Creativity Tools for the (Dis)organized Writer
Ideas are messy things. For most people, they tend to pile up in corners and under the bed like dust bunnies. For writers, though, they feel more like stampeding cattle. In order for writers to communicate creatively, we need to corral these ideas, brand them, sort and break them in. Then ride or sell them where needed. (Yep, pardner, there may be a mixed metaphor or two in that there paragraph, but that’s what ideas are.)
So, metaphorically and materially, writers (and others) have developed lots of tools to organize info and use them creatively. Graphic organization is a common aid to writers and mind mapping is one of those aids. We’re going to revisit mind mapping again here on Frugal Guidance 2, but before we do that, here’s an overview of different methods for organizing your thoughts. We’ll also share a few books and methods for getting you organized, as well.
Why? Because few readers want a data dump; they expect your ideas to be organized, thoughtful and presented logically. It’s a high bar.
Taming Chaos – for Creatives
First, The Earth Was Without Form and Void
When composer Franz Joseph Haydn was 65 years old, a ripe old age in the 18th century, he began a two-year project writing the oratorio, The Creation. This lengthy work for choir, soloists and orchestra begins with an Overture portraying the universe without form and void of organization. To do this he used only small bits of melodies and featured random scales and arpeggios, sudden loud notes and slightly disorganized dissonances. (It’s pretty mild stuff by today’s standards, but cutting edge in 1798.) It’s a musical parable of the creator’s need to forge random ideas into something meaningful: a story, an oratorio or, perhaps, a universe.
The idea of taking chaos and turning it into an organized whole is one of the oldest ideas in scripture, but it’s difficulty continues to surprise writers and other creators. Today, with more data and ideas chaotically flying around than ever before, we need to think more about how we process info, with old and newer tools.
If you’d like to see what the shift from Chaos to Creation sounded like in the culmination of The Age of Enlightenment, check out the first 10 minutes or so of Haydn’s work, The Creation,
performed here on period instruments. Oops, the original recording is no longer on YouTube. This newer link will take you to a more modern, but less satisfying version. FYI, Chaos and Darkness are represented here until the chorus sings, “and there was light.” Poets and lyricists can follow the the text here. Late bloomers should take comfort in the fact that Haydn waited until he was 65 to write a major oratorio (although he had written many operas and masses earlier). When he did, it eclipsed Handel’s Messiah in popularity for many years.
Here are some tools writers can use to explore ideas, make connections and sort thoughts into words. There are links at the end to help you learn more if any of these tickle your fancy.
This list is hardly complete. Please add your additional ideas in the comments.
How would we ever shop, get things done or build something without lists? It’s our most basic organizational unit. There are whole books and websites written about using lists.
2. Keep a Diary
Diaries are a venerable, tested way to put thoughts down on paper (or pixels) on a regular schedule. They may be personal, for business, for ideas or just a way to get the creative juices pumping in the morning. A diary doesn’t have to be just words. Feel free to sketch, use colors, add photos or whatever feeds the muse.
3. The Moleskine Notebook
An offshoot of the diary is the Moleskine pocket notebook, which we’ve explored at length on this blog. Where a diary is often for introspection, a pocket notebook gets dirty down in the organizing trenches. It can be a calendar, a directory, a password list, a place for writing drafts, an organizer, even a tool for Getting Things Done. I still keep a Moleskine-like notebook with me at almost all times, ready to jot down an idea or make a list.
4. The Commonplace Book
Similar is the idea of keeping a Commonplace Book, which differs from a general diary or an all-purpose book as a book specifically for writing down quotations from books and other media. (Of course, you can keep anything you want in it.)
A calendar can be used to to organize time and schedules, but can also include a list of accomplishments or a daily writing or drawing exercise. A few writers make it a goal to either write or draw in their calendar every day of the year. (At least one mom has her kids help her do that, too.)
Honestly, I’ve tried to use both paper and digital calendars to organize my life and I’ve read books and blogs about using them, but I’ve had more success with mind maps. More later.
