Managing your muse: tools for gathering and organising your ideas

Writing Helper graphic by Delgrosso

Whatever you write, there’s a tool out there to help you manage your muse. Planning my current writing project has forced me to abandon my once trusty index cards and seek out new ways to get organised. I asked writers what approaches they use – from good old pen and paper, to apps and cloud based systems.

Managing your ideas funnel

Woody Allen has an inspiration drawer. As ideas come to him he scribbles them on scraps of paper and stores them in his bedside cabinet drawer. When he’s ready to start a new project, he dumps the contents of the drawer on his bed and sifts through the ideas one by one to find his next film.

Ideas at different stages need different ways of organising. Think of it as an ideas funnel – at the top there are lots of ideas, then you narrow down to develop a few of them, to eventually work on one of them.

Like Woody Allen’s bedside drawer, some systems can be simple yet effective. Technology won’t help you have more ideas, but it can help you organise them. Whether you opt for pen and paper, or the latest app, what matters is that it works for you.

I see three broad categories for ideas management:

  • Gathering ideas
  • Building and developing
  • Planning and writing

Together they can help you design a personal ideas funnel for your writing.

1. Ready for your muse: gathering ideas

Ideas come to us at any time. In my experience, they like to arrive when I’m least prepared for them. In the shower, in bed at 4am, on a run – all the times I’m generally without a pen or laptop.

This is the top of your ideas funnel. You need to notice your ideas and write them down as quickly as possible before you forget them. The tools should be accessible and super easy to use. Yep, that usually means pen and paper. At this stage, there is no need to judge or categorise: all ideas are good and deserve to be gathered.

Top tips for gathering:

  • Notice and remember your idea.
  • Record it quickly.
  • Carry a note pad and pen.
  • Use your mobile phone – a notes app, or voice record.
  • Don’t judge! Aim for quantity not quality.

Many writers, creatives and entrepreneurs recommend a daily practice of gathering ideas – you can either wait for inspiration to strike or schedule time to brainstorm. Creativity is often described as a muscle, so the more ideas you have, the more you build your capacity to have them. This is backed up by research, so make some ideation time each day.

2. Taking shape: building and developing ideas

There’s something special about writing down ideas by hand; the physicality of a pen on paper makes the idea seem more real. It’s no surprise that many writers continue to use handwritten tools for developing ideas they’ve gathered.

Back in the day I used to plan on index cards; nowadays I use post it notes. Both are helpful because you can reorder things, and having a visual plan makes it feel so much more tangible.

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Here’s my outline table of contents for my book, planned on post notes and stuck on my desk. I took the idea for my book, brainstormed all the chapters, and reorganised them until it had the right ‘shape’.

Brainstorm table of contents

Some people might stop with the hand-written version, but many writers turn to technology, for example Scrivener’s corkboard function replicates the simplicity of post it notes.

Stepping up a level is Evernote, a powerful notes app where you can add photos, links and all sorts of notes. It’s synced across devices so you can access your ideas at any time or place.

The top organisational tool listed by writers of all types is Trello, a browser-based project management system. It was initially favoured by tech teams for sharing progress (we use it to manage Prolifiko development across virtual teams).

Trello

Writers have been using Trello’s super simple interface to plan and organise their ideas. You create ‘boards’ for different writing projects, and have ‘cards’ where you can organise chapters. You can add notes, pictures and links and move the card across the board to measure progress in a simple ‘Kanban’ to do, doing, done methodology. Its mobile-friendly app means you can keep organising on the go. I even get nudges from Trello on my watch!

3. Getting serious: planning and writing

Once you’ve developed an idea into something concrete you need to bring out the power tools. King of the toolbox is Scrivener, beloved by novelists, academics, screenwriters and non-fiction writers.

It’s not simple to use – once downloaded Scrivener recommends you set aside a “few hours” for the demo, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ve got a whole host of functions at your fingertips to help you outline then write. Users are evangelical about it – productivity guru Tim Ferriss lists it as a tool he can’t live without.

More conventional word processing can be found in cloud-based Google Docs – users swear by the outline view and love that it’s backed up securely and accessible anywhere. Traditionalists like the ‘styles’ function on Word where you can view your planned work by different levels of heading.

Get personal: create your own system

When I asked writers what they used for planning I learnt it’s personal! While some swear by pen and paper, many experimented with several different tools. Here’s a few examples:

Robert: “I’ve dabbled with several different methods, including index cards laid out on the living room floor. I’ve tried outlining in Scrivener, Aeon Timeline, Workflowy and Omnioutliner. Ulysses is my tool of choice for writing.”

Rebecca: “for my novel I use Scrivener, Evernote and index cards. Scrivener and the index cards help me play with chapter and scene order. I also use Scrivener to track what each scene is about and the status (to do, first draft, revised draft, etc). Evernote captures all my random ideas and scraps of writing and the tags help me find them later.”

Stephen: “I do bullet point notes in my notebooks for short stories but I prefer Scrivener’s corkboard for organising my book scenes though. The overview is great to just scroll through and rearrange easily knowing the actual content of the chapter is ‘underneath’ the card.”

Sallie: “I am always experimenting but most roads lead back to Scrivener. I generally start off with iThoughts or paper mind mapping then dump it into OmniOutliner. Eventually, when I’ve got the bones and am ready to start working on the story itself, the project gets migrated across to Scrivener.”

As for me, I’ve thrown away my index cards and transferred all my post it notes to Trello. This week’s task is to get to grips with Scrivener. I’d love to hear what approaches keep you organised and on track – join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.