Write That Down! Compulsively Collecting Content for Your Writing

Have you ever read someone else's writing and thought one of the following things:

  • Where did he get such great stories?
  • Why can't I think of examples like that?
  • How does she always develop amazing illustrations?

    The answer is: content.

    In writing, content is KING. (Duh, right?) But every book, article, report, manual, sermon, speech, poem, even bathroom stall graffiti, has this one thing in common. Content is the stuff good writing is made of. But the one vital step too many writers fail to address is the compulsive collection of content.

    Everything you write has the potential to be spicier, funnier, smarter, more interesting and more relevant. And the steps you must take to make this happen are as follows:

    1)Open Your Eyes and Ears
    2)Write It Down
    3)Write It Out
    4)Develop Your Own System

    In this article, I am going to take you through this process by using one of my favorite pieces of content as an example.

    STEP 1: Open Your Eyes and Ears
    April 4th, 2004: the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, the day my friend Drew ran the St. Louis Marathon, and the day I came to the conclusion that Americans are the most impatient people in the WORLD.

    After the race I took Drew out for lunch to celebrate his admirable accomplishment. We finished our meal at Galleria's The Pasta House and headed out to the parking lot. In the empty spot a few spaces down from my car I saw a tattered, ripped up box. God I detest litter.

    "One sec Drew; I'll be right back?"

    I walked over to take a closer look. A plastic bag that read Kay-Bee Toys slowly brushed up against my jeans like a suburban tumbleweed. On the pavement lay a credit card receipt and discarded instructions for a toy truck.

    I picked up the receipt and noted the date and time of purchase: April 4th, 2004. 11:56 AM.

    My watch read 1:41 PM.

    Unbelievable. The only thing I detest more than litter is impatience.

    Okay, that was one of my favorite illustrations that I've used in various writings/speeches before. Now, that wasn't the whole story. And I'm sure based on that incident, I could have used other metaphors or taken a different angle on the trash. But I chose impatience. Because impatience just KILLS me! However, the only reason I'm still able to share that experience is because I followed the first step, which was to Open My Eyes and Ears.

    I could have easily hopped into my car and taken Drew home. But I noticed that big, colorful pile of trash, and just HAD to go over there.

    Do you ever notice, hear, smell, see or experience things like these? Have people walked by and said phrases that stuck in your head? Good. That means you have a writer's ear. And next time it happens, don't walk away. Be curious. Don't be nosey, but take an interest to the point where you might discover some valuable content.

    STEP 2: Write it Down
    Then, you MUST capture it. This is part where many writers fail, most likely because they're not prepared with content capturing tools. If you're a writer and you don't keep a pen, paper, notebook, journal, camera, tape recorder or charcoal rubbing sheets with you at all time, you're missing out on some great content. In fact, I can't think of a single possession that's been more valuable to the successful collection of my content than my pen and notepad. It's leather, about the size of a business card holder, and I don't go anywhere without it. Ever. And I can whip it out and be ready to write in less than three seconds, not unlike a cowboy's gun or a guitar player's pick.

    A notepad like this is easy to find at any luggage store. They cost about 15 bucks. Or, if you're more of a journal person, awesome! But whatever content capturing tool you use, be certain it's easily accessible in your car, bag, office or on your person at all times ? because you never know when inspiration might strike. The whole point is; you don't want to find yourself saying, "If only I would have written that down!"

    Now, you don't need to write down very much. All you need to do is record a few sentences that explain what happened. You're free to write some details as well, but concentrate more on capturing as opposed to creating. This will come in handy when you look at your notes later. And do it fast. If possible, write it down as soon as something happens. This is why you should always have your capturing tools ready to go. Because not unlike forgetting names, jokes and phone numbers, content is something the mind easily displaces.

    STEP 3: Write it Out
    Next is the fun part: transferring a valuable story, anecdote, moment, experience, smell, sound or conversation into a useful piece of content. At the end of the day (or week), re-read your notes. If you're like me and your penmanship looks like a monkey who was trying to write the Hebrew alphabet, this process may take a few minutes. Still, looking back at what you've written will bring the experience back to life. And then it's time to write it down.

    Start a new document on computer, or if you prefer "the old way," grab a blank sheet of paper. Write out that particular piece of content. Look for themes, lessons, bigger pictures, connections and symbols in your experience so it will be a good fit for a book, article or speech.

    For example, the story you just read about the discarded toy box was written in one of my seven journals about a year ago. In fact, the exact phrase I just read on the page was:

    "4/4/04 ? Toy truck?impatience?lunch at Galleria with Drew."

    To give you an idea of how this process comes full circle:

    1)Just now, I browsed through my journal?
    2)Saw that story about the trash?
    3)And decided to include it in this article.

    Wah-lah!

    STEP 4: Develop Your Own System
    The cool thing about compulsively collecting content is when you start searching for it, and when you start recording it, it will show up EVERYWHERE. Unusual, unexpected, interesting and different writing ideas will magnetize to you!

