It took me a long time to understand that writing is a task best undertaken alone.
And I don't just mean in solitude, I mean as an individual errand. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is combining research (input) and writing (output) into a single session.
Tim Ferriss, author of three bestselling books, turned me onto the idea of collecting as much source material as possible before writing a word. He refers to output as "synthesis," since it's a time for combining source material with your own ideas.
Here's Tim on his creative process from a 99U interview:
I will do the gathering of interviews and research throughout the day. I’ll get all my notes and materials together and then I’ll do the synthesis between 10 p.m. to bed, which is usually 4 or 5 a.m.
Research, concepts, interviews, quotes, charts, photos, art, etc. — it's all source material for creative work. And as any prolific writer knows, a steady stream of new source material keeps output fresh.
Once you put a process around archiving things that inspire you, you'll never run out of research for your creative work. You can riff on someone else's idea, apply an accepted principal to a new field or curate interesting tidbits you've come across.
Instead of dedicating time to information gathering, you can build small habits into the rest of your work. What used to be a silo becomes a layer. I think of it as passive research, and it's helped me create a huge bank of pre-approved ideas to draw from.
"Research as a layer" requires a few simple tools and methods. My process isn't perfect, but hopefully this will get you started.
Clip and highlight
Evernote is one of the most useful tools I've come across, specifically the Web Clipper. Like me, you probably come across a lot of cool stuff in your Internet travels. It's time to get in the habit of saving it all.
Anytime something piques your interest, clip it with Evernote's browser extension and tag it. It will come in handy at some point, you just don't know when.
Say you're reading an article or tweet, watching a video or listening to a podcast. From that page, just click the browser extension or use the keyboard shortcut
` (it's the little tick above the Tab key). Set your default notebook — I call mine "Swipe File" — in the browser extension settings, and select "Bookmark."
This is fast, but you won't have any context when you see the article later. You can highlight a snippet that stands out, add a comment and tag it.
Click the browser extension, select "Simplified article" and highlight any text that stands out.
Then add some context. Why did this inspire you? How do you plan to use or share it? You can also use tags for categorization.
You can do this on your phone too. Just highlight text, then open the sharing menu and select Evernote. It'll save the article title and the selected text in the notebook of your choice.
Once you get the process (and the keyboard shortcuts) down, this takes less than 10 seconds. If you get in the habit of clipping everything that gets you excited, you're going to have an impressive, contextual bank of topic ideas and reference points.
There is one other way to enhance it too. If you use Instapaper to save articles for later, you can add highlights and notes there as well.
Using IFTTT, you can automatically send highlights and comments directly to Evernote, ensuring that all your inspiration ends up in one place.
Go to the source
Finding new things to read and derive inspiration from always seems to be challenging. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are so heavily filtered — "If you like [this], you might also like [this]" — that it's easy to get trapped in a bubble. Discovery tools like Nuzzel help, but you're still limited to content shared by your network, categorized by topic.
As she reads physical books, she collects recurring themes and interesting ideas in her index (explained here) marks all external quotes with the letter "F" as a remind to check out the source later. These annotations are like links that connect ideas and themes.
Around 43 minutes into the podcast, she explains the joy of following one reference to another to dig deeper into topics you're already interested in.
Literature is the original Internet. All of those references and citations and illusions even — they are essentially hyperlinks that the author placed to another work. If you follow those, you go into this magnificent rabbit hole where you start out with something you're already enjoying and liking, but follow these tangential references to other works that perhaps you would not have come across directly.
It's a way to push oneself out of the filter bubble in a very incremental way. I think that's kind of a beautiful practice.
It's even easier to follow annotations, i.e. links, on the web. When reading something interesting, open all links in the background.
In Chrome, Firefox and Safari, use the keyboard shortcut
Command + Click. It will open links in a new tab without interrupting your concentration. When you're done reading, skim each of the new tabs and repeat the process. As you find good stuff, use the first strategy to collect inspiration in Evernote.
This is one of those small tactics that can reap large rewards. It's the best way I've found to consistently discover new and cool ideas that lead to source material later on.
Commit your thoughts to paper
Apps like Evernote are great for collecting and archiving your research, but nothing beats a pen and paper for jotting down thoughts and sketching out ideas.
Most creatives will tell you to carry a notebook wherever you go. The thinking goes that you need to be ready when a big idea strikes. But the truth is that most great ideas are combinations of many smaller ideas. Instead of waiting for one big idea, write down every idea. Write down your tasks, people you meet, books you read. Common threads begin to emerge from independent thoughts.
Those ideas will begin to synthesize and lead to new ideas. As an added benefit, the more you write down, the more clearly you'll think says Professor Alan Jacobs:
I have always kept a notebook around for jotting down the occasional idea, but in the past year I have learned to rely on paper for sketching and drafting almost all of my writing, and for managing my tasks. This change is another one I wish I had made years ago: my thinking is clearer, my writing stronger and more precise.
Thoughts that used to look like this:
Become ideas that look like this:
Images via Jason Fried's How an idea comes together for me.
If this is new for you, I recommend investing in a quality notebook. Sure, you can pick one up at a convenience store for 99 cents, but you won't be excited to use it. Once you're in the habit of writing things down, use any old notebook. But start with a nice one.
For more thoughts on writing, productivity and the business of publishing, subscribe to our weekly newseletter. And if you have any thoughts to add to this post, just drop a note in the comments.