Idea Generation: Taking a Page from Journalists

Writing Advice

press-conference-1166345_640Reporters fascinated me as a kid. I’d see them on TV, at press conferences or interviewing pedestrians or whatever, and they clung to every word. And their tools of the trade were glued to their hands: the pen and notebook.

For years I separated journalistic writers and artistic writers in different cages. Both were important, yet as opposite as fish and ape. The news reporter wove real-world facts into articles, whereas writers of the arts plucked details from the ether for their compositions. One was deadline-driven and practical, while the other might take a nap if the muse turned fickle.

But often as a fiction writer I find my particular ether empty of ideas. I used to fear that I lacked the imagination possessed by real writers. Despair led me to try something different, however, and I reconsidered the habits of journalists. Lo and behold, adopting their method of note-taking made my idea-generating process easier.

I began carrying a notebook in my hynie pocket. If you must feel fancy, try moleskin varieties. Any small notepad will suffice. If you’re a less-wasteful sort, or just feel cooler using your mobile device, apps like Evernote are excellent for the task. You might even try your phone’s talk-to-text feature, if you’re immune to odd looks from eavesdroppers. The best solution is whatever collection method you’re most likely to carry and use. Don’t overthink it.

Now, activate your antennae. Whether at the doctor’s office, bus stop, grocery store, or local park, pay attention. Whatever surprising conversation snippets, weird sensory detail, odd anecdote, favorite word or inspired character name that you hear or think of, transcribe it immediately. If not feasible (or polite) to scribble right away, do so as soon as you can. Memory can be leaky. If you’re like me, whatever happened five minutes ago is already lost. What am I writing about again?

The point is this: By composting all these interesting bits, we give ourselves a deep resource of ideas to dig through later. Whenever I sit to write and find my imagination is yet another cloudless sky, I only need to pluck my notebook from my back pocket and start skimming. Time and again, I’ve seen a fragment that begged to be expanded and triggered an idea for a story or poem.

If I had more discipline, I’d review the latest scribbles and doodles daily. The best of the bunch, I would collect in a master Word file. Or I’d write them on note cards, alphabetized by subject, for super easy access. Then I could feel really organized and professional, like a journalist or something. Alas, I’m already thinking about that aforementioned nap.

Exercise: Write your notebook’s “best bits” on paper slips and put them in a box, or fishbowl, or that human skull on the corner of your desk. After a nice amount accumulates, select a scrap at random and write whatever it inspires in you. Pick another scrap and see if you can affix this new idea to what you’d previously written. Keep going. You might create a truly inspired piece of writing that you couldn’t have with imagination alone. (This reminds me of William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Get out there and act like a reporter, collecting the facts for your next story. Good luck!

Have other suggestions for note-capturing? Share them in the reply section below.


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