6. File Folders and Notebooks
Probably no literary character was more intelligent, logical and thoughtful than Sherlock Holmes. Yet his thought processes (which preceded David Allen’s Getting Things Done by the better part of a century) were freed up by keeping meticulous notes, lab results and news items in large notebooks. I have no idea if Arthur Conan Doyle used the same method himself, but I doubt that he created it out of thin air.
For many of us, our introduction to database management was by an organized use of 3×5 or 4×6 notecards. It was usually under the watchful glare of an English teacher who later tried to show us how to use them to create outlines.
In addition to writing systems, 3×5 cards can be used to organize tasks, keep a short directory, and a few people still prefer cards or Rolodexes for directories.
Like notecards but with sticky stuff on the back, Post-Its are one of the great inventions of the 20th century. Put them on a wall or board and you can move them around to sort and find connections or create a colorful, physical outline. If they are obstructing the view of your computer screen, though, it may be time to look at other reminder methods.
There are several apps and writing programs that try to emulate digital Post-Its (including 3M’s Post-It app and Google Keep). Scrivener is a writing tool that uses the Post-It metaphor among other tools.
Back when the personal computer world was still new and all, outliners were one of the programs that made the Macintosh a favorite of writers and creatives. I was one of those early digital outline users and had great success with them. I’m not convinced that PC people ever really got it, though. After switching to PCs I never found an outlining program I really liked (although there are a number of useful ones for iPads and iOS). [I just downloaded UV Outliner for Windows to try it out, though.]
10. The Tunnel’s House Memory Technique
The PBS detective mini-series, The Tunnel, explored the cooperation and competition between French and English police forces forced to work together. (The series opens with a murder victim lying across the marked border between England and France in the train tunnel linking the countries.) One of the French detectives admits to memorizing details of all her cases using a mind-based house, with separate rooms for different types of info, plus an imaginary house manager or guide or concierge to help her find connections.
Her “guide” may have been her dead twin sister, but that’s a whole ’nuther psych profile. If you need to memorize your facts, the house metaphor could work well. This is sometimes called the Memory Palace or the Journey Method, and can also use familiar streets, a former school, your place of work or a daily jogging path.
In literature, Hannibal Lecter used this memory technique in the book series. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a murdering cannibalistic psychopath to use the technique, thank goodness.
Physical, digital and mental sorting mechanisms abound using buckets as a quick decision-making or classification system.
Buckets are used to sort physical things, tasks and ideas. They can be used to declutter. David Allen uses a system of sorting buckets to help classify and record incoming tasks, priorities, and more. Basically, the bucket concept forces you to go through a series of items and make a quick decision on what to do with each. This makes it easier to find the item when you need it (or to quickly discard it). Buckets can also be boxes, sorting bins, file folders or your own mental memorizing system.
12. The 43 Folders System
43 folders is the name of a “tickler file system” that schedules reminders and related paper files into 31 days (of the month) plus 12 month folders (31+12=43). It requires daily use to be effective (always my Achilles heel). If you are disciplined enough, though, it can be very effective.
Of course, the 43 folders system works best if you handle a lot of paper and actually have something to hold file folders. If you have a paperless office, you can devise a folderless system, either with a document management program or by using a spreadsheet to list the files. You could also attach documents to your digital calendar or create the folders in your email program and email yourself all the relevant documents to sort. You can also emulate 43 folders in OneNote or Evernote, using notebooks or stacks for the months (and years), but you can easily create an infinite number of new day notes rather than recycle folders. Finally, you could set up a 43 folders mind map and use links to all the relevant documents and notes. See also digital GTD systems.
13. Six Thinking Hats
Designed for workgroups, it’s a system devised by Edward de Bono that uses different colored hats allowing members of the workgroup to focus on specific ideas and tasks. A writer can use all six colored hats, one at a time, to look at a problem, a project, or a story from different perspectives.
The colored hats and their roles:
- The White Hat reports known facts and decides where research is needed.
- The Red Hat deals with feelings, hunches and intuition.
- The Yellow Hat is for compliments and optimism. It looks for the good in everything.
