How to Capture, Save, and Review Your Freelance Writing Ideas

by John Soares on August 29, 2011

Good ideas are crucial to the success of freelance writers and all creative types. But you have to do more than generate good ideas: you have to get those ideas out of your brain and into some system to save them. Only then can you evaluate those ideas and pick the best for implementation.

The Best Way to Have a Good Idea? Have Lots of Ideas

In another post I discuss the Top 10 Ways to Generate Great Ideas, so please read that and the many insightful comments left by readers.

Today we have a different focus: how many, many creative people — freelance writers included — hinder their success by not having a good way to immediately capture ideas, and then store those ideas for further refinement and action.

I Use a Digital Voice Recorder to Capture All of My Ideas

My digital voice recorder is small and lightweight, about the size of a cigarette lighter, and it’s always in my pocket whenever I leave the house. It has 5 folders, and each holds 199 separate audio files. Each folder has a specific purpose:

  • The A folder holds notes I dictate when I’m listening to educational audios in my car.
  • The B folder is for poetry (I write haiku and other short poems) and also for specific notes for a nonfiction book I’m writing that I’ll be pitching to mainstream, traditional publishers.
  • The C folder contains corrections and suggestions given to me by my tai chi teacher during our private lessons.
  • The D folder is solely for writing and business ideas.
  • The E folder contains items for my to-do lists, or information I need in the short-term, like a phone number or address someone gives me, or directions to a house or business.

My digital voice recorder also doubles as a thumb drive/flash drive, so I can use it store two gigabytes of files, and it also plays mp3 and other audio files. If you must know, it’s the Olympus WS-331M Digital Voice Recorder and WMA Music Player; I like it a lot, but there are many other companies making similar digital recorders and I can’t say mine is any better than the others.

You may also have a smart phone or other electronic device that can record your ideas. Just be sure you can easily connect the device to your computer and save the audio files, and that the device has enough capacity and flexibility to meet your needs.

Drawbacks to Using a Pen and Paper to Record Your Ideas

Many people still like to write ideas with a pen or pencil in a notebook or on scraps of paper. If this is truly what feels best to you, then do it.

However, there are 4 major problems with using paper for your ideas:

  1. You can lose the paper.
  2. You need to organize and store your written notes, which can be unwieldy.
  3. You can’t easily back-up your written notes, short of photocopying them or scanning them.
  4. You can’t easily store copies of your idea notes off-site. (Think fire, flood, theft…)

How I Store Ideas Long-Term

I put all my ideas in Word documents, with a different document for each writing project or business idea. Of course, if the idea comes to me while I’m near my computer, I just type it into a document.

I schedule time every week to listen to all the relevant audio files from my digital recorder. I can easily back-up and save both the audio files and the resulting Word documents, so I know I’ll never lose them.

Several software and Internet-based programs and applications also allow you to store your ideas.

Reviewing and Evaluating Ideas

It’s crucial that you review your ideas and decide which ones you will implement. So whatever scheduling system you use to organize the what and when of your life, be sure idea review gets its proper place.

Your Take

How do you save your ideas? Any horror stories to share about ideas lost? Anything you’d add to what I’ve said here?

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Harleena Singh August 29, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Hi John,

This is a really interesting post, as I had never heard of recording our ideas onto a digital voice recorder!

I normally use my word file or notepad to store anything I come up with, based on the topics, or bookmark my researched story ideas for using them in the future.

Thanks for sharing!
Harleena Singh recently posted…How Freelance Writers can Use Google+

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2 John Soares August 29, 2011 at 9:53 AM

The great thing about my digital voice recorder is that it’s always in my pocket, always ready to capture those ideas and to-do items.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers

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3 Theresa Torres August 29, 2011 at 9:09 PM

Hi John,
That is a really great idea! I haven’t thought of using a digital voice recorder before to capture my ideas. I still rely on pen and paper when I’m not online. If I’m using the computer, I have my notebooks in my Evernote to store my ideas.
I can easily see the advantages of using a recorder. It’s handy and it’s nice that it can also be used as a flash drive.
Thanks for sharing this tip. Have a nice day!
Theresa Torres recently posted…Social Media Advertisers: Get Rewarded for Your Ad Spend

