How Successful Writers Curate Ideas

In the third part of our four-part series on curation, we analyze what separates successful writers from … everyone else. It starts with their ability to curate ideas from multitudes of sources.

The blank page.

Writer’s block.

Newer writers often claim to fear both of these. We’ve all been conditioned to do so. (I admit: I still do sometimes too.)

But as I’ve studied writers, successful writers, I’ve found that most of them have found ways to overcome the trepidation of the blank page, and most don’t even consider “writer’s block” to be a real thing.

So what is it that separates these writers from you and me?

Two traits, I’ve found:

  1. They have found a way to channel their fear into productivity.
  2. They have a system for recording and recalling ideas.

And make no mistake, number two has a huge impact on number one.

Because if you know that you always have a catalog of great ideas to fall back on for those days when you wake up with nothing fresh in your head, it completely removes that fear of the blank page from the equation.

So how do you do it?

How do you create, maintain, and use that catalog of great ideas?

That is the subject of today’s episode of The Lede.

Idea curation. It’s the third in our four-part series on content curation. (Go bookmark episodes one and two here and here.)

And here’s a fair warning: the ideas about idea curation flow like water. So make sure you have something — Evernote, a pen and notebook, etc. — to record the ones that speak most sharply to you.

In this episode, Demian and I discuss, among many topics:

  • Why is having a system for idea curation important?
  • Who is idea curation for? (Could it really be for everybody?)
  • What is Demian’s two-part framework for idea curation?
  • What are the three elements of a persuasive argument you should be actively looking for when you research?
  • What are the features of Evernote that it make it such a useful tool for idea curation?
  • What are some non-Evernote ways to curate ideas?
  • What do you, in Demian’s words, “never know”?
  • Should you ever *gasp* … write in books?
  • How can journaling impact the idea curation process?
  • What is a commonplace book? And how does it work?
  • Why doing something “mindless” with your body is so important
  • Should you ever just trust yourself to remember ideas?

Plus other burning questions, like:

  • Whose mustache does Jerod want to rip off?
  • Who is Demian’s favorite rapper?
  • How could idea curation be the cause of Jerod’s untimely future demise in the middle of traffic?

Enjoy your listen. We look forward to your ideas, tips, and hacks over in the Google+ discussion.

[episode no=”70″]

React to The Lede …

As always, we appreciate your reaction to episodes of The Lede and feedback about how we’re doing.

Send me a tweet with your thoughts anytime: @JerodMorris.

And please tell us the most important point you took away from this latest episode. Do so by joining the discussion over at Google-Plus.

The Show Notes

Also, in the time since Demian and I recorded this podcast, he has published two posts with related material over at The Copybot. I recommend them:

[episode_ad] [episode_transcript]

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: How Successful Writers Curate Ideas

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m your host, Jerod Morris.

Over the last two weeks we have explained to you why content curation is important, plus how to do it effectively. And we dove headfirst into link curation and described different processes and systems for doing it effectively.

Today Demian and I discuss ideas, specifically what to do with the amazing ideas that you come across reading, doing research, and just daily life; and the ideas that your mind creates when you least expect them.

Why is having a system for idea curation important?

The blank page.

Writer’s block.

Newer writers often claim to fear both of these. They’ve been conditioned to do so, and I know I did, and I’ll admit sometimes I still do.

But as I’ve studied writers, successful writers, I’ve found that most of them have found ways to overcome the trepidation of the blank page, and most don’t even consider “writer’s block” to be a real thing.

So what is it that separates these writers from you and me?

Two traits, I’ve found:

  • Number one, they’ve found a way to channel their fear into productivity.
  • Number two, they have a system for recording and recalling ideas.

And make no mistake, number two has a huge impact on number one. Because if you know that you always have a catalogue of great ideas to fall back on for those days when you wake up with nothing fresh in your head, and we know that that happens, it completely removes that fear of the blank page from the equation.

So how do you do it? How do you create, maintain, and use that catalogue of great ideas? That is the subject of today’s episode of The Lede: idea curation, the third in our four-part podcast series on content curation.

