How To Avoid Writers Block #3 – The Idea Bank

by Paul Wolfe on February 8, 2011

Read any book on writing, or listen to interviews with writers, and you’ll find that one of the most commonly asked questions you get if you write regularly is this: where do you get your ideas?

Whenever anyone asks me – not that it happens regularly, but it does happen occasionally – I use a variation of a line I unashamedly ripped off from American SF author Harlan Ellison.

I tell the questioner that there’s a dusty old shop in a side street in Covent Garden where they sell ideas in dirty plastic bags.

The truth is much more mundane;  I get all my ideas from my Idea Bank.

What Is An Idea Bank?

An Idea Bank is simply a collection of ideas for blog posts, articles and website pages.  You can store it in a word processor document.  Or a spreadsheet.  Or it could even be notes jotted down on scribbles of paper and held together with a bulldog clip.

Whatever strikes you as a good way to store the information is fine.  What’s more important is that this collection of ideas – the Idea Bank – is one of the productive writer’s most valuable weapons in the war against resistance.  And specifically against that mythical disease ‘Writer’s Block.’

How Does the Idea Bank Help Avoid Writer’s Block?

The Idea Bank helps you avoid Writer’s Block in 2 Ways.
Firstly it ensures that you’ve always got something to write about.  Providing your Idea Bank is in credit, you’ll always be able to go to it, find a topic idea to withdraw, write a quick outline and then fire up your word processor and get writing.

Secondly your Idea Bank helps you avoid one of the sneakier tricks that resistance plays on writers.  And that’s to feed you a better idea than the one you’re currently writing.
When that happens, switch instantly from your current article to your Idea Bank, write down enough of the new idea to capture its essence and then immediately go back to your original article.

This ensures that you (a) complete the original article, and (b) record your new idea in a place where you can access it at a future time for a future writing session.

Where Do You Get Ideas For The Idea Bank From?

There are literally hundreds of places where you can get ideas for your Idea Bank.

You can draw a lot of ideas and raw material from what you read.   Books, magazines, forum posts, blog posts – you name it, you should be reading it.  Every time you see something interesting, or that sparks an idea, you should make a note of it.

Take particular note of Forum questions or threads where YOU have provided an answer.  Often – if you’ve provided a decent answer to a question in your market area – you’ll find that expanding that answer will create an excellent, detailed article or blog post that your audience will find useful.

Answering questions provides us with TWO locations of raw material for your Idea Bank.

Once your website or blog is established you’ll start getting questions via email.  Often your answers to those questions can be expanded out as per the previous paragraph, and turned into detailed articles.

The Comments Section of your blog is also another location where your website visitors will ask you questions.  It’s surprising how often a two sentence answer to a question will form the basis of an excellent, detailed article.  What you need to do is get into the habit of answering blog comments – and recognizing potentially good ideas and making a note of them in your Idea Bank.  Do not leave the idea on your blog – if your blog has a decent amount of traffic you’ll forget it about it pretty quickly.

If you’re really stuck for ideas to put in your Idea Bank, go to your Mastermind Group – or a group of buddies – and tell them you want to write on a particular topic and get them to ask you a bunch of questions.

For example, let’s say you were writing about Writer’s Block you might end up with questions like these:

  • What is writer’s block?
  • How do you get writer’s block?
  • How do you cure writer’s block?
  • How do I know if I have writer’s block?
  • Are there different types of writer’s block?
  • Does alcohol help overcome writer’s block?
  • Does coffee help overcome writer’s block?

Let’s say you ask five people to ask you five questions off the top of their heads – you’ll come away with at least five really good ideas to put in your Idea Bank.  It’s crucial you maintain your Idea Bank too, because like any bank account, if you constantly make withdrawals from your Idea Bank you’ll find that you quickly empty the account and when you need to get an idea to write you’ll find nothing there.

How Can I Maintain My Idea Bank?

To make sure you are always in credit with your Idea Bank, you need to get into the habit of adding new ideas on a regular basis.

I always have the word processor document that forms my Idea Bank open in the background of my computer.  If I’m on a Forum, and I see something interesting and I think I could write a good article on that topic – or even better, a related topic – then I switch to my word processor doc and make a note.

