What Is an Idea Journal, and How Is it Going to Change the Way You Write?

You cannot be inspired to develop an idea that does not yet exist.


Putting ideas into words. It’s more than just a tagline for a blog about how to strengthen your skills and experience as a writer. It’s a broad description of what the writing process actually entails: taking an idea and writing about it.

Though we often venture beyond that step of the process, there’s something I haven’t really talked about as much as I would have liked to. Coming up with ideas really isn’t that hard, because most of the time, it happens unwillingly. You’re standing in the kitchen chopping carrots or whatever and then BOOM. New idea for a novel.

But … then what?

Ideally, you would take that idea, sit down and start writing. That doesn’t always happen though. There’s another step in between those two things. Generally, you get an idea … you are inspired to focus your attention on that idea … and THEN you bring that idea to life.

As I discuss in this month’s podcast, it isn’t as easy as going out and looking for inspiration to write. Because this actually ends up taking time away from writing. I need inspiration to write, so I’m just going to watch this movie about a semi-related subject really quick. Yeah … no.

The thing is, the inspiration you are looking for to work on your ideas is closer than you think. It comes from those ideas themselves.

That is why you need an idea journal.

What is an idea journal?

It’s nothing fancy or formal: it could be a spiral notebook, an MS Word document, even a Tumblr page or something similar. All it is, is a place where you dump all your ideas. I have a Google Doc that lists out all the ideas I have. No one else can see them. But when I have an idea, I immediately put it there. Nothing else goes in there. Just my ideas.

Now here’s why that’s important. You have some free time (just pretend for a minute). You think to yourself, “I should write something.” You stare at a blank page for awhile and then decide, “Maybe I’ll just look around the internet and see if anything inspires me.” Then it’s two hours later and you have accomplished nothing but pouring through 300+ cat videos.

Nope. The moment you say, “I should write something,” you don’t go to a blank document or even a project that already exists. You go to your idea journal. You pick through the ideas in that journal, pluck one out, move it to a new place, and start brainstorming. Outlining or drawing or writing: however you let your ideas start to form (there is no right or wrong way).

And before you know it, you’ve written 2,000 words and have to force yourself to take a break.

This is going to change the way you write

The key here is to separate out your idea generation time and your writing time. The thing I’ve noticed, both in my own writing process and that of others, is that we try to cram these two things together. We don’t give them unique attention. When we are motivated to write, but don’t know what we want to work on, we go looking for inspiration and never end up working on an idea.

Instead, we have to go straight to where our ideas are. We have to narrow our focus to just one idea at a time. And then we can build off of that idea and actually get some writing done.

Idea. Inspiration. Writing. In that order. You cannot be inspired to develop an idea that does not yet exist. Ideas come first. In spending time with those ideas, and nothing else, we suddenly find ourselves inspired to start creating. And then we enter into the time we have allotted to create – then, and only then, can we write things we really want to write.

I’ve actually tried this out for myself, and it’s scary how quickly things change. No more wasting time looking for inspiration to come up with a new idea. Collect ideas as they come to you, go back to them, and when you can, start putting them into words.

You can get access to new podcast episodes such as “The One Thing Your Idea Is Missing” by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

17 thoughts on “What Is an Idea Journal, and How Is it Going to Change the Way You Write?

  1. Reblogged this on christianfictionwritersblog and commented:
    Well, I am going to do a document, that I can get to from my phone, to put my ideas in. My kids keep finding these scraps of paper with my ideas on them and they start writing their own version of the story, (Which actually makes me happy), but, I would like to be able to go back to these ideas as you suggest.

  2. I love your idea of an idea journal. I have dozens of journals that I have written in over the years. Lately I find when the idea of writing comes to mind things do get in the way and I become sidetracked on the computer. Hours pass by and then the idea of writing is a thing of the past. Tomorrow I shall prepare the idea journal and carry it with me. Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome! I’m so glad you love the idea! How’s it going? Is it working out for you? It’s ok if it isn’t – just trying something new is better than not trying at all. :)

      1. I have been jotting down ideas in a journal. It is fun and love when return and implement the idea. Yesterday I had an idea for a program and today three more ideas came up so I wrote them down. As long as we are moving forward life is good!! Love and Light!

  3. Am grateful for coming across this post as it has clarified the writing process.

    I do agree that ideas are a creation force by themselves, and are indeed the source of inspiration to write/express the idea. Writing actually feels like following some force (inspiration) that guides you on how to express an idea in writing

    1. Very true! Many people find it difficult to resist that force, which isn’t the worst thing in the world! Unless you’re supposed to be doing something else and you’re writing instead. :P

      1. Yeah, the force is compelling, until you face the need to edit and modify diction. I am of the opinion that the process of refining a written idea is the hard work that discourages most people from writing

      2. Can’t argue with that! I have gone back and edited probably 15% of the first drafts of books I’ve tried to write, haha. And I’m an editor! Self-editing is a nightmare, until you’re done and happy you did it. :P

      3. Welcome to the awesomeness! :) Blogging is a roller coaster. If there’s anything I can do to help/encourage you along the way, let me know!

  4. Hi Meg, this is a very helpful article. A realistic and creative way to view the fine art of writing. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m lucky to have a pen and paper to put down my ideas as they come, it makes it a lot easier to write about it when I’m ready. Having an Idea Journal is a step up. Thanks a lot and keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks for reading — having a place to ‘dump’ all your ideas and sort through them is definitely a huge help. I even have a place specifically for ideas that pop into my head while I’m at work. You never lose them!

      1. That’s for sure Meg. It’s very important not to lose them. Having a handy place to dump them whenever they pop up is key. Thanks a lot and take care.

  5. The cat videos part made me chuckle. :) Hi Meg, thank you so much for this insightful piece. You are right about everything here. Thanks also in advance because this is exactly what I’m going to do, start an idea journal. I’m a newbie write and there’s something I want to share to the world but a bit frightened of the thought of ending up with a confused blog. Anyhow, starting an idea journal will definitely relieve me of some of that fear. :)

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