Demian, that’s my primary “why” when it comes to idea curation. I always want to have ideas in the queue that I can write about or go to when I’m stuck. (And I do have a second “why,” which I’ll explain a little later.) But why do you believe that idea curation is so important?

Demian Farnworth: Well, you’re not going to have anything to write about if you don’t have ideas. You’re not going to have anything to talk about.

I mean, if you’re a writer, you’re a content curator responsible for coming up with new ideas, and you need sources. And especially when you’re dealing with a particular assignment. You need ideas. If you’re given an assignment as a journalist, or as a video blogger, you need to go out and drum up those ideas. So you need to curate ideas in order to have something meaningful to say, at the least.

Jerod: I agree with you.

And here’s my second one; see if you agree with this one too. Because I think that everyone listening to this podcast is going to be able to relate to it, which is that I live in a perpetual state of fear that I’m going to forget a brilliant bit of inspiration and not be able to use it when I need it most.

I think you know what I’m talking about:

  • That incredible one-liner that comes to you in the shower
  • That brilliant connection that you make between two different sources of research material while you’re walking your dog
  • The idea for a post series or e-mail autoresponder that you have while cooking dinner
  • If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve experienced this, and if you don’t have a process for recording and recalling these ideas, you can lose them forever. And I shudder when I think about how many of these ideas I’ve lost. But not anymore, and we’ll get into that process here in a bit.

    Those are my two “whys.” And they’re both about kicking fear in the knee and ripping off its mustache before it ever has time to arrest me.

    The fear of the blank page and the fear of that lost moment of divine muse intervention. So Demian, we seem to be really liking this whole “who, what, when, where, why,” structure. So let’s jump right into the “who” here.

    Who should be curating ideas?

    Jerod: Who should be curating ideas?

    Demian: Guys with mustaches.

    Jerod: (Laughs)

    Demian: No. I mean really, this is important for any content curator: bloggers, writers, video people. This includes designers and coders, and this includes those who are running a podcast too, even if it’s a podcast based on interviews.

    I think of Andrew Warner’s Mixergy or Jason Wiser’s with Stay on Track. These people need to be thinking: Who do I want to interview and why? What sort of person do I want to interview? And how am I going to approach and conduct that interview? That all depends upon the ideas that they curate as they’re doing their research.

    Jerod: Could you even make it more general and just say that everybody should be curating their ideas? Because everybody has, I think, these great moments of inspiration or great thoughts. And we think of writers, and maybe content curators, as needing that swipe file, or needing that place where you keep all this stuff. But don’t you think everybody could benefit by keeping track of stuff they hear, stuff they think?

    Demian: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great point. I mean, you think about chefs. You think about landscape designers. And this is why something like Pinterest is a great curation tool. Because people who cook–my wife, she’s a great cook and always scheming up ideas, and she’s got probably 50 boards. But all very specific to ideas that she curates. She doesn’t write anything. She just pins the recipe, and so she’s curating that particular idea.

    Jerod: So curation, really in general, is a topic everybody can benefit from. The rest of this episode will really be geared more toward curation for writers, for content creators. But anyone can do it, and would benefit from it. The question is, how is it done, Demian?

    The two-part framework for idea curation

    Jerod: You have a two-part framework, right?

    Demian: I like to think of it in two ways. There is both active and passive idea curation. I’ll start with the active one.

    So this begins with knowing what you want. It’s kind of problem solving. You know you have to write a series, for instance, on native advertising. So how are you going to write it? How are you going to arrange it? Me, my process is I just kind of dive in and start researching, and of course this means I begin on the Internet. Then I hoard as many sources and ideas that I possibly can, and I get to the point where I’m over-prepared, where I think I’ve tried to cover all of my bases. I give myself a sort of internal goal, for example.

    Like when I was doing that series on native advertising, I was trying to read everything out there on native advertising. And for most things it’s impossible to do, because things are daily updated with too much information. But I read a whole stinkin’ lot of articles about native advertising and watched some videos, and so I just accumulated all these ideas.