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4 Gene Burnett August 29, 2011 at 9:25 PM

Good post John. I found that if I didn’t record my ideas in some way, they just disappeared, even ideas I was sure I’d remember! This of course gets worse with age, so I have a digital recorder but I mainly use it at home to record short musical ideas. I love working with little pieces of scrap paper for lyric ideas because I can lay them out, change the order, and mess around with them in a more physical way. I always have scratch paper with me, 24-7. Once a little pile of scratch paper notes starts looking like it might be done or nearly so, I write all the lyrics down in a spiral notebook. I know it’s archaic but something about writing the lyrics down helps me remember them better. Once they’re in the book, I also create a word doc. and print a hard copy too. But that’s just for song ideas and little “to do” type notes.

When it comes to blogging, which I do for fun and to have my ideas in a form that I can easily share online, I use another method entirely. I get the vast majority of my blog ideas from my facebook posts. Every time I write a post or comment on a post and I like what I’ve written, I just hi-light that post and drag it to my desktop. From there I put it into a folder with other posts on that topic. If I don’t have one for a given topic, I create a new one. Then later when I want to write a blog piece I can open any one of the dozens of folders I’ve created and usually all I have to do is stitch together and tweak what I’ve already thought out and written down. Very effective, at least for me. Here’s a blog post I did about this very process called “Facebook Feeds My Blog”: http://geneburnett.blogspot.com/2011/01/facebook-feeds.html

Thanks John. I enjoy your blog and posts. Keep up the great work! GB

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5 John Soares August 30, 2011 at 6:14 AM

Gene, you’re using a system that works best for you, especially with the song lyrics. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote by hand on paper, and I got comfortable with that. However, I eventually started composing at the keyboard, and that’s even better for me. I type fast and well, and I’ve never been all that good at handwriting. (Even got an Unsatisfactory in penmanship in 6th grade.)
John Soares recently posted…Freelance Writer’s Guide to Internet Research

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6 John Soares August 30, 2011 at 6:16 AM

Gene, I do strongly suggest that you back up your computer files, including your Facebook/blog post ideas, on a thumb drive or some other device, and that you store them off site, or on the Internet.

You can always make .zip files and then e-mail them as attachments to yourself.
John Soares recently posted…My Guest Post and Live Call on Carol Tice’s Make A Living Writing Blog

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7 Mike Carlson August 29, 2011 at 9:32 PM

Sometimes the universe aligns to give you a kick in the pants.

I’ve always always been a pen and paper guy. But the sad truth is that pen and paper are not always handy. Pen and paper needs lights on, so if I get an idea in the middle of the night, I’m often not feeling like making a big production out of it, and my half asleep mind convinces itself that it will remember the great idea in the morning. After all, how can such a great idea be forgotten?

Sure enough, its gone come morning.

And I can personally verify your point about it being hard to keep paper notes organized.

But I’ve never liked using “digital” to keep organized. I use a paper calender, paper notepads, paper organizers (when I bother to use them).

I imagine it’s like anything else; it takes time to get used to a new way of doing things before it becomes comfy.

I am not giving up my notecards taped to the sliding glass door during brainstorm sessions though! :)

Anyway, I had been thinking about this voice recorder idea on and off for a few years. It really makes sense but I have resisted up til now. I think it’s time I get used to a new way of doing things. I think the ability to organize and create folders right on the device might just sell me on the idea.

Mike

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8 John Soares September 13, 2011 at 5:50 AM

Darkness/middle of the night is when a digital recorder is far superior to pen and paper. I actually spend substantial time under the stars and moonlight, either walking or just observing, and many, many times I’ve dictated into my recorder in the dark.
John Soares recently posted…My Review of Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers Den Membership Site

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9 Dave August 29, 2011 at 9:46 PM

I take notes on whatever I have handy. That might be an iphone, an ipad, my macbook, whatever. Notes from the small device I email to myself. Handy.

