Writing a book is a significant undertaking, whether it’s your first manuscript or you’ve been published several times before. Among the key challenges you’ll face is the management of your ideas. It may be the case that you have too many ideas. Alternatively, you might be dealing with writer’s block. Let’s face it, both can occur within a single project. Often your best tool for overcoming idea-based obstacles is to keep them well organized.
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When your concepts are chaotic, your productivity and even your motivation to keep writing could suffer. On the other hand, when your ideas are under control, this can keep you on track to meet deadlines while also freeing your headspace to explore new creative avenues.
We’re going to run down a handful of methods you can use to organize your ideas.
Optimize Your Space
The first element to focus on is your writing environment. Your physical surroundings have the ability to impact your writing process in various ways. From an organizational perspective, the state of your environment can influence your psychological and emotional efficacy. When your office has a lot of clutter, you’re likely to find it difficult to keep your ideas in check and your creativity flowing. It’s worth taking the time to optimize and maintain your space.
The choices you make for your home office can be tools for remaining focused and productive. From an atmospheric perspective, keeping the colors of your decorations and walls relatively neutral can be soothing while also minimizing distractions. On a practical level, investing in some filing cabinets keeps important documents relating to your ideas tidy and accessible. If you don’t have room for a full filing cabinet, a set of desk drawers can be equally effective for minimizing clutter.
Use Sticky Notes Effectively
When it comes to organizing your ideas, sticky notes can be a practical resource. At the most basic level, they help to externalize your concepts. This means you don’t have to try and mentally keep track of all your ideas. They also give you the opportunity to “live” with your ideas. Sticking them on your walls or the side of your computer screen means you see them every day and gain an understanding of whether you’re still interested in them. Not to mention they are quickly disposable if you feel they don’t work.
That said, it’s important to recognize how simply having a range of sticky notes strewn about your office is not conducive to keeping your ideas organized. It’s important to use them in an intentional way. One approach is to assign different colored notes to each concept category, such as characters, research areas, and location descriptions. They can also be used to organize and test the ideas you have for the structure of a chapter or the overall narrative by writing a plot point on each note. This allows you to experiment with the order of actions and identify where any specific problems to be solved are.
Utilize Flow Charts
One of the most challenging areas to keep your ideas organized is in relation to the shape and direction of the story. This can be difficult whether you have an overabundance of ideas for the type of story you want to tell or if your concepts are somewhat lacking. It’s important to utilize organizational tools that give you the chance to test and consider your ideas beyond committing to multiple drafts of the manuscript.
Flow charts can be a practical method of visualizing the steps in a process and reviewing the possible outcomes. While there is a linear sequence to the chart itself, it allows you to branch off into different directions depending on the choices available to you. This means you can explore the different narrative arcs you’re considering, introducing different characters or problems at various points to experiment with the possibilities. You can also share digital flow charts with members of your writer’s group, friends, and editors for feedback on any options you’re unsure of.
This approach also helps you to uncover ideas you may not have previously considered. In essence, you’re giving yourself permission to play with the narrative without consequence. As such, you can gain some confidence to insert even your most outlandish ideas, which is not only more creatively fruitful for you but also surprising for your readers.
Keep a Discard File
As a writer, your ideas are valuable tools of your craft. However, it is important not to get too precious about them. One of the traps many writers fall into when they have an abundance of ideas is they try to cram all of them into the book. This can come from an understandable desire not to dispose of a concept you’re convinced is interesting. There is an overused axiom of “kill your darlings” to describe being somewhat brutal about editing out anything not necessary to your story. It might be more useful to simply have a space where you can safely cut your ideas and store them for later consideration or for another project.
This is where creating a discard file can be essential. You can either produce a physical filing system for this or a series of digital documents. Whichever approach you choose, it’s important that you maintain solid organization. Produce documents or filing cabinet dividers for different categories, such as characters, scenarios, and even lines of dialogue. When trimming ideas from your project, keep them in the relevant space. This means you have easy access to options for further exploration whenever you’re stuck on an idea in the future.
When you’re embarking on a writing project, keeping your ideas organized is essential to making good progress. Minimize the clutter in your office that can disrupt your ideation process. Tools such as sticky notes and flow charts can help you visualize your concepts and explore them more efficiently. Rather than delete excess ideas from your project entirely, keep them in a discard file for future consideration. Your commitment to keeping your ideas under control can free your headspace to devise a more creative book.