    And so of course, the natural place to save them online is with Evernote. And so once I get all those notes accumulated, then I sit down and merge all those notes into one single note, and then I start systematically working through those notes and writing all those notes out, either on Post-It notes, or I’ll just start marking them directly up on my white board. I have a huge 8′ by 4′ white board that’s on my wall. I start writing the notes out on that and arranging them, thinking about trying to segment the ideas into particular articles, and then sort of arranging the particular series of articles, how I see the series playing out.

    And again, I’ve got more ideas than I could possibly accomplish. So I’m over-prepared, and I feel very comfortable with that process, with that over-preparation in attacking that assignment. And this is kind of where we mentioned Joel Zaslosfsky in the last podcast, because he mentioned a process that he called FAOCAS. It was basically with an Excel sheet, and he collected information. This would be a good idea, because when I accumulate all of those ideas and all that information, I want to be able to attribute, to credit back to people so that I’m not plagiarizing lines or anything like that. So that’s where, in one sense, you have to be very careful.

    And so here’s a warning, too. Let me just say this really quickly: When you’re in the active phase of accumulating ideas, let your theory emerge from the sources, not the other way around. In other words, start as a blank slate. What I mean by that is don’t go toward the — it’s okay to have sort of a hunch, but you’re not looking for information to prove that hunch. You’re just using that hunch to sort of guide where you’re going with that. Because if you look for the information that proves your hunch, then it’s going to be a lopsided argument, and otherwise you’ll be perpetuating bad ideas.

    Jerod: Yeah.

    Demian: So what about you, Jerod?

    Jerod: Well, I love so much what you just talked about. Also I’m so intrigued by what you talk about with your white board, and kind of putting all those ideas together. A lot of people will do that, too, with note cards. They’ll have ideas.

    Even Breaking Bad, when you listen to Vince Gilligan talk about the writer’s room. It’s not a storyboard necessarily, but they would break out the entire story with all these note cards of each scene, what would happen next, and they’d kind of rearrange them. So you get those ideas down, and really, it does give you a visual way to see how they fit together. And frankly, that’s the thing that I have not done that I want to start doing, because I think it could really help me organize a lot of these ideas.

    But you ask about my active process, and it’s similar to yours. Like you said, when you have a specific topic that you’re going to be researching, you have to just dive in. And dive in with no preconceived notions, as you say, and let your theory emerge from the sources.

    For me, I really try to make note of the following three things as I’m going along:

    1. Any remarkable one- or two-sentence quotes by people with authority on the topic that really illustrate a specific point very well
    2. Any especially relevant data points
    3. Most importantly, any stories that create some kind of an emotional connection to the subject matter.

    Because if you think about it, if your research yields you stories, a few data points, and a few great quotes that you can kind of pull out as a blockquote, and of course, gives you an overall general understanding of the big picture, then you have the raw information to write well about any topic just with those three things.

    And what about passive curation, Demian? Kind of the other side of your idea curation framework?

    Demian: This is, basically, you’re going about life, and ideas occur to you. It’s kind of what you mentioned: when you’re taking a shower or whatever, and stuff comes to you. Of course, you have to be ready to capture those ideas, and the most simple way is to keep a notebook with you, or some kind of journal.

    Jerod: Yeah. And I’m an Evernote guy. For awhile in college I used to keep one of those really small, tiny little notebooks in my back pocket, and I would always have it, but I was never really good at using it, and I was never really good at taking the ideas in there and doing anything with them. I’d just kind of lose the notebook, or I didn’t really have a great process.

    What are the features of Evernote that it make it such a useful tool for idea curation?

    Jerod: I’m really finding that Evernote on my devices is really helping, because I always have my phone on me. And so when you have that, then you’ve always got Evernote. It syncs across devices. And here’s another thing, too: I know some people don’t like Evernote because they like actually writing down, and I am one of those. I like writing things down with a pen or a pencil because it kind of sticks more with you.

    Well, I just actually this past weekend got a Samsung Note 3, which has a little stylus and it works inside of Evernote. So you can actually write on the screen, it converts it into digital text right there. So you get, in a lot of ways, the best of both worlds. Because you get the writing, and that understanding that comes with it, but then it’s really easy to organize because it’s already there in Evernote. And for me, it saves a step because I used to write everything on note cards, and then I would transcribe it into Evernote, which probably helped me understand it more because there’s that extra step. But it also takes longer.