I use pen and paper quite vigorously for recording off-the-cuff ideas. I *don’t* want to remember everything. The things I do want to remember get copied and recopied, and eventually get punched in to the computer. I know I will lose some of these, but I don’t care. The really good ideas pester me to no end, and I seem to have an inexhaustible suppy of bad ideas.

Code usually gets punched in to it’s place in one of several structures I’ve built for curating my own code. I have found Github’s gist system invaluable. For all the code I have public (a l0t), I have far more code private.

Technical writing for blog posts is now going into private, markdown-formatted text files on github. I’ve used WordPress blogs, Google Docs, local text files, Mediawikis, Tikiwikis, PBWikis, TiddlyWikis and probably more. Markdown on github blows all away. I can convert it to whatever format necessary later, even WordPress with Jaquith’s markdown plugin.

If I’m writing for publication for real, LaTeX & friends is the only option. That’s what BPE and all my whitepapers are marked up in. Professional quality typesetting. Can’t be beat. I used to use it for note taking as well, but it’s just not as convenient as markdown.

Lastly, did you know that Delicious allows 1000 characters of text in each bookmarks description? And that you can pull down these descriptions using a remote client tapping the Delicious API? Very convenient. I’m planning to write a blog post “on the fly” at some point: have a script pull down all the tagged links and spit out the formatted post. Easy with markdown, in fact. Something to do in my copious free time. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t be overly difficult to write a tool bar widget to do that… hrm…

I could go on. And on and on and on. But I think my job here is done. For now.

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10 Dave August 29, 2011 at 9:47 PM

For what it’s worth, I just copied this comment to my Posterous blog as a private blog post. Expect to see it again, suitably rewritten.

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11 John Soares August 30, 2011 at 6:36 AM

Lots of great advice here Dave. I’ll have a look at Markdown.

I DO worry about losing a good idea. Perhaps it’s because my brain knows I’ve saved all those ideas in my voice recorder, but I forget about certain good ideas and need the reminder later when I listen to my audio notes.
John Soares recently posted…When You Should Write a New Edition of Your Book or Ebook

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12 Gene Burnett August 29, 2011 at 11:20 PM

PS: I have become pretty adept at writing in the dark. At least enough to trigger the essence of the idea when I’m more awake and can flesh it out.

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13 John Soares August 30, 2011 at 6:29 AM

And that’s where my digital recorder really comes in handy. I’m often outside in the dark looking at the stars.
John Soares recently posted…How Tai Chi Makes Me a Better Writer

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14 Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog August 30, 2011 at 5:59 AM

I mostly use Word, but I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with Evernote. It allows me to capture websites, images and snippets pretty easily which is also handy. But I’ve never considered a voice recorder – definitely more useful than pen and paper. I’ll have to look into it and give it a try!
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15 John Soares August 30, 2011 at 6:32 AM

Ruth, I think services like Evernote can be very useful. For capturing the ideas and thoughts in your head, though, the voice recorder is always there and always ready, and it doesn’t require an Internet connection or typing on keys.
John Soares recently posted…Life Isn’t Fair: On Freelance Writers Who Write For Free or Low Fees

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16 Sarah O September 12, 2011 at 11:11 PM

I was going to mention Evernote. I am just beginning to make good use of it – and I do believe it includes its own voice recorder.

Now – for the task that always seems to elude me and foil my efforts: making time to actually document and organize my idea notes so I can retrieve them.

This was very helpful!
Sarah O recently posted…Mullein: Multiple Uses For A Common Wild Plant

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17 John Soares September 13, 2011 at 5:48 AM

I’m now seriously considering Evernote. Just in the last few days I’ve come across several web pages I want to return to. I typically paste the URLs in specific Word documents, but I think Evernote will be far more elegant.
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18 Murray McGregor August 31, 2011 at 8:38 AM

I have become am a great fan of Evernote (free version). I put most ideas there. I like the multiple “books” (really folders) feature, ability to nest folders for larger projects and access them from my desktop, laptop and smartphone. Have yet to try the share feature.

I use my phone a lot for making quick notes in Evernote including snapping photos and filing them within the app. I also have a voice recording app and copy sound files via Bluetooth to the computer. I use free Dropbox for working files especially when I’m on the road.

