Last week, we talked about having a container(s) for your ideas so they don’t evaporate or move on to another creative soul ready to receive them because you are not in a position to use them immediately. The logical next step is to have an organizing principle for your ideas so they don’t simply stagnate or sit neglected, hidden away inside their containers.
The organizing principle should fit logically and integrate well with the types of idea containers you use. You want a finely meshed system, not a monster that has to be wrangled every time you use it.
The concept of organizing dozens or potentially hundreds of ideas can be overwhelming. So it’s critical to think through the process, and perhaps experiment, to find a method that works for you.
If you use only one type of idea container—say, a spiral notebook—then it should be easy to assure those ideas get some attention in their due time. Create a simple reminder to yourself to periodically review those notes. I do suggest, within the notebook, that you have some system for flagging items you may want to return to and use later.
For example, I carry in my backpack a composition notebook labeled NOTES; it goes with me almost everywhere. Anything and everything that comes up, including thoughts on my novel, goes into it whenever and wherever the ideas arise. To find ideas I know I will use later, I mark the upper-outer corner of the pages: Blog Idea
, Book Title
, Short Story Idea
, Workshop Idea
, etc. Sometimes I get more specific: Novel-Scene between GD & Gwen
Then I review my notebook regularly, sometimes two or three times a week, to pull out the ideas for any current work-in-progress. I can simply flip through the notebook, checking those labels I put at the top edge of the pages. I know what’s there without having to read every word. When I find something I am ready to use, I generally retype the handwritten notes directly into my work in progress (which has the side benefit of often sparking new ideas).
Ideas I intend to use on some later project stay in the notebook, for now. When the notebook is full, it goes on an office shelf and I start a new one, but the ideas in it are clearly identified by the flagging system I use for ease of rediscovering them in the future. Those retired notebooks get revisited when I am actively seeking new ideas.
While I leave my ideas inside the notebooks, intact until ready to use, another writer might regularly rip out the pages, group them based on their category, and then file them in color-coded folders. I used to use the file folder and drawer method, but between streamlined furniture and laptops, and my self-awareness that I’m more likely to go back through a notebook on my shelf than I am to dig into a file drawer, I dropped that method. That’s why I suggest experimentation, to see what works for you. Whether the ideas stay in the notebook or are filed in a drawer or on your computer, they should be revisited every few months.
If you use more than one idea container, tracking and categorizing your ideas need not be any more complex. You may simply need an additional layer of periodically checking each container to decide what to do with the ideas recorded there.
For ideas stored in multiple containers, consider working backward to establish your organizing system.
What do I mean by that? You’ll need to have a notion of what the final, collective organizing system might look like so you can begin. First, consider what type of structure would be most accessible to you? What type of system would you be most likely to return to routinely? What are your options for that? File folders labeled or color-coded by category, as mentioned above? Electronic folders on your computer or in the cloud? Shoeboxes under your desk? Something that might seem quirky or unconventional to others, but that you know suits you? Be creative. Seriously, any method is fine as long as it works for you.
Your next effort then is to label your folders by category . . . or name your computer folders . . . or find and label the shoeboxes—whatever tasks fit the method you are aiming toward.
Once the final organizing structure is in place, set a schedule for transferring your ideas into it. Whatever and wherever your idea containers are, go to them regularly to move the ideas into your organizing structure. That could mean you need to print out email messages you sent to yourself, or copy/paste text messages into a Word document for printing, or shuffling index cards into stacks of related ideas.
Allow time to do the associated tasks on a regular basis. If after a while, you decide these tasks take too much time, consider how you could streamline your system. That might mean reducing the number of idea containers you use or changing the type. Or it might mean defining a different organizing principle or merely simplifying the one you have.
If the initial set-up seems overwhelming, break it down into steps, or set a timer and work on it for just a ten minutes a day until you have the system that will serve you.
Here’s a side tip: your idea container and organizing system can be the same. For instance, EverNote and electronic systems like it are great repositories for everything: web page captures, your original notes, photos, etc. After the initial learning curve of the app/software, you can use this one tool as both storage and organizer. The downside to this type of system–and I’ve heard many users say this–is that they load all sorts of things into it and promptly forget them. Out of sight, out of mind, that is.
Well, there’s no use in filling the bank if you aren’t going to take some of the gold out every now and then. Like any system, you have to regularly lay eyes on what’s in it if the ideas there are ever to be used.
This sort of organizing effort might seem silly to some writers, a waste of time even. But if you do it, if you allow yourself some time to experiment and to develop a manageable, accessible, and usable system that suits you, you will never be without ideas for new projects and you’ll never lose that idea that felt like the best one yet.