I also find that repetitive tasks are conducive to creative thinking – for me the three that really work are swimming, driving long distances and walking.  So I make sure I have a Dictaphone with me when I’m driving or walking.  I also put it in my coat pocket when I go swimming and often dictate ideas into it whilst shivering in the changing room!

You also need to read widely too – not just in your market area, but also in associated areas.  So if you have a trade journal make sure you read that.  Or buy some books from Amazon.com and read them.

Back in the day when I wrote fiction I purchased a course from science fiction writer Steven Barnes and he always advised read at least 10 times the amount you write.  Doing that ensures that you have always being exposed to new material – potentially generating new ideas to go into the Idea Bank.

How Do I Create Entries In My Article Bank

When you’re creating a new entry in your Idea Bank, it need only be long enough so that at some future date you will be able to read that entry and remember the idea that you’ve had, and then use that as a starting point for writing.

Sometimes my entries are literally one-liners, like this:

Series About Avoiding Writer’s Block

  • 1) Professional Mindset
  • 2) Use Outlines
  • 3) Idea Bank

Sometimes my entries are a paragraph long, giving a sense of what the article is about, and what I’m going to discuss.  Occasionally I’ll visualize not only an article idea, but also how the outline looks too – in which case I’ll write the outline down as well.

For me, it varies from idea to idea.   When you’ve got experience of turning an idea fragment into an outline, and then a completed article from that outline, you’ll learn what works for you.

The important thing though is to record the idea fragment in the first place, and deposit it in your Idea Bank.  Here’s a tip that works really well too – if you’ve got DropBox installed on your computer keep your Idea Bank in DropBox.  That way you can always access it – even if you break your computer.  If you don’t have DropBox, head over to www.dropbox.com and install it.  It’s a totally free service, and it rocks.

Summary

Creating an Idea Bank is a great way to avoid Writer’s Block.  It ensures that you always have something to write about.  Even if you feel your writing is slow and uninspired on a particular day you still have something to write about.

And writing something is always better than writing nothing.  That’s what editing is for, as we’ll see in the next article in the series.

To summarize:

  1. An Idea Bank is simple a collection of idea fragments that can be turned into outlines (if they are not outlined as well) and then turned into articles.
  2. You often get great ideas when you are already writing – deposit them in your Idea Bank and finish what you were writing.
  3. There are lots of places to get ideas for your Idea Bank.  Try questions that you’ve answered already – either on Forums, via emails, or in the comments section of your website.  Or get a group of friends to ask you a bunch of ‘newbie’ questions on a particular topic.
  4. Always maintain your Idea Bank.  Repetitive tasks are great for creative thinking – make sure you have a way of recording ideas that appear at unexpected moments.
  5. Experience will teach you what detail you need to use to record your idea fragments.  And storing your Idea Bank in a DropBox folder is a great tip.

Having a list of topics to write about – and sustaining that list – is a great habit to create and ensures that you always have something to write about.  You never need to be afraid of the blank screen, or sit and wait for the Muse to strike – writer’s block loves these two activities, because if you’re doing them then it’s won.

Next Step

Create a spreadsheet, or a word processor document, and start populating your idea bank.  As a rule of thumb I try and add two article ideas for every idea that I take out and turn into a finished article.  That way your Idea Bank is always growing.

Then when someone asks YOU where you get your ideas you can say: I take them from my Idea Bank.  Or try and be a wiseass like me, and direct them to the dusty old shop in Covent Garden.

{ 20 comments }

Marcus Sheridan-The Sales Lion February 8, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Hey Paul, great suggestion here to readers to use an ‘idea bank’. Mine consists of a little black book that goes with me everywhere, as I never know when inspiration will strike. If I’m driving, it’s in the passenger’s seat. If I’m at my computer, it’s sitting next to me. I’ve learned not to trust my memory, because great ideas come and go quickly, and one must snatch them from the air before they move on to the next person willing to turn them into reality.

Great stuff Paul.