But… I love to write-write, with one of my fountain pens if convenient. I carry a 21×15 cm hardcover artists sketch book at all times (bought at a local art supplies shop) with heavy (no bleeding) cream pages that I can write, doodle, mind-map, all three at once, in. The pages are all perfed and tear out easily for filing in paper project files.

I am currently learning (and switching) to Scrivener as my primary project-word processor software. So far so good. May report back later in the year on that.

And somewhere I have a little Sony hand size recorder but I don’t use it anymore. At conferences I tote along a Zoom H4N, but must admit it is total overkill. The new H1 is probably a better buy.

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19 John Soares September 1, 2011 at 5:44 AM

Murray, it sounds like you have a good system that works for you. I admit that I’m quite invested in the system I have now with my Word documents and the audio files from my voice recorder that I’m a little reticent to add something like Evernote to the mix, but I’ll think about it.

And please do report back on any changes you make and how they affect your productivity.
John Soares recently posted…Freelance Writer’s Guide to Internet Research

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20 Jean August 31, 2011 at 10:12 PM

Awesome! I knew I couldn’t be the only one who thought of using a digital recorder! I get into and witness some very interesting conversations, and they usually give me fresh ideas to write about. of course, I forget them by the time I finally get to write them down. I’m totally going to invest in a recorder now. :)

Your post also reminded me that I need to spend an afternoon sorting out my many, many text and Word files. Imust have written about 60 ideas and they’re everywhere.
Jean recently posted…Why I Hate Long Web Sales Letters and Squeeze Pages

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21 John Soares September 1, 2011 at 5:33 AM

A digital voice recorder would be perfect for you Jean. And you’ll be glad you took the time to sort through and organize all your ideas.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers

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22 Elizabeth September 1, 2011 at 7:39 AM

For smartphones, I use Voice Memos of VoicePlus apps as my digital recorders. (They also come in handy when you’re on a long trip with children. You can record them singing and then play their own songs back to them via the bluetooth hook-up in the vehicle’s sound system, if you’re a techie family like us.)
The Momento app is handy for preserving your twitter and Facebook (or other social media app) feeds, you can export files from Momento, and even import old posts from these feeds. Very handy for a busy mom & writer like myself.

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23 John Soares September 1, 2011 at 9:13 AM

Elizabeth, these are great tips. I don’t have a smart phone yet, but I’m considering getting one within the next year or so.

And great idea about recording your kids!
John Soares recently posted…My Guest Post and Live Call on Carol Tice’s Make A Living Writing Blog

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24 Anne Wayman September 1, 2011 at 10:24 AM

John, I’ve tried the digital recorder and hated transcribing my own notes to self… just realized that’s one more reason for a virtual assistant.
Anne Wayman recently posted…10 Ways Freelance Writers Can Stop Interruptions Before They Happen

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25 John Soares September 1, 2011 at 11:22 AM

It would be nice to have someone always around that I can dictate my ideas to…

It doesn’t take me much time to deal with the notes in my recorder — maybe 15 minutes per week.
John Soares recently posted…Take A Writer’s Retreat: Go Camping or Rent A Cabin

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26 Anne Wayman September 1, 2011 at 11:46 AM

lol, I’ll bet you talk to your recorder more efficiently than I do… might have to try learning that skill.
Anne Wayman recently posted…10 Ways Freelance Writers Can Stop Interruptions Before They Happen

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27 Nicky Parry September 2, 2011 at 6:53 AM

Great commentary! I too am a big fan of compiling my thoughts into Word documents. When I’m “mobile”, I also use voice recording, as well as Evernote on my iPhone. I always have a notebook too, but I so agree with you – having yout thoughts “digital” somewhere is a much better alternative to just relying on the written notes.
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28 John Soares September 2, 2011 at 7:39 AM

Thanks for dropping by Nicky. I use yearly planner, 8.5″ x 11″, to organize my to-dos, but it’s my only significant concession to paper.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers

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29 Sherryl Perry September 2, 2011 at 8:53 AM

