Why I don’t always write ideas down right away

office-991306_640Most writers will tell you they write every idea the moment it comes to them, and many even go to great lengths to do this. They keep a notebook beside their bed and one in every bag, write on envelopes or napkins and sometimes hide out in the bathroom to get a particularly complex thought down.

I, on the other hand, have recently made a point of not writing ideas down right away. There are some exceptions–names(I have a terrible time naming anything), little details in stories–but most ideas don’t get written down right away.

Here’s the thing: not all ideas are worth pursuing. And in my early years of serious writing I devoted a lot of time to ideas that weren’t worth pursuing. I would get halfway through an outline or a draft before I realized the story didn’t actually have any substance or that I didn’t care enough about the characters to make them real in the reader’s head. I’ve written entire novels during Nanowrimo that I know I will never go back to because the story simply doesn’t hold up.

I don’t want to spend a lot of my time on ideas that aren’t worth pursuing, and once I start writing things down I get extreme pretty fast. It’s pretty common for me to write down a single bullet point about a blog post and end up with a full page outline before I know it. Or to write a new outline for a novel based on a single idea, only to overturn the idea or realize it has deeper implications and end up drastically altering the outline.

Leaving ideas in my head allows me to figure out which ones are worthwhile. If it isn’t worthwhile it will pass through my head and never return. If it is, it will linger at the back of my consciousness, presenting itself occasionally(or frequently) throughout the day.

Even better, every time an idea comes back to me it comes back with more details. By the time I reach the page I’ve already worked out most of the kinks and I can write the whole idea down. Sometimes this looks like an outline, other times it’s a scene or even a sequence of scenes, and sometimes it’s a blog post like this one.

Once in a while I’ll reach this point and realize the idea isn’t worth pursuing or simply won’t work, but usually if I actually write it down I end up completing the project and loving the final product.

I might miss out on the occasional idea, but I’ve already got entire notebooks filled with outlines of blog posts, articles and books I’ve never written. And while most of them aren’t worth committing more time to, there’s enough good material in my notebooks to keep me writing blog posts and books constantly for the next ten years. So any new ideas I commit to need to be truly exceptional. This is especially true now that I’ve got a full time freelance business with steady clients who have high expectations.

I haven’t outlined a new blog post in several months, but I have edited one novel and a novella(I’m actually editing the novella for a second time right now and am almost done), created a submission package for the novel, and re-written Part 1 of an old Nanowrimo novel. As crazy as it sounds, ignoring the majority of new ideas allowed me to keep a laser like focus on the big projects. If I had given in to every urge to stop and outline a blog post or a short story I might never actually write, I wouldn’t have two projects on track to go on submission by November first.

How many notebooks full of abandoned ideas do you have? What crazy things have you done to get your ideas down? Let me know in the comments below! 

2 thoughts on “Why I don’t always write ideas down right away

  • At the moment the majority of my writing is academic writing. I make notes of possible projects as a bullet point. Most of the time I’m able to just leave the bullet points and move on. It’s how I put ideas aside when needed. That said, the notebook is nearby as I think of things to add or put into current projects.
    I haven’t made a blog post in a while, though, and have lots of ideas, but not much more. Question of what’s been going on in life and available time and energy.

    • dlgunn

      It is definitely always good to keep a notebook or at least some paper nearby.

      I am a little bit better at doing just one bullet point for non-fiction stuff. Fiction always turns into more. Of course, that’s just an issue I have: right now I’m working on a 30, 000ish word novella that started life as a 6K short story.

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