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4 Steps to Capture the Muse – Documenting Ideas

This post was originally published on Live to Write – Write to Live where I blog about writing and publishing with a diverse group of literary friends. 

When you are a writer, you are always on the hunt for new material. Your writer’s mind is constantly processing the world through a creative filter. When your muse is with you, brilliant thoughts flow like whiskey in an Irish pub. You effortlessly generate new story ideas, solve dialog problems, and figure out exactly how to work your love of avocados into this week’s business column. Life is good.

And then you get distracted. The phone rings, your waiter brings your lunch (avocados, of course), the dog barks to go out, or that evil email alert lures you off your train of thought. When you extract yourself from whatever interruption pulled you away, you realize that your perfect, marvelous, incomparable idea has slipped completely out of your mind. Ouch.

To avoid this kind of despair, here is an idiot-proof, four-step method for capturing the muse:

Step 1: Be prepared
Recently, Lee wrote about favorite pens and Wendy covered favorite notebooks. Like any writer, I have my own idiosyncrasies about my tools of choice; but when it comes to capturing the muse any ballpoint and scrap of paper will do. In a pinch, I’ve used bank slips, napkins, and gum wrappers. To avoid scrabbling for makeshift supplies, try to always carry a small notebook and pen with you. ALWAYS. You never know when inspiration will strike.

If you’re more high-tech, you may prefer a voice recorder of some kind – one of those nifty, James Bond-esque pens; a digital recorder; or a smart phone voice memo. I have the Recorder app on my iPhone and use it frequently while I’m walking or driving (both inconvenient and dangerous times to take notes the old-fashioned way).

Step 2: Document immediately
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out for a walk, had a great idea, and assumed I’d be able to retain it until I got home. Same goes for those insights that dawn on me just as I’m about to fall asleep – as I drift off to the Land of Nod, I think, “I’ll remember that tomorrow.” Of course, I don’t.

When an idea strikes, get it down right away. Why waste the brain cells worrying about remembering when you can just write it down?

Of course, there are some situations (like when you’re in the shower) when you simply don’t have any way to document your thoughts. In those cases, pick a few key words that will help you remember the idea and then put them into a phrase, or – even better – an image. This should be just enough to help you hang onto the thought until you can get to a pen and paper (towel optional).

Step 3: Document completely
A common pitfall of even the most conscientious note taker is incomplete notes. You finally find the note about the great plot twist for your latest story, and all it says is “arc – memories – Jane falls backward – avocado.” Huh? When you make a note of something, do it as completely (and coherently!) as possible. Though you may think you’ve captured the essence of the idea, if you haven’t gone into detail, the shelf life of your brain-to-paper translation may be very brief.

Another mistake I often make is scribbling illegible notes. It’s either late at night and I’m trying to take notes in the dark from under the covers, or the ideas are flowing so quickly that my hand can’t keep up and my usually horrible handwriting degenerates into a decorative scrawl with no communication merit whatsoever. If you find yourself in either of these situations, transcribe as soon as possible. The only thing more frustrating than losing an idea because you didn’t write it down is losing an idea that you did write down, but can’t decipher.

Step 4: File quickly
Last step – file the idea so you can find it again later. If you’re like me, your brain does not obediently come up with ideas in a sequential and orderly manner. Your notebook is probably filled with random notes on everything from recipes to directions to character traits to essay topics – all jumbled up together. Kudos to you for capturing them, but if you really want those ideas to work for you, you’re going to have to find them when you need them.

Though I love taking notes with pen and paper, I tend to file and organize digitally. It’s easier for storage and searching. I keep one file (at least) for each project (story, book, client, etc.) and for each general topic (story ideas, places, people, etc.) Google docs also work really well for this because you can access them from anywhere.

And that’s all there is to it: write it down immediately and completely and then put it somewhere so you can find it again later – easier said than done, but worth the effort of making it a habit.

What are your tips and tricks for remembering great ideas?

Yes, that is an image from the 1980 film, Xanadu. Yes, I did have ribbon barrettes and roller skates. Yes, I do know all the words.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She focuses primarily on small and start-up businesses, using content marketing and social media marketing to help her clients build profitable, long-term relationships with their customers. She is a mom, a singer, and dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter.


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  1. Oh, the illegibility! I love to write my notes rather than type them, but honestly–one day I was doing that, writing quite neatly by my standards, and a woman came by and asked, very politely, “What language is that?”

    Also, making complete notes is essential. As I’m on the phone with clients sketching out a brief from what they tell me, they tend to get an echo of the last three or four words they said as I’m typing it on notepad or jotting it on a legal pad. I don’t want to leave out the details, because those are what count.

    • Jamie Lee

      Shakirah – You made me laugh … “what language is that?” – classic. :)

      I often (with permission, of course) record client calls … just in case … but I rarely want to listen to the playback. Instead I take copious notes while we talk – apologizing all the while for the awkward pauses as I capture those important details.


      Here’s our elusive muses!

  2. though i love the look and feel of paper, i’ve come to use evernote more and more.

    and more.

    • Jamie Lee

      Me too, Jeanne! I find I’m “clipping” things all the time now … and even adding my own “home made” notes into my Evernote archives … gift ideas go in there, places I want to visit, potential character names, how-to posts … the whole world! I love my notebooks and sketchbooks, but they lack the all-important “search” function!

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