John,
I use a Word document to collect my ideas but I also like to write things down too. Slips of paper, notebooks with scribbles, post-it-notes . . . somehow, I do manage to keep track of them all but to most people my desk may look like an unorganized mess. :) For me, the process of writing something down by hand helps me remember it.
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30 Jane | Problogging Success September 10, 2011 at 9:34 AM

I find that capturing ideas is one one of the challenging tasks for a freelance writer. Coz getting ideas isn’t a problem since freelance writers read and write a lot; they are in the “form” for ideas. But capturing them needs some good practice. Nice tips here :)
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31 Anne October 10, 2011 at 10:08 AM

I have a moleskin notebook that I use as my planner and a place to capture my ideas. It’s around 8×5 so it fits in my bag and can be easily carried around for when I’m at the library and need a place to write down numbers or at my physical therapy appointment and need to quickly scribble down notes or advice.

I usually have 2 pages per week – one page is divided up into days so I can write down my appointments and to-dos with a column for shopping lists and other little things a single mama can’t forget. The other page is for miscellaneous notes from that week. That way, I know when the note was taken (they’re usually associated with some appointment written on the other page).

Once a week (usually on Saturday night), I set up the next week’s pages, transfer any to-do notes, and add any appointments from my monthly calendar (it’s a paper calendar that is tucked in the back flap of the notebook). That’s also when I transfer any important ideas or notes I want to keep or be able to search into Evernote. That way, I can always quickly retrieve these great ideas that pop in my head without having to flip through pages and pages in an old notebook. Best of all, these notes are then placed “in the cloud” (the Evernote server) and available anywhere, even if my hard drive crashes or my notebook catches on fire. ;-)

In other words: my notebook is my idea incubator and my Evernote account is storage.

Anne

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32 John Soares October 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Anne, it sounds like you’ve developed a good system that works for you.

Question: do you always have that moleskin notebook with you?
John Soares recently posted…My Review of Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers Den Membership Site

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33 Anne October 10, 2011 at 3:25 PM

Yes, it does. It took a while for old-forgetful-me to remember to pick it up from my desk before I walk out the door but now it’s second nature – grab bag, keys, and notebook and out the door I go!

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34 John Soares October 10, 2011 at 4:59 PM

Good for you! When my digital voice recorder isn’t in my pocket, it’s right next to my wallet and keys.
John Soares recently posted…How to Minimize Interruptions So You Can Get Your Writing Done

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35 Cathy Miller October 12, 2011 at 9:20 AM

How funny, John, that our posts have some of the same basis of inspiration-blog ideas.

As I am training for my 3-Day Walk, I find those walks are my best time for inspiration. Like you, I record my thoughts, but I don’t have as sophisticated a system as you do. I love some of the ideas here.

As an alternative I also use my Notes feature on my Blackberry (when I don’t want to disturb with voice recording).

I do transfer ideas to Word and I have a folder of not only my ideas but those of others-e.g., posts with topic ideas. I definitely like the idea of digitizing it even further. Great ideas, John!
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36 John Soares October 12, 2011 at 9:23 AM

I think we have very similar systems Cathy. Great minds think alike!

I haven’t yet made the transition to a smart phone, and I recently could have used that Notes feature. I was at presentation and wanted to take some notes; I wound up whispering into my digital recorder, but I was concerned about distracting the people sitting next to me.
John Soares recently posted…How to Minimize Interruptions So You Can Get Your Writing Done

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37 secretsteve October 17, 2011 at 3:47 PM

Thanks for the interesting read John.
I used to spend 2 hours driving to work and I decided the time was too good to waste so i started writing books by speaking into a voice recorder. You wouldn’t believe how many books you can write over one year. By the end of the year I had over 600 hours of dictation. Unfortunately, I have never had the chance to convert the voice to text.. lol
Maybe one day I will get the time. :)
Cheers
Steve
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38 Deanna Cummings March 15, 2012 at 9:29 AM

This is a really interesting post, as I had never heard of recording our ideas onto a digital voice recorder! I know it’s archaic but something about writing the lyrics down helps me remember them better. And on and on and on.
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