Methods for Keeping Track of Your Ideas

Dang–I had a good idea for my next blog post, but I forgot what it was.

Let’s see… It came to me while looking over my Casino Royale post, and I remember contemplating about writing more “writerly” posts like that.  Something about…not dialogue, but something else.

Editing!  I wanted to talk about editing!  But what, exactly, about editing?

Gee, if only I could remember…

Keeping Track of Your Ideas

Okay, I finally remember what it is I wanted to write about this time: the process of coming up with ideas and keeping track of them–not only during the planning stages of a novel but also during the writing and editing stages.

Yup, that was it.

*     *     *

As you can see, it’s important to have a system for keeping track of all your ideas or else you end up looking like a scatterbrain–like me, heh.  However, even with a situation like this, just writing out/journaling your thoughts in a free fashion can help you retrace your steps.  I probably do this more often than I even realize!

If you’re anything like me, then keeping track of the multitude of ideas that come to you can be a real challenge.  There are several methods I actually use to keep track of my thoughts as they come to me, and I’ve probably talked about most of them before.  Making a list of them here, though, might prove to be just as useful to others as it is to me!

Record It

A MP3 player/voice recorder by Sony.

I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but sometimes ideas actually come to me in the form of dialogue.  What better way, then, to capture your ideas than on a voice recorder?  Heck, you could even record a video, if you want!

Sometimes ideas that come to me are based off certain emotions or moods, or perhaps a turn of phrase.  It can be hard to capture those kind of ideas clearly when you first try to write them down, especially when it comes to you as something that should be verbalized.  Acting it out, then, or “reporting it live” can be a more effective way to catch this fleeting idea or inspiration as it happens if you don’t happen to have anything to scribble it onto.  I’ll be driving across the city and bam! some lines of dialogue will magically come to me.  Having a portable voice recorder handy is a good thing, in such a case.

Scribble & Clip It

More often, ideas will come to me visually and I want to write them down because I’m afraid if I don’t do it immediately then I’ll forget.  A lot of times this happens when I’m already in the middle of writing something.  That’s when having some scratch pieces of paper comes in handy.

At my house we go through a lot of print-outs that just didn’t print right or had errors on them, and normally we’d just recycle these pages.  Eventually my mom decided to start snipping up such pages into fours and using them as scratch paper.

Clip it!

Pretty useful, actually.

I keep a stack in one of my desk organizers, so if something comes to me out of the blue and is simple enough for me to scribble down quickly–in this scene, Voi could have this insight, etc.–then either clip it to the chapter I’m currently working on (editing) in my manuscript or keep it in a pile with other “notes to clip.”  There are times when I’m working on one scene and an idea or insight will come to me for an earlier or later one; I can go back and clip those to their respective chapters later.

Sometimes you just don’t have time for neat-and-tidy data entry methods!  This one works well on the fly.

Using sticky notes as chapter tabs for your work-in-progress.

Stick It

Same idea here, only you use sticky notes.  Sometimes which one I grab just depends on what’s closest.  Sticky notes are nice if you want to post an idea directly under the line you want to enter it at in your manuscript.

If you have the long, narrow sticky notes those are pretty good for making chapter tabs for your manuscript.  I’m sure there are plenty of other uses, but those are my big ones.

Leave A Comment

Okay, so this one works better if you’re actually writing your story and an idea comes to you then.

Using comments on Microsoft Word.

I don’t know what other word processors people use, but I assume most folks (with PCs anyway) use Microsoft Word.  If that’s the case, then you’ll know (or maybe you don’t) that you can insert comments into your documents as you’re working on them.  Maybe you have an idea but aren’t sure whether you want to implement it into your text yet.  Leaving a quick comment lets you jot down that idea off in the margins and allows you to think about it for a while until you’re ready to come back and make a definitive decision on the matter.  This works almost exactly like using scrap pieces of paper or sticky notes except it’s a lot easier to keep track of!

Grand list o' comments.

What’s also nice about using comments is not just the freedom to continue your writing after jotting down a quick thought but the fact that, once your first draft is complete, you can actually print out those comments as a separate document.  Word keeps track of the comments for you by assigning them numbers in the sequence that they occur within the manuscript.  It also tells you what page each comment was made on.

So long as you don’t change your formatting after printing out your comments, they should both line up–which makes going through your manuscript later with that encouraging red pen and highlighter (or whatever you choose to use) so much easier when you start actually making changes to it!