Marcus

Paul Wolfe February 9, 2011 at 7:12 am

Hey Marcus

Thanks for stopping by. Whatever works for you is great…I know of people who use an app on their iPhone for this. I don’t have an iPhone – long story – so I use an old cassette tape dictaphone that’s on its last legs. But it enables me to both record the idea, and the excitement of the idea too and literally rant about it for a couple of minutes.

Then when I get home I usually transcribe it to the computer – and rationalize it a bit!

Paul

Marina Brito February 9, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Hi Paul,

Thanks for reminding me to keep my Idea Bank alive. I used to have it on my smartphone (a Palm) but then I used a good ol’ notebook – and I lost continuity.

Having my Idea Bank handy at the beginning of my writing will save me a ton of time while trying to get the writing engines warmed up.

Paul Wolfe February 9, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Hola Marina

I try and have a system.

Keep the idea bank primed….keep fresh ideas going in. I normally don’t write until the evening – at some stage during the day I’ll pull out an idea that I’m going to work on and create an outline from it. And get that outline to have completed headline plus completed sub headings. I then put those into a word processor doc.

That way, when I come to start writing I’ve already got stuff on the page – it’s not blank. Psychologically it’s a big help. Hemingway was renowned to write for a set length of time – and would always stop in the middle of a sentence. That way when he came to write the next day, he knew how to start his next sentence and that was enough of a start to prime the pump for him (or call the Muse, or light the creative fire – whatever your favourite term is).

The way I’ve evolved means I come to sit down to write and have stuff there to direct me – plus in the time between outlining and actually writing the idea has probably been germinating away at a subconscious level. It’s all about forward motion!

Paulxx

Neil Smith@Life Insurance New Zealand February 10, 2011 at 9:37 am

I find ideas for my ideas bank through groups in LinkedIn.

There are really talented characters out there! I mean I see some great articles through the groups I belong to on LinkedIn.

So then what I do is I put them into the evernote software, and hope that I come back to them some day!

(Um, well that is the truth).

But at least, there they can be searched on by title or tag I give to them.

Paul Wolfe February 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Hey Neil

What I think it’s important for people who write regularly is that they find a system that works for them. So although I’ve written quite a few articles about writing – and have more in the pipe line – the important takeaway is that you need to uncover Neil Smith’s system of writing. Or Joe Blogs needs to uncover Joe Blogg’s Method Of Writing.

The things that I do to generate ideas, to take those ideas and turn them into outlines, and then turn those outlines into articles, are all dependent on a ‘system’ that owes to many different coaches and teachers. They are things that have been adapted and work for me.

If LinkedIn is a good source of ideas for you then that’s fantastic – you’ve got part of your system down. And thanks for sharing the idea – someone reading the comments may go do that and find that this idea works for them too. Or maybe they tweak it, and adapt it until it’s something that’s unique to them.

That’s a really important takeaway for people I think.

Paul

Keith Davis@Public Speaking and Presentation Skills February 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Hi Paul
Full in depth article.
I’m with you on this one.

I’m always looking for info for speeches, titles, ideas, quotes, humour.
I’ve got shelves full of books, drawers full of notes, things all over the house.

Television, films, theatre all give you ideas.
Listen for those great phrases that you can use in a post or a speech or that piece of humour that will make the popint you want to get across.
That clever piece of wordplay that will get the audience’s attention.

Thanks for lots of ideas and suggestions.
All of them will be going into my ideas bank.

Paul Wolfe February 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Hey Keith

Thanks for stopping by…for me it’s all about avoiding the blank page. If you’re stocked up with ideas, outlines, headlines, etc etc then you never need to face the empty page. There almost seems to be a morbid fear about the empty page for writers – that’s why so many fiction writers write for a set time, or a set amount of words, and stop in the middle of a sentence when they’ve done their quote. (Hemingway did this)./ That way, when they come to write the next day they can complete the sentence they were writing the day before – that act of writing often serves as enough of a ‘pump primer’ to get them going again.

L8r….

Paul

Keith Davis@Public Speaking and Presentation Skills February 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm

You’re turning out some good stuff Paul.
You strike me as a guy who knows how to write and enjoys doing it.

Look forward to more great articles.

Paul Wolfe February 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm

I love writing Keith. If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and his phrase “Follow Your Bliss.” For me, that’s writing.