- The Black Hat is critical and judgmental (the editor’s or proofreader’s hat, too), sometimes the Devil’s Advocate.
- The Green Hat is creative, looking for alternatives, new ideas and brainstorming.
- The Blue Hat is usually only worn by the facilitator or leader, and often directs the other participants on which hat to wear.
Even if you are not prone to multiple-personality disorder, you can still practice donning the different hats and their roles to look at the progress of a large project. Some workgroups use actual (or paper) hats. If you decide the hats don’t work for you, you can turn them over and make them buckets.
For some types of info, a spreadsheet program can be a hugely useful organizing tool. You can drill down into numbers, research, keep track of your fictional characters, track progress on your writing, list TV scenes, keep word counts, track deadlines or deal with more mundane tasks such as mailing lists and tax records. If you’re not ready to plunk down cash for Microsoft Excel, try Google’s online spreadsheets or the free LibreOffice’s spreadsheet tool.
The 2D grid is both the spreadsheet’s biggest advantage and disadvantage. Big Data is Really Big, these days, and the spreadsheet is the smallest unit of Big Data. (But haven’t writers always dealt with big data on some level?)
15. The Long Page Dump
Whether it’s the legal pad or the endless word processor page, sometimes you just need to put everything down in one place so you can review it all and try to make sense of it. Good for first drafts, too.
A very long file may benefit from using tabs, Post-Its, keywords, tags or navigation keys to help find and organize things. (FYI, LibreOffice’s Writer tool incorporates a much more sophisticated tagging system in its document navigator than Microsoft Word.)
16. Spark Files
A place to collect random facts and ideas where you can find them again to create new relationships. When you have an idea but don’t have time to deal with it, put it in your Spark File.
The file can be a physical notebook, Evernote, a Google doc or a file folder. The key is to collect every random idea in one place and review the entire file every few months.
The Spark File can be part of your bucket organizing system or you can just sit down and create a list of random ideas to put in your file.
17. Sketching or Drawing
I’ve always had deep envy for people who could pick up a pencil and create a quick illustration or icon. TV and movie scriptwriters are used to storyboarding, but other writers can try similar techniques. Many creators turn to sketching or doodling to break through a writer’s logjam.
18. The Free Form Database and Note Manager
Although there are many alternatives, the big two free form info managers are Evernote and OneNote. I still think OneNote is the best (and most underrated) tool in Microsoft Office, although I use LibreOffice and Evernote now. The biggest advantage these tools have is that they are available for computers, phones, and tablets for iOS, Android, Windows, Macs and more.
19. Embrace the Chaos
Take all the notes, pages, post its, file folders and throw them into the air and see how they settle. Then search for connections.
This is not necessarily recommended, but I was reminded of this in a scene from the aforementioned series, The Tunnel, where the same French Detective dumps all the files the joint team had collected onto the floor (much to the consternation of the British team who had carefully sorted them all). She then started finding unexpected connections. It made for a great scene, but may or may not work for you (or your office or house mates).
20. Sorting the Laundry
Take a stack of info and notes and start filing by color or texture or fabric or by logical or emotional status. It is closely related to the Bucket system mentioned above.
This technique is probably inevitable if you use the Chaos technique above.
21. Getting Things Done
This is an organization system for dealing with large numbers of tasks, ideas and projects in an organized fashion. The book Getting Things Done by David Allen has created an entire subculture of super-organized people, including I imagine, a few writers.
The Getting Things Done (or GTD) concept is based on getting ideas, task lists and appointments out of your mind and into a paper or digital organizing system, so you can stop worrying about forgetting things and concentrate on more creative tasks. It incorporates a bucket filing system, heavy use of a calendar and recording system, a 43-folder-type tickler file system, regular review, and following up on tasks delegated to others, and tasks others delegate to you.
Read the book and decide whether or not it’s your cup of tea. Some people have tried it, discarded the method, and then picked it up years later with great success. Some find it too complicated, others embrace it religiously.
