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A Simple Trick For Finding Your Next Great Idea

The outtake file. Think of it as a recycling center for ideas.

Writing a book is a long process involving lots of edits and multiple versions. In the old days of typewriters, you’d literally cut and paste sections of text where you wished them to go. While inefficient, the upside is that you had a physical collection of your deletions—the pieces that ended up on the cutting room floor.

In the digital era, it’s easy to cut and accept changes, and never think about these deletions. But a few book projects ago, I realized that I was missing out on a big source of ideas. I put effort into finding those sources and writing those paragraphs, and even if they wouldn’t work in the book, they might work later for something else.

So I started creating an "outtakes" file for every big project, from books to longish articles. Anything longer than a few words that gets deleted from a manuscript goes into the outtake file, where it becomes fodder for blog posts, other articles, and so forth. Sometimes I’ve even found a neat turn of phrase that I can cut and paste right from the outtake file into something else. I figure, why not use all parts of the buffalo if I can?

In any sort of creative work, people spend a lot of time generating ideas. Many aren’t going to work for solving the specific problem at hand, and that’s fine. But they’re probably not all bad ideas either. A good outtakes file can be the starting point when you’re in need of future inspiration. Those ideas are probably related to your business and include things you find fascinating for some reason or another. They may be solutions just waiting for the right problem to arise.

And so a description of San Francisco that got cut from an article gets folded into some fiction. An interview that didn’t make it into another article gets used as a profile in a book. A few musings on the problem with part-time work that didn’t make it into a book becomes a column on the topic. We only have so much time. If you manage a solid 40 hours per week of productive work for 50 weeks a year, that’s 2,000 hours. Anything you want to accomplish has to be done within that span. So if a client asks for some new ideas, how nice to have piles of them that are already partly thought through, ready to be stitched together like a quilter using scraps? A few old ideas lead to an even better new idea when you skip the delete button and paste your outtakes somewhere accessible instead.

[Image: Flickr user Madelyn Mulvaney]

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  • sambredl

    I switched from Evernote back to my Moleskine Notebooks because of that. I simply like having my notes on paper so I can look at them even if I did not use them in a story. I keep my little notebooks everywhere I go. I have like 10 of them. Each one has its own name and character (I know kinda crazy). Another thing I realized is that handwritting makes me think in a different way than writing on the computer. Maybe because it takes longer and one has more time to think. I love new technology. But sometimes I'm really old school :)

  • Thanks, Laura! I'm still an Evernote fan but I do so love handwriting, too. I'll have to pay attention to see if handwriting makes me think differently, too. I'm betting it does!

    Hey, your blog is lovely but I wish you would add a plugin that allows us to follow a particular thread of commenting. Please give it consideration:) - I have it on my blog and it definitely increases dialog between readers.

    Keep up the beautiful work!

  • Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC

    Thanks, Laura! What a simple and practical idea! I'm wondering how or if you organize your outtakes file or if you just collect one big brain dump? Care to let us take a peek?