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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.

[Image: Flickr user Madelyn Mulvaney]

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.

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