. Like my bullet journal, it’s messy, with minimal formal structure.
Unlike my bullet journal, it’s very easy to find things again when I need to.
Option #5: The ninja version
So, do I recommend physical capture with ink on paper or digital capture into an app?
Actually, I think for many of us, there’s a lot to be gained by combining the two.
The process of making words with ink has a kind of magic in it. There’s richness that comes from slowing down and thinking through the words — even if it’s just a rough idea capture.
Paper and pen is also the lowest-friction way to create simple drawings, diagrams, and mind maps. No software to launch, no learning curve to master.
That’s all wonderful while you’re filling your first creative journal. But trying to find a specific idea in a stack of physical books isn’t pretty. (That’s also why I prefer to just keep one hardbound journal going at a time.)
For me, the answer is to have a reliable, consistent process for moving “long term” ideas from their first capture point to their permanent home.
You can think of it as an idea sanctuary. You capture them out in the wild, however happens to work for you in that moment, and then you systematically move them to a digital system that allows for immediate — and permanent — access.
Common sense is your friend here. Your to-do list for this week doesn’t need to go into permanent idea storage. But the running list of blog post topics should probably get updated to your digital system once a week or so.
What happens next?
You’ve probably noticed that having ideas does not magically generate high-quality content.
It’s a great first step. Having a generous supply of ideas makes content creation less painful. But there’s still plenty of work to be done to transform an interesting idea into a solid blog post, podcast episode, or video script.
Idea capture is just one part of a robust content process. If you’d like some help creating one for yourself, consider joining us for a brand-new class, which we’ll be opening shortly to new students.
We’re calling it Creative Content Foundations, and it’s designed to make sure that everything you create is built on solid ground. The entire second module is dedicated to walking you through how to create your own personalized, rock-solid processes — for any kind of content you create regularly.
Creative Content Foundations will benefit you if:
- You want to move into a career as a freelance writer, but you don’t feel 100 percent confident yet
- You want to move up from those “bottom-feeder” rates on the popular freelancing sites
- Your freelance business is struggling and you want to get it back on track
- You want to be a content rock star (or ninja, gangster, or magical unicorn, take your pick) at work
- You’re using a blog, podcast, or video channel to market your own business — but you’re not seeing traction
We’re putting the finishing touches on the course website, as well as getting all of the files ready for you to have a great experience. (We’re also launching it at an insanely good price — but just for the first round of students.)
If you want to be notified when we’re ready for our first group of students, just drop your information into the form below. We would be delighted to have you with us!