Journal It – Electronically

Sometimes I just have to write my way through a problem, and sometimes my ideas turn out to be a thousand-word ramble (or more); that’s when keeping a journal comes in handy.  I’m sure I’ve talked about this before here on the blog, but that’s all right.

When I’m already at the computer, then it’s kind of nice to just write down my ideas in another document.  I created one called “Element 7 Journal I” and have just been dumping a lot of my extraneous thoughts there.  (I actually have more than one; I don’t like to put more than 50 pages in one document, for some reason, unless it’s my manuscript.)  I also label the beginning of the document this way, or similarly, and insert one of those line breaks then start my entries from there.

My electronic journal.

For each entry I type in the date and also create a title for whatever I plan on exploring.  For example, if I want to think about a certain character’s motivations, then I’ll give the entry the name “Voi’s motivations.”  If I want to look at more than one thing, then I just string in a few titles using semi-colons–like “Voi’s Motivations; Elemental Deities.”

What’s nice about keeping an electronic journal is that it allows you to do quick searches by key words.  Very helpful, if you have hundreds of pages of thoughts!  (And I have several hundred thus far, though I’ve admittedly been using journals less now that I’m in the editing stage rather than planning or writing stages.)  If you make your journal entry titles in bold and in a larger font, then this makes spotting certain ideas easier, as well, and you can just quickly scroll through and look for stuff that way.

Whatever makes life easiest for you.

Journal It – TOFW (The Old-Fashioned Way)

You can also keep a journal by writing it out in longhand, and there are times when this is preferable.

Sometimes I want to make diagrams, or sketch things, or draw something else that would be impossible to do in Word.  (Mind maps, anyone?)  And now I’m 100% sure I talked about this before here.

Keeping an old-fashioned journal.

I do the same thing here, with including the date of entry, though I didn’t always give a title.  It’s a lot more difficult to retrace your ideas on paper than it is electronically, imo, but this does have its uses (as I mentioned above.)

In any case, it’s really just a matter of preference.  I like to keep both electronic and longhand journals because it just depends on where I’m at, what’s closest to me and what, exactly, I’m trying to explore.

Bind It

Okay, this is something that has been useful during the planning stage.

Bind it!

As you can see, I’ve got several binders, each for different purposes.  That big three-inch one holds not only my TOFW journals but all of my created languages.  (Yeah, I’ve created a few languages.)  The slender white one contains any especially important hand-written (or even typed) notes about my world–characters, world organizations, settings, history, and even a song that I wrote.  There are also some clippings from magazines, sketches and other doodles ‘n’ things I did that I keep in this binder.

The green one is actually some reasearch I did on how to write stories.  It mostly contains the clinics I purchased off Holly Lisle’s HollyShop site and were really helpful in getting me started.  The last (blue) binder contains any interesting articles I’ve come across that were related to my story and thought were useful.  I like to print some of them out then highlight particularly helpful sections and add notes.

Kind of like doing homework!  (Only it’s way more fun because I’m doing it for…well, fun.  Heh.)

File It

I guess binding is filing, in a way, but this time I mean electronically.

Yeah…there’s lots of ways to keep files, folks, and lots of things to keep on file when you’re creating your own world.

Places in my WIP.

I once mentioned that I like collecting images like there’s no tomorrow, so I tend to keep those on my computer.  I have an “Element 7” file specifically for this purpose, which I’ve subdivided into “Story Stuff,” for specific elements present in my story, and “Other,” which is a more general collection of things that informs what I decide to place in my story.  Under the former are “Places” and “Characters” and under the latter includes everything from “Fashion” and “Weapons & Technology” to “Altitudes,” in which I can observe what the world looks like to a pilot from specific altitudes.

Yeah…I even went so far as creating a “wardrobe” and set of personal items for my main characters.  Looked up some 1920s and 30s fashions (very few early 40s pieces) and voilà!

Photos can take up a fair amount of space on your hard drive (nearly six gigs, in my case, including stuff for school and whatnot), so having an external drive could come in handy if your don’t have much space or for some reason are in a crunch to begin with, heh (like I was before I got my new laptop).

Voi's "wardrobe."

When all is said and done, I can always tell you what hand-picked outfit she is wearing in every scene within my story–not necessarily one I saved in my file but something similar or reimagined.  In any case, I truly treat her as my “leading lady.” 😛


Usually, I would just store my scenes in a folder as separate Word files, and I still do this, but sometimes it’s nice to have a way to actually organize all those files in the order you’d like to see them in, by chapter, and to be able to move stuff around easily.  yWriter lets me do this.  What’s more, it’s 100% free!  All thanks to Spacejock.