    I started taking this whole "content thing" seriously in 2004. I was working on a new book and I wanted to use a plethora of great stories, illustrations and examples to back up my ideas. So I developed a system. And that's the last step in this process.

    Here's what I do. It might not work for everyone, but perhaps the structure of such a system will stimulate some ideas for your own. It has several components:

    CAPTURING TOOLS

  • Notepad: I never go anywhere without it. I always keep the pen full and the paper stocked. And I write stuff down in it every day. Many of my friends think I'm a detective.

  • Laughter Log: Lou Heckler, world famous humorist, speaker and writer, taught me a great deal about collecting content. He suggested a Laughter Log. Here's how it works: every day you ask yourself, "What was funny that happened to me today?" Then, you write those things down. Easy, huh? You'd be amazed how much funny stuff happens on a daily basis. And that log sure does accumulate over a year!

  • Camera: I never thought I'd be the guy with the camera phone, but MAN is it handy! I've taken some great pictures of things that remind me of fantastic content about which I later wrote. I also keep a disposable camera in my bag at all times, just in case. Actually, I remember THE DAY I decided to start doing this: I was flying out of Cincinnati several years ago when I spotted Vernon Troyer, aka "Mini Mi" from the Austin Powers films. I introduced myself to him and even chatted for a few minutes! If only I'd been carrying a camera at the time! Damn!

    WRITING TOOLS

  • Blogs: I have two blogs, one for my business and one that's completely anonymous. For the former, I post various stories, examples and websites related to my business. For the latter, I sit down every morning at 8 AM, pick out a random story title from one of my journals, and write the entire thing out. I've been doing this for 4 months. That's about 80 stories! Talk about compulsively collecting content! (For more information on blogging go to www.blogger.com)

  • Dailies: I have a folder on my desktop called "Dailies," in which I take some time several times a week to brainstorm and write out ideas for future articles. It might be a page, a list of 10, 25, 50, or 100 things, etc.

  • Journal: Before I do anything in the morning, I write in my journal ? whatever comes to my mind first. These rambling entries aren't exactly well written in the grammatical sense, but they ARE well written inasmuch as they are captured, and often times that's the most important part of creating great content.

    ORGANIZING TOOLS

  • Mind Maps: Mind Maps brainstorm all of the sub-topics and related content into a one-page, visual representation of a single idea. For more information on how to mind map, search online for tips and tricks ? there's about a zillion ways to do it.

  • Content Cards: I take every single piece of content and write a one sentence description of it on a note card. Then I spread these cards all over the floor like a Memory game. I then look for patters among these cards and organize them into piles of related pieces of content. The amazing thing is, because the mind is a self-organizing mechanism, the content cards usually organize themselves. That's how I wrote my entire second book!

    All technical designations aside, I think there are two major differences between "People who write" and "People who are writers":

    PEOPLE WHO WRITE?Have natural writing skills, creative ideas, excellent grammar, unique style and tone and a passion for the pen.

    PEOPLE WHO ARE WRITERS?have everything from the last paragraph PLUS the awareness to keep their eyes and ears open for great content, the preparation to capture that content, the discipline to transfer that content into writings and the organization to create their own system that turns thoughts into things.

    Which one are you?

    © 2005 All Rights Reserved.

    Scott Ginsberg is a professional speaker, "The World's Foremost Expert on Nametags" and the author of HELLO my name is Scott and The Power of Approachability. He helps people MAXIMIZE their approachability and become UNFORGETTABLE communicators - one conversation at a time. For more information contact Front Porch Productions at http://www.hellomynameisscott.com.

    In The News:

    This RSS feed URL is deprecated, please update. New URLs can be found in the footers at https://news.google.com/news

    The Daily Herald

    Alexander McCall Smith: 'I love writing people's conversations'
    The Daily Herald
    Quite a number, indeed, given that he started writing in earnest only 20 years ago, when he was 50 — and given that he writes only a couple of hours a day. Any more than that, and “I get a little bit exhausted,” he said. “But I'm in a very fortunate ...


    Hollywood Reporter

    Paul Schrader Says Creating, Writing Is "A Form of Therapy"
    Hollywood Reporter
    "When you're always thinking subtractively, it's not good for your creative process," the 'First Reformed' writer and director told the Writer Roundtable. Paul Schrader has a lot to say about the creative moviemaking process. "I feel strongly that the ...


    Washington Post

    Trump says he's finished writing answers to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller
    Washington Post
    President Trump on Friday said he has answered a set of questions from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III “very easily,” and his lawyers are signaling that the president expects to turn over his written answers in the coming days. Trump stressed ...
    Trump says he has finished writing answers to Mueller's questionsNBCNews.com
    Trump says he's finished writing answers to questions from MuellerPress Herald
    Trump says he 'just finished' writing answers for Robert MuellerWashington Examiner
    CNN -Los Angeles Times -Politico -Twitter
    all 1,468 news articles »

    Hollywood Reporter

    Tamara Jenkins Talks Writing Process, Worst Feedback and 'Private Life'
    Hollywood Reporter
    "The stillness that is necessary to write — the act of silencing yourself, your cellphone, silencing everything to think, to bring words — there is something holy about it," the scribe and director told the Writer Roundtable. Private Life writer and ...


