Tuesday, February 12, 2019

How to Write and Publish--2--Jotting Down Ideas

The idea has been niggling at the back of your mind for a long time, and you’ve decided to do something with it.

Now what?

The process of getting your imagined story or message into tangible, readable form begins with jotting down ideas. It's a rough process, and you'll need to find what works for you.

It's also scary. Possibly for the first time, carefully-protected pictures and concepts in your mind are seeing the light of day.

This is not the time for well-crafted sentences and artful descriptions. It’s not for pondering word choices or designing book covers or contacting editors.

It's only for putting thoughts into words, on paper or on your computer.

This sort of note-jotting takes two forms:
1. The Brain Dump
2. The as-they-come-to-mind notes

First the Brain Dump. This is where you sit down and get those ideas out of your head as fast as possible, in abbreviated form. Sometimes I think of it as vomiting. While it might not be that gross, many times it’s not a pretty process.

Here are some methods:
On a laptop, in a Word document.
In a pretty notebook with a nice pen.
In a cheap notebook with a cheap pencil.
On the backs of old envelopes.
On 3x5 note cards.

You can write in lists, boxes, charts, or mind maps. Even sketches. Whatever works for you.

While you don't want to write long, detailed sentences at this stage, you do need to use enough words so that when you sit down a month from now to write it all out in detail, you’ll know what you were talking about.

Let's say I decide to write a book about our years on a Native American reservation in Canada. My initial notes might look something like this:

Weagamow Lake
Tina’s house
School kids
Matt’s surgery
The yellow house
The neighbor kids
The winter road
Nursing station

Those are the big topics. Then I might take each one and add a few more specific incidents and details. It still won't be anything fancy.

Gokum—laundry—not knocking—did she actually understand English?—smoking beaver—Matt’s questions
Tina’s house—20x24—1 year—the tin tub—curtain doorways--
School kids—Halfadays—Kanakakeesics—when Kesa graduated—David Winter—Jacob and Nita
Church—Gary playing guitar--Sunday evening singing--Cree/English sermons
Matt’s surgery—Meckel’s diverticulum—ambulance plane
The yellow house—running water!!—Kans gave it up for us—by the lake--
The neighbor kids—James n BamBam—the swings—the hockey rink—Stye—the water hole--
WINTER—45 below—winter road
Flying—NYP pilots—kids barfing—flying to Windigo—lake vs ice vs airport--
The winter road—the Christmas trip with Mark Boss—over the lake—through the woods—

As I proceed on to the next steps, I’m going to keep coming back to jotting notes. These will be the as-they-come-to-mind variety. In the middle of writing a long, detailed chapter on the winter road, I might realize I never mentioned fishing, but obviously that won't belong in a chapter about driving to Windigo on the ice road. So I'll grab a note card and write down Round Lake—fishing—canoe—walleye—jackfish.

I can deal with that card later, either dropping it into a file or copying it into my notebook, adding it to the brain-dump list of topics I want to cover. If I don’t write it down, I will likely forget to include it entirely until the book is finished and off to the printers.

I might also recall a very specific detail such as the time Jacob Meekis told me happily that there are lots of snakes under the rocks in front of our house, and how he grinned with his fat cheeks when he told me that, completely unaware of how much I feared snakes. 

So I might write that story and quote in a little more detail and file it away to help me out when I write about the children in the neighborhood.

But generally, it's best to leave the detailed stories for later.

[By the way, this is very off-topic, but when you do this exercise lots of stories come to mind...I never saw a single snake in our three years in Weagamow. It is a miracle. I’m sure there were hundreds of garter snakes around. For some reason God had special mercy on me and I appreciate it.]

If you’re like me and have many projects going at once, you’ll get ideas for an article on marriage while you’re in the middle of writing a blog post about saving money, or maybe you'll have a chance conversation on the subject. Grab a paper, jot down the idea about marriage, set it aside, and continue with the blog post.

I jotted these notes when a friend was talking about surviving a difficult marriage.
It went into my "speeches" file.
Here are two quotes I recalled that I might include in a Pennsylvania Dutch video.
One was my old landlady, Noah Fannie, saying, "But I got a man!" after she had related
the difficulties of her life, like it all worked out fine in the end.
The other quote is from my mom who, when we left a few dirty dishes, always said we
are "saving some for seeds."

My files for the above notes.
In my writing, I quote people a lot. I’ve learned to immediately write down what people say, even if it means leaping up from the dinner table amid the family’s groans to grab a pen and paper. Sometimes I think, “Oh, I’ll remember. It was so clever,” but when I go to write it, I might recall the gist of it but it’ll be in my words and not theirs.

I’ve also learned to write down who said it, and why, because sometimes I end up with notes like this:

"Did you marry an onion??" What on earth was that all about, and who said it?? I’ll never know.

I can tell we were playing a game, but that's the only clue I have.

I tend to have quotes on bits of paper in pockets, purses, and piles of paper. Eventually I gather them into file folders.

Obviously, if you’re jotting down ideas for one article or devotional, you will have far fewer notes than if you want to write a whole book, or half a dozen books. But the process is still the same.

Once your jumbled thoughts have been dumped onto the page, the next step is to group your notes and start fleshing these ideas into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. We’ll talk about that another day.

For today, pour a cup of tea, gather your courage, and pour those messy, disorganized thoughts and ideas out of your brain and into a spiral notebook. From now on, always keep a pen and paper near at hand for the ideas that come in the middle of a walk or meal or sermon.

Tomorrow: turning notes into actual writing.

Obviously, I scratch notes and quotes on whatever paper is within reach.
This one says, "I put my interested face on but in my head I was like this is literally like the dumbest thing ever."
I didn't cite the source here either but figured I'd remember, which I do.


  1. Thanks Dorcas....i will keep reading and learning from you. Maybe my book will be reality before I'm 80.

  2. Thanks so much, Dorcas. You are real. And I can understand what you are saying. I will take courage and march onward in my writing. PS. I look forward to reading your book about living in the North.

    1. thanks for your kind words and all the best to you as you "march onward." And I wasn't planning to write a book about living in the North until I jotted down all these notes and suddenly I wanted to.

    2. I would love to read a book about your time living in the North!