There are several features on yWriter, some I haven’t used for my own reasons, including storing scene descriptions, keeping a list of characters who are in each scene, inserting pictures, keeping track of each scene’s location…and lots of other cool features like a storyboard.  (It also lets me use italics now!  The older version I once had didn’t do this.)  For something that’s free, it’s pretty darn cool.  And useful.  It doesn’t strike that crazy desire in me to get lost in a million features and unnecessarily lose hours to discovering all it can do; it keeps things simple while making my writing life easier, and that’s what I love about it.

I’ve also heard of Scrivener, which lets you do a lot more things, from the sound of it.  However, it’s not free, and it’s currently only available for Mac users.  From what I’ve heard, though, people generally seem to like it.

Maybe you’ll give it a go!

And for anyone who’s ever wondered WTH I’ve actually been working on…

The unofficial Manuscript. Looks pretty normal, right?
Yeah...that's single-spaced, two sheets to a page. Because I'm cheap. Not sure how much the word count will go down by when I'm through, but we'll see.

I realize I just doubled my typical post length here, but I really didn’t feel like splitting this up into two.  Just didn’t make sense, in this case. 


What methods do you use?

I imagine I’m not the only one who uses these methods, but I wonder what others there are out there!  I’ve heard of using cork boards to post scene cards and whatnot on, among other things.  What else do you do to keep track of all your stuff?


18 thoughts on “Methods for Keeping Track of Your Ideas

  1. You’re so organized! I didn’t have much of a system in place when I started this. I just jotted down notes on scrap, or napkins, or anything I had on hand. Of course, I always lost those, or couldn’t understand what I’d written before. hehe so now I keep an electronic journal (a private blog) with novel notes and ideas. I love being able to search. Also, since it’s online I can add to it no matter what computer I’m on.

    Ohh, I’m a big fan of sticky post it’s and color coding though!

    PS Single spaced, double sided? So, that would be about 2.5 inches single sided x 2 for double spacing = a 5 inch manuscript stack if you printed it out that way. WOW.


    • Yeah…considering it cost me about $22 bucks to have the cheap-o version printed… More incentive to cut it down, right? (I’m starting to see the publishing side of all of this, heh.)

      A private blog for ideas–now that’s something new to me! Kind of like an online database…cool.


  2. You are very organized, especially compared to me.

    I have a separate word doc with a list of all my characters, the plot outline and whatever writing exercises I did to come up with my story idea. Other than that, I use gmail and save drafts of miscellaneous notes if something somes to be during the day.


    • Hmm, never thought to use email. That’s nice, too, because your information is not only on your hard drive, should that ever crash (God forbid). Dropbox is also useful for that kind of thing. Or some other form of external storage.

      Having backups is <muy importante, imo. Just had a friend whose hard drive recently crashed–eek! Makes me paranoid, lol.


  3. I keep a “Old fashioned” journal, as I’ve mentioned on my blog before – mostly I use that for when I’m not at my home computer, where everything for my project ultimately ends up. It may not be super-efficient, but I actually like to go back and type up all my handwritten journal entries into an online system (I use a personal desktop wiki-like system so I can interlink different but related entries.

    I do like the idea Tessa mentions of using a private blog as an anywhere idea journal. That’s pretty inspired, actually… I might start doing that (though I’ll undoubtedly still keep the physical journal; I’m old-fashioned, and I do like the physical appearance of a filled-up journal, even as I like the convenience and searchability of an electronic version).

    For my desktop wiki-like system, for each major writing project I’ll have a main page which lists links to things like “characters” and “history” and “magic system” and “languages” and “inspiration” and so on. Some of those may link to a blank page (especially for younger projects), but over time as I work on the background I’ll fill these areas out, and the end result will be something like a little wikipedia of my world and story.

    I guess the upshot is, when I’m a fabulously famous NYT-bestselling author* and people are clamoring for an encyclopedia or concordance or whatever of my books; I’ll have most of the work already done 😉

    *A fantasy, perhaps, but a man can dream.


    • I’m kind of frustrated by knowing I’ve got so much information, in some ways (and in several formats), because I feel duty-bound to keep it all neat-and-tidy. I think it’d be nice to have a super organized database of all that’s in my novel. Only problem is now, because I’m still editing and the story is still evolving in some ways, it’s rather like trying to organize portions of unsettled Jello at this point, so the effort would be somewhat futile until I get the final manuscript done. (I guess that’s what I get for being an organic writer, heh.)

