Capturing ideas

Continuing the series on the writing pipeline, here are some thoughts on capturing ideas. My feeling is that this is a tricky step to do well, but also that it maybe doesn’t operate in the same multiplicative way as some of the other steps, and so perhaps my model is wrong to pull this out as a distinct stage.

Some of the best contexts for having ideas are also very bad contexts for capturing ideas. It’s difficult to capture either the ideas that come up in conversation because being engaged in talking and listening will preclude writing to some degree. And neither pen and paper nor a phone are well-suited to use in a shower. Even while walking it’s awkward to stop and write an idea down. I don’t really have a good solution to this. That said, having some way to capture ideas for the moments when it is feasible, whether it’s in a notebook or a phone, is better than not having any way to do so at all.

The detail that you need to write down will depend on how quickly you’ll get to process what you’ve captured. If you will be looking at it in the next hour or so then a single word or phrase might be sufficient, but if it’s going to be the next day then you’ll almost certainly need to actually explain the thought. If you just scribble a phrase then you’re quite likely to not have enough context to remember what it meant when you come back to it. And this is part of what makes the process of capturing effectively so hard. It takes a fair amount of effort to explain an idea so that you can be confident that you’ll have enough context to pick it up again later.

The capture process depends on the system used to organise ideas. It sounds basic, but you need to capture the idea in a place where you’ll look at it later. Just writing it on a random scrap of paper which you only find again by chance six months later isn’t going to be very effective. My current system is to have a Writing Inbox folder with markdown files, somewhat inspired by Andy Matuschak.

The idea of capturing things is very GTD, but tasks are very different to ideas. One of the properties of things captured in GTD is that you want to have regularly processed all of them, but it’s not clear that the same applies to the ideas that you might want to write about. They’re better thought of as options rather than commitments, which is perhaps an argument for weeding it like a garden as opposed to processing it like an inbox. Some days you’ll want to take advantage of an idea in the inbox and write about it but other days it won’t be inspiring to you. At the same time if you don’t trust yourself to actually take advantage of those options then there is little incentive to capture. This is the part of my system that I trust the least, and I’ll need some more time to get familiar with it before I can really report on how well it works.

Ideas have a weird quality of seeming fresh and exciting when they first come to you, but going stale quite quickly, possibly before you’ve had the chance to do anything with them. Instead of carefully capturing ideas, Steve Pavlina prefers to write about whatever comes to him when he sits down to write:

I don’t maintain a list of article ideas, I don’t actively brainstorm ideas in advance, and I generally don’t ask for suggestions. I’ve done all of those things in the past, but they don’t work well for me in practice. At one point I had a list of about 200 new article ideas. When I scanned it for something to write about, I was usually bored by everything on it.

Furthermore, when you sit down to write, you can actually regenerate a lot of the ideas that you might have captured, and more besides, just by thinking seriously about the topic. So I’m not sure exactly what you lose by not actively capturing ideas, and perhaps that means that this isn’t a multiplicative step in the pipeline. As I was saying about generating ideas, just sitting down to write in a babbling fashion is often sufficient.

If I had to point to anything as important in the writing process, it would be more about regularly sitting down to write and to develop ideas rather than expecting to capture them all and have them ready to organise at the start of a writing project.