    Greensboro News & Record

    What I'm Writing
    Greensboro News & Record
    But can she defy the prophesy or is her future already written? Why I wrote it: I wrote this novel because the story of Queen Amina was screaming to be told. In Nigeria, where I was born and raised, Queen Amina is a historical figure whom we learn ...


    The Atlantic

    Isabel Allende's Unconventional Advice for Finding Writing Inspiration
    The Atlantic
    On Wednesday night, Allende was honored by the National Book Foundation for her distinguished contribution to American letters—the first such award given to a Spanish-language writer. In her stirring acceptance speech, she described how the condition ...


    Heights library offers activities for National Novel Writing Month
    The Killeen Daily Herald
    By Shelly Frank. Herald Correspondent. Bright, sunshiny days interspersed with rainy or windy days signal that autumn is in full swing. At the Stewart C. Meyer Harker Heights Public Library, this means National Novel Writing Month events and activities ...


    Hollywood Reporter

    Why Annie Lennox Stopped Writing Songs for Almost a Decade
    Hollywood Reporter
    When Annie Lennox was approached about writing the end title song for A Private War, Matthew Heineman's searing biopic about war correspondent Marie Colvin, she hesitated because she hadn't written new music in eight years. Instead Lennox, who won ...

    and more »

    Variety

    Directing and Writing Programs Aim to Establish Diverse Roster of Industry Players
    Variety
    Hollywood is well aware that diversity and representation are essential parts of putting together a television writers' room when it comes to both well-rounded storytelling and good, old-fashioned optics. Recent years have shown that one of the most ...

    and more »

    Vox

    How to make $6000 a day writing Instagram quotes — sort of
    Vox
    The author, Laura Belgray, is the founder of the copywriting agency Talking Shrimp and has nearly two decades' worth of experience writing for businesses and television. It's the kind of professional background that can command Belgray's rate of $950 ...

    Google News

  • Have You Plotted Your Story Before Writing It?

    Creative Writing Tips ?The writer, who doesn't have the time... Read More

    The Heart of the Delay: Harnessing The Wisdom of Procrastination (AKA Writers Block)

    I am sure that at in some era, at some... Read More

    Top Ten Tips (Part 1)

    The following rules are essential if you want people to... Read More

    How To Write A Newsletter

    In order to be successful with a newsletter, specialize in... Read More

    5 Ways to Break the Story Spell

    You sink back into your favourite chair with a new... Read More

    Writing Good Dialogue.

    There's nothing that kills a scene like hackneyed dialogue. Just... Read More

    Break in with Fillers: The Best Market for New Writers

    Interested in breaking into writing or breaking into a new... Read More

    Top Ten Ways to Write a Book That Sells

    Is there a book inside of you? Yes? Then why... Read More

    Becoming the Total Package

    Being a great writer is no longer enough if you... Read More

    How to Relax Your Writing

    Q. My writing sounds stiff and stilted. Help!A. Memories of... Read More

    Starting a Freelance Writing Career (or Thoughts About Taking the Plunge)

    Nike's ad has taken on new meaning for me of... Read More

    Is The Theme Reinforced In The Ending?

    Creative Writing Tips ?By now you should have an idea... Read More

    Starting a Freelance Writing Career (or How I Sifted Through the Muck and Found My Way)

    So, the decision is final. I am a writer.Actually, I... Read More

    The Unwritten World Of The Reality Of Letterwriting

    You may wonder why I have chosen this title of... Read More

    What is Screenwriting?

    Simply put, it is the art of writing scripts for... Read More

    Planning Time To Write

    In his book, "Achieving Financial Independence as a Freelance Writer,"... Read More

    Is Someone Plagiarizing Your Work?

    About two weeks ago I received an article submissionthat immediately... Read More

    The Dreaded Daily Word Count

    Open any book on 'how to write,' and somewhere you... Read More

    To Transcribe or Not To Transcribe Interviews?

    11 Secrets from an Experienced InterviewerOne of the unwritten rules... Read More

    Bring Out the Natural Writer in You

    Think you can't write a book that will sell? You... Read More

    Create Confidence With Your Writing

    Whether you are writing a magazine article, composing a press... Read More

    Top 10 Common English Goofs by Web Authors

    In reviewing and browsing web sites over the years, I... Read More

    Whats in a Name? Giving Birth to your Characters

    So you've got your plot outlined, a title lined up... Read More

    New Authors Publishing Options

    All your publishing options are as follows:--Conventional publishing--Vanity or subsidy... Read More

    When Getting Stuck Goes Amuck

    Many of us have always wanted to write. We have... Read More