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.


    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:


  • 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!


  • 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.


  • 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.

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