There will be plenty more coming soon – my write 100 Articles in 100 Days Challenge starts on Tuesday.

Paul

Keith Davis@Public Speaking and Presentation Skills February 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm

If writing is your Bliss, then blogging is for you.
I’ve got this image of you training for your challenge… writing random articles in under three minutes.
Knocking off ten comments in two minutes…

Hope all goes well.

Paul Wolfe February 12, 2011 at 9:00 pm

I write fast – but not that fast!!! :)

Mitchell@Best WordPress Plugins February 12, 2011 at 9:26 pm

This is why it’s important to always have a notebook or something to take notes with. I have a text document with all the ideas of plugins to review for my blog. Then I just go to the list and choose one for every time I want to post. It’s great and really easy. No stressing about not knowing what topic to post about!

Paul Wolfe February 13, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Mitchell

However you record your ideas that works for you is great – the important principle is to actually make a habit of capturing those ideas as they drift by. And document them. That way you they become useable content for you in the future.

Thanks for the comment.

paul

Adrienne February 14, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Hey Paul,

I’ve read a few posts on this topic lately and the majority of bloggers have said the same thing as you as far as where you get your ideas for your content.

There are so many different places that can help with ideas for future posts and articles. When something grabs your attention, jot it down so that you can revert back to it when you are ready to write.

Appreciate the tip about DropBox. Haven’t heard of that one so will be sure to check that out.

Thanks again,

Adrienne

Paul Wolfe February 21, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Hey Adrienne

Apologies to take a while to get to your comment – and thanks for stopping by.

When I studied fiction writing back in the day, one of my writing teachers said you should try and read between ten and fifty times the amount you wrote every day.

That would make sure that the well of ideas never ran dry.

So however you do it, it’s important to get out there and read articles and blog posts by other writers. And books too. And magazine articles. It is all grist for the mill….

paul

Crystal March 6, 2011 at 7:23 pm

I recently discovered OneNote on my computer and realized while reading your post that it just may be the perfect place for my idea bank. I’ve tried several methods for capturing my fleeting ideas and so far nothing seems to stick. But I totally believe I need to do this so I’m opening OneNote right now! It’s working for me on other things so should work on this, too:)

Paul Wolfe March 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Hey Crystal

Thanks for stopping by and welcome to One Spoon!

You definitely need something to capture ideas. I use three things – a word doc, so if I’m at the computer or near it when an idea strikes I can record it. I also have a small note pad that I carry around with me and sometimes scribble notes in, adn transfer to my word doc later. And I have an ancient, analogue dictaphone type recorder. It’s so old it records to tape! But I use that for car journeys.

If you get into the habit of doing it, it will repay you in spades.

Paul

Davina K. Brewer March 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Paul, Such good advice to start an idea bank (and yes, Dropbox is great). Been thinking of some dictation gizmo but then, my ideas start rolling in my head as I’m trying to fall asleep; if I started dictating all the rambling thoughts, I’d be a brain-dead zombie every morning. ;-)

It’s not a formal idea bank, but I’ve started lots of little drafts, some that have quickly and easily become blog posts, others.. not so much. When it’s all I can do, I’ll email myself the idea, link to the post or comment that inspired the story. As a designer, I also have that idea box – just a collection of samples and work by others that I find good, creative and inspiring; for writing I do a little of the same: read favorite writers or someone totally new. FWIW.

Paul Wolfe March 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Davina

Nice to see you here again!

The importance of creating the habit of recording your ideas is that once you start doing this, you’ll find ideas seemingly everywhere. I have a friend who gets ideas in the showers and she writes a key word or two on the shower screen in soap to fix it until she can get it down on paper!

The ‘Idea Bank’ can be anything – it can be a folder with hundreds of scraps of paper in. Back in the day when I wrote short stories I would cut photographs out of the sunday paper supplement magazines (e..g The SUnday Times) and as an exercise I’d randomly take two or three photos and try to make a story. For blogging I use scraps of paper, a dictaphone, and a word doc. Works for me fine and I back up to my dropbox. What’s imporant is that you find what works for You.

See you at yours – I see you wrote about guest blogging. I’ll be checking out what you wrote….

Paul

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