    So it’s trying to be a little bit more efficient, but still getting the benefit, because this curation is — and we’ve talked about this in both episodes so far, but it’s worth mentioning again — it’s time consuming. And so you have to balance the amount of time that it takes with the benefit you’re going to get, and so that any efficiencies that you can add are really going to help you out.

    Demian: So let me ask you: Have you used the voice recognition feature on Evernote?

    Jerod: I have not.

    Demian: The memo?

    Jerod: No. I haven’t. I kind of want to try it, but I’ve never been a voice person. But I’m sure there’s probably a way there that that can help. Have you used it?

    Demian: Well, no. I haven’t used it, but I do use it on my IPhone. I use the voice memo. When I’m out on a run I don’t take a pen and paper with me. I do carry my phone with me, and so if I have an idea that’s worthy, I will stop and record a voice memo. And I like that, and just collecting that. Because you never know. That’s the whole thing. You never know, and to give you a great example of “you’ll never know” is this:

    What do you “never know”?

    Demian: When I was working on my Google+ series last year I spent probably two days, eight hours plus each day, of just flat-out research. And I had everything I needed except the hook. What was the one unifying element throughout that whole process?

    And I say that because I like when you mentioned Breaking Bad and the storyboard. When I write, whether it’s informative like something on native advertising, or it’s with Google+, I try to present it in a narrative. And so I think that’s the way I view content creation, is storyboarding.

    So when I’m thinking through all these ideas, I’m trying to position them to tell a story. But I had no clue what I was going to do with the hook until–and this is completely by chance–I ran across the Wikipedia article for Hunter S. Thompson, and it hit. And having read some bits on him, I knew exactly what my hook was and was able to kind of run with it.

    Should you *gasp* … write in books?

    Demian: The other thing, too. Tell me if you endorse this, or if you actively get hostile when I say this. But I am a firm believer in writing in books. Notes, ideas, whatever.

    Jerod: I agree with you.

    I do not get hostile about that. I used to not do that, and it wasn’t necessarily out of some altruistic respect for books, it was really just that I was more of a passive reader. But I’ve found that I get so much more out of it when I underline. Put a little dog ear in the corner so that I can go back to it later.

    It’s changed how I read and how I retain what I read, so I wholeheartedly endorse that idea.

    How can journaling impact the idea curation process?

    Demian: So another passive idea curation idea is James Altucher. I don’t know if he still does this, but he had a great idea. He had a daily habit of making a top-10 list every day, and what’s on his mind. It might be 10 regrets you should avoid, or how to do heroin legally, or investing, or the ultimate cheat sheet for investing.

    I thought that was a great idea, because it’s this idea of content curation meaning that you’re kind of picking up the dust in your own mind, because we sit here and we accumulate all these ideas.

    Sometimes the act of writing will generate ideas that you can then record, and I can’t tell you how many times that exercise in itself–like journaling, for example. I will start writing about something and I will come up with an idea, and it’s like, “This is a great idea, I need to pursue this!” So I also try to draw in my journal.

    I think that idea of thinking differently by drawing and creating — I also dedicate pages of my journal to mind maps with connected ideas. For example, the other day I was thinking about: what are the convictions that drive Copyblogger? So the center was “Copyblogger,” and then radiating out from that I had all these different ideas about what our core convictions are. I did the same thing with my wife, I did another writing assignment.

    But keeping that journal and recording those ideas, even though you may not use them, in some sense helps. I don’t know about you, but I am a thinker who writes. I think through writing, and so it helps me to actually sit down and write. For example, after I read something I will try to get in the habit of summarizing that particular chapter. Working through that chapter, and then summarize it. And that in itself generates all kinds of ideas.

    Jerod: I agree. And just to follow up on that, I’m the same way. I’ve always just been better at writing to get an idea out, whether it’s making sense of a subject and researching, or even just in relationships. I was always better at writing a card to explain myself than sitting there having a face-to-face conversation. I like to think I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older; who knows. But I agree with you.