      But yeah, putting in all of your information in electronically ahead of time will likely save you some work in the long run. I’d like to do the same eventually. (I guess a lot of things are already documented electronically; it’s just not…centralized in one big location as of yet, heh.)


      • Yeah, this works for me in large part because I’m not an organic writer… I’m not sure if this sort of centralized approach is well-suited to the organic approach. But even organic writers, I guess, need something, eventually…?


  4. This makes me realize that other writers make a lot more notes than I do. 🙂

    I make some notes, but mostly they’re story ideas to file away for the future (“murder set in a graveyard” “mystery in a newspaper office”). When I get an idea, it’s usually in the form of a scene, not notes. And I mostly don’t need character notes since I always write about the same group of characters. More often it’s a question of looking back to what I said before to make sure I don’t contradict it now.

    Everything is handwritten first (notes, first drafts) and then typed in later. I don’t use a word processor, since everything I write will end up on the web. I just use a plain text editor (whatever’s available) and I usually type in the HTML codes as I go. Then I save the text files into various folders (by year, first, and then by type and by story), including every draft, identified by the date in the filename. Those folders are then copied to various hard drives and flash drives, just in case (I’ve had hard drives crash, too).

    I also print out and mark up each draft, but then once the changes are made in the file I get rid of the paper copy.

    I also have a private blog for drafts. When a scene is ready, I copy it over to the public site.


    • Hi, Anthony! Welcome aboard. 🙂

      Another private blogger, eh? I think it’s smart to have copies of your work in different locations like that ’cause you just never know…

      As far as preliminary ideas go as opposed to manuscripts and more “official” texts and pieces of information, I know that if I tried to type up all of my longhand notes and save them electronically, it would probably take me…well, longer than I’d like, heh, and probably isn’t worth the effort. Mostly because a lot of my “notes” are just underdeveloped or developing/experimental musings, things I don’t ever intend on sharing with others–basically me just trying out different ideas for size, mixing them with other ideas to see if they’re compatible, seeing if the product isn’t something resembling gold…

      Heck, sometimes I’ll settle even for fool’s gold. At least it shines!

      (Even so, I still keep my old ideas because there are times I like to go back a read my old stuff, just to see how certain ideas have steadily been reincarnated and have evolved over time. Sometimes, though not always, I think certain ideas won’t work on your first approach at handling them because they just need to be used in a different way. Being able to see things from different angles may suddenly provide a fresh way to approach those seemingly useless, cliché, even trite ideas.

      (Bah, I’m rambling again. Maybe that made sense, haha.)


      • “Sometimes, though not always, I think certain ideas won’t work on your first approach at handling them because they just need to be used in a different way.”

        Yes, definitely. I always save everything. And there are times the most unlikely things have come in useful.


  5. I love that you’re so organized, and some of your tips have given me a lot to think about. I’ve also started organizing my stuff, most of it electronically, as I’ve tried it by hand and I can’t seem to get it straight that way. I back everything up once a week on CD, and/or send myself an email in Gmail with attached files.

    In Word, what I’ve found to help me out a lot is to use the Link feature in a document I call my Reference. I have page-breaks for different sections, like ideas, to do lists, research, images, links to useful sites such as this, chapter notes, backstory, etc, and I bookmark each section. Then at the top of the page I have an Index where I have an alphabetical list of links to these bookmarks. What I love about this is that I can bookmark ANYTHING, even little notes that I make to myself when an idea strikes me while writing, and place the link to it under an appropriate category in my Index. This saves me so much time because I’m not scrolling all day to find the section I need. What I also do is I include a link to the Index itself on every page or every other page of the document so I can return to the Index easily.


    • Hi, Ailema! (Pretty name, btw.)

      Your Reference document sounds like a super organized way to keep track of all your notes, research and misc. information! The bookmarking is an especially good idea. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


      • And it also works for bookmarking your chapters, prologues and epilogues, glossaries, chapter notes, character bios, etc. And I meant to say in my previous post that I have the actual index list at the top of the document, with the link to the index on every other page.

        Your blog is awesome! I thought it was great that you also collect images. I do too, but you’re even more organized and into it than I am. I hadn’t thought about collecting wardrobe items. Now that’s a great idea because I love to dress my characters in Photoshop. 😛


        • Lol, nice. I’ve made movie posters for my novel on Photoshop before…haha. Wishful thinking, right? 😉 (Glad you like the blog, btw!)


    • Hi, Anthony. Thank you for award. 🙂

      I just wonder if I can accept it, though, seeing as to how I can only name a handful of blogs I follow that I’d venture to call “irresistibly sweet,” heh.



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