22. The Clustering Technique
Clustering is a graphical idea and creativity technique that was a big part of Gabriele Lusser Rico’s book, Writing the Natural Way. It’s now a classic writing creativity textbook, first published in the 1980s. Clustering has many similarities to mind-mapping but allows the writer to search and mark connections between the ideas (or cells), creating an interconnected web-like structure.
Rico uses clustering to liberate right brain creativity. Although the Right-Brain / Left-Brain dichotomy is still debated, her book is more concerned with creativity, not brain mapping.
Clustering is usually a pencil and paper method, but most mind map software handles it very well, too.
23. The Mind Map
Mind maps may be the perfect organizational and creativity tool for writers. It was created and promoted by Tony Buzan, independently of and at about the same time as Gabriel Lusser Rico’s clustering technique. The two systems share many similarities. Rico uses the technique uniquely for teaching writing techniques, while Buzan uses it for a wider variety of activities including group activities and brain storming, and adds drawing and color to the mix.
Originally a pen and paper technique, mind mapping software expands mind maps from their original notetaking and creative uses to link info from the web and word and spreadsheet files, too.
Mind mapping software often includes several other visual organizing tools in addition to traditional (Tony Buzan style) mind maps, including:
- The fishbone outline (I never really got the idea of this)
- The chronological chart
- Organizational charts
- Tree charts
- Right or left facing charts
- Gantt Charts and basic project management
- Brain storming collection and evaluation
- Concept maps
- Argument maps
- Timeline mapping (forward and backward)
Some software maps make it easier to export the file as an image, an outline, text, Microsoft Word format, Microsoft Project format, or Outlook lists and appointments. Others connect with Evernote or Google Drive.
In the near future I’ll explore different uses of mind maps. They can be used for quick creative essays or poems, or for organizing your magnum opus or your life. (How’s that for flexibility!) See our earlier articles on using mind maps if you want a quick start or just figure out what I’m talking about:
To Learn More
Our earlier Frugal Guidance 2 series on mind maps began with Mind Mapping and the Information Revolution.
For a variety of uses of Moleskine (and Moleskine-like) notebooks, our Frugal Guidance 2 series begins with Taming the Wild Moleskine, Part 1, Breaking the Bronco Notebook.
For alternatives to Moleskine notebooks (economical and not), see our post Notebook Alternatives to Moleskines.
The best description of the 43 folders tickler file system that I’ve found is on Lifehack.org, Back to Basics: The Tickler File. But Chrissy Scivicque’s video, How to Create and Use the 43 Folders System is clear and concise. Finally, if you want a digital system, see Deb Lee’s How to Create a Tickler File with Evernote.
Writer Steven Johnson describes The Spark File system.
Develop Perfect Memory With the Memory Palace Technique is a good place to start to learn the method.
Wikipedia has a good introduction to Six Thinking Hats.
The website MakeUseOf has an overview of 5 Tools For Outlining Ideas For Writers And Artists. I also mentioned UV Outliner for Windows, although it may have fewer features than my iPad outliners.
A good article on keeping a Commonplace Book is Ryan Holiday’s How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book” on Thought Catalog.
For free-form databases, see Evernote and Onenote. As this article went into final proofing, The New York Times offered portable alternatives: Organizing Your Thoughts With Note-Taking Apps by Kit Eaton.
For the free, open source office suite, see LibreOffice, for Windows, Macs and Linux.
Last but not least, Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential is available at Barnes and Noble online or on Amazon.com and many other bookstores. Buzan has written many other books on the method, too.
Title image is of a 1920s vintage Royal Typewriter. Photography by the author, Andrew Brandt, Copyright © 2016.
The concert image is from a video recording of Haydn’s The Seasons with the Musiciens du Louvre.
See the link above to view the recording.
Post-It and clip image is from a photo by the author, edited in Photoshop and Topaz Labs plugins.
Six piled buckets image is anonymous, from the web, edited.
Image of the 43 folders system is from a video by Chrissy Scivicque, How to Create and Use the 43 Folders System. See link above.
Book images are from Amazon.com.