    What is a commonplace book? And how does it work?

    Demian: You mentioned something when we were talking earlier about Ryan Holiday’s commonplace book. Explain that idea.

    Jerod: This is really an idea that can span either this episode or the next episode, when we’re going to get into knowledge curation.

    But his commonplace book — and we’ll link to this in the show notes so you can get the full explanation — it’s an idea that he got from Robert Greene, and basically it’s a place where he puts all the information that he learns. And so when he’s reading, or even when he’s watching a movie or just out somewhere, he’ll make a note card with this information on it, and he’s got a different way of organizing it, and he creates a different book for each project that he’s working on.

    So for “The Obstacle Is The Way,” he went back through some of his old notes and found these quotes from Seneca, and from Marcus Aurelius, and all these different people, and different stories, and different things. Everything that would fit. And then it’s similar to what you were talking about with your white board, and what you did for the native advertising series. You get all these pieces together, and it’s like a puzzle, and you start putting them together. It’s a really, really good process, and he’s very similar to you too in terms of active reading. I think he calls it “marginalia.” Writing in the margins, and says “All the great readers do this, period,” I believe is a quote verbatim from his article. And so I want to get into that more next episode, but we’ll link to it in the show notes for this one anyway, to go over and look at it. But that’s actually where I started writing out the note cards, doing it that way.

    And again, as you want to do with any of these strategies, take a strategy that works for someone. See what part of it works for you and incorporate that. Maybe the whole thing doesn’t work, but you can take a part of it to make your own process a little bit better. But again, the process part of this–having a system for curation–is so important. Hopefully if you get any idea from this series, I think that’s one of the most important ones that you can get.

    Demian: So Robert Greene is the guy who wrote “The 48 Laws of Power….”

    Jerod: “…and Mastery.” Yeah.

    Demian: “…and Mastery.” Right. And the 48 Laws of Power–I don’t know if you knew this, but it actually became the play book for Gangster rappers in negotiations, and he had a little cottage industry behind that.

    Jerod: Did he really?

    Demian: Yeah. 50 Cents and all these gangster rappers would come to him and say, “This is the book we’re going to use, man.”

    Jerod: Did you say “50 Cents” or “50 Cent?”

    Demian: (Laughs) Whatever, man.

    Jerod: (Laughs)

    Demian: That rapper dude. 50 Cent.

    Jerod: (Laughing)

    Demian: Two quarters, man! Whatever you call him.

    Jerod: (Laughing) Two quarters!

    Why doing something “mindless” with your body is so important

    Demian: So the final bit of advice to anybody out there still listening, and that is do something with your body that is mindless. For me it’s typically long-distance running or cutting the grass, and for Jerod it could be digging a ditch or tending a garden, or….

    Jerod: Or walking my dog. Thank you very much.

    Demian: Or waxing his mustache. But that idea is to let those ideas percolate. Let those ideas connect, because that’s what it really comes down to. It’s that process. And this is what I like to tell people, too:

    I used to be really fearful, Jerod, of losing ideas. Of those ideas being gone. But I got to the point where I had to trust the process. Trust the subconscious. If that idea was really that great, it will come back around. That may sound a little hookey-new-agey, but I don’t fret about it. I still write things down. I haven’t completely let go of writing things down. But running long-distance for me, or cutting the grass, that mindless activity where I just start thinking, and it starts stirring things up in my mind. Ideas, things that I’ve struggled with, ideas that I came across will sometimes reconnect, or I’ll come up with new ideas.

    I can’t tell you how many times out on a run, when I come back in I’ve got two or three stories that I want to write when I’m done because of all the stuff I’ve accumulated since then.

    Jerod: Yeah. Sometimes the best thing that you can do for idea curation is nothing at all, in the sense of not sitting there trying to think about it and trying to force it.

    There are so many times when I walk my dog, that’s the time I listen to podcasts. And there are so many times that I will start a podcast, I’m out there walking, and I can’t focus on it because all these ideas start floating in. All these things that I’ve been thinking about or reading, they’re coming in, and I just have to shut the podcast off. And I decided to just do the walk in silence, and let the ideas come.

    Should you ever just trust yourself to remember ideas?

    Jerod: Now the other thing that I struggle with sometimes, Demian, is you say “trust that process.” Where do you draw the line between — if you’re cutting the grass and you have this great idea, do you ever stop to write it down, or do you just kind of let it go? Where do you draw that line between stopping the momentum of the ideas or stopping what you’re doing to record it, and just letting it go?

    Demian: What I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is to not stop. What I try to do though, is focus on that idea, and then write that idea. So impress that idea upon my memory, burn it on my memory in some sense by memorizing it. If it’s a sentence that drops in my mind, then I try to impress that.

    But I also try to think through the idea and try to develop a story behind that so that when I get back — I may go in, eat breakfast, shower, and then sit down–at that point, though, I will have a strand of thoughts with milestones that I’ll be able to key in. What was that story about? I was thinking about the fuzzy creatures, and the pistol, and then it will come back.

    And that’s what I mean by trusting the process. If you can have those sort of anchors, those ideas of physical, tangible things, you can usually kind of find your way back to that original idea.

    Jerod: Maybe I just don’t trust myself yet.

    If you ever e-mail me one day and you don’t get a reply, and no one can hear from me, it’s probably because I got hit by a car, because I was out walking and looking down at my phone, writing a new note into Evernote because I just had that thought.

    I’m going to try that, though. I like that idea of trying to make those connections. Turn it into a story. Fuzzy animals and pistols. I like that.

    Demian: Mmm-hmm.

    Jerod: I need to try that, because sometimes I don’t like stopping the momentum to record the idea, because maybe it could have gone even further, and maybe if you stop to record it you don’t let it get all the way developed in your own head. That’s a great point.

    And just to reiterate this point about going out and doing something mindless with your body: This isn’t just us making stuff up. Study after study after study shows that activities like walking or cutting the grass improve creativity, and there was just one in April of this year that Stanford released that found a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60% when walking, and that the creative juices continue to flow after you sit back down.

    And again, it’s because your subconscious mind has a chance to start making these connections between all the knowledge in your head, which is why you need to be ready for when that moment of inspiration strikes. Whether it’s having your notebook and pen ready, whether it’s having a mental strategy ready, thinking about it as a story and burning it into your mind like Demian talked about.

    Whatever it is, make sure that when those ideas come you have that way mentally or physically of recording them.

    And you don’t know, again, where great ideas are going to come form. They could come from the lyric in a song, from a photo you see on Google Plus, or even just a conversation you hear on a plane while you’re waiting for it to take off. And if you just look around yourself right now, wherever you’re listening to this, there are literally hundreds or even thousands of ideas all around you, always.

    So whenever that moment of inspiration strikes you, even if you don’t know why, record it or burn it into your mind. You may never use it again, and most of the stuff you record you probably won’t use again. But it might end up being literally the seed to the most popular blog post you ever write. Or the beginning, when you need that intro, the missing piece to that blog post. Who knows? If you don’t record it, then it’s just a forgotten memory. And a forgotten memory isn’t going to do you any good.

    That’s about all I’ve got. Demian, it’s been fun, as always. Looking forward to recording episode #4. Anything else for this one?

    Demian: No. Thank you very much. I appreciate everybody listening.

    Jerod: All right. We’ll be back next week with episode #4.

    Thank you, everybody, for listening to this episode of The Lede. If you found this episode useful, and if you’re enjoying the content curation series and the other content that we’re putting out, we would definitely appreciate a rating or a review on ITunes, and if you’re not on ITunes and you want to listen to the show on Stitcher, The Lede is available there too. Just go to And if you just want to tweet about us or e-mail the link to a friend, we would certainly appreciate any help you can give us in spreading the word.

    Thank you again for listening. We will be back nest week with the fourth and final installment in the content curation series, and remember, because we’re now on our summer posting schedule at Copyblogger, the episode will be posted on Thursday, not Friday, of next week, just like this one was.

    All right, everybody. Take care, and we will talk to you next week.

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    *Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.