Are you out of ideas for things to write about?
Well then, it’s time to change your approach.
Open your eyes!
In the final season of Mad Men, top advertising executive man Don Draper tears a car ad out of Playboy and puts it in his pocket. His wife complains he is ruining her magazine, but Don doesn’t care.
Don understands, like most successful non-fiction writers, there’s greater value in building on what’s already out there than there is in reinventing the wheel every time.
How else could he spend his time drinking, sleeping and hooking up?.
If you write non-fiction, keep a swipe file where you store facts, figures, headlines and ads relating to your area of interest.
One of the world’s most famous copywriters Gary Halbert wrote a letter from prison telling his son to keep his swipe file up to date with “hot new ideas, good layouts, unusual propositions and so on.”
You could swipe headlines and first lines, inspiring videos and pictures (Pinterest is a social swipe file) and compelling emails. Your file is a repository of information which, if it’s not relevant to your current writing project, will be of use at some point. Copywriters and advertisers keep ideas, research and information they can use for future campaigns in their swipe files.
I know a smart freelance writer who keeps a future file of news stories and other articles that she has worked on or read. She returns to these articles every few months to write an updated version. Her editors love it.
Who plans that far ahead?
Freelance writers who earn six figures a year, that’s who, and it’s a strategy I wish I’d known about before I handed back my press-pass.
Then, there was Thomas Jefferson who jotted down notes about everything from the growth of plants and flowers to observations about daily life.
But I’m a storyteller, why should I care about future files, swipe files and Don Draper?
why should I care about future files, swipe files and Don Draper?
Perhaps you shouldn’t worry about swipe files, but please don’t wait for inspiration to arrive.
Because you’ll be stood up.
Instead, be fastidious about recording ideas in your writer’s notebook.
Mark Twain carried a pocket notebook with him. The novelist John Cheever kept a journal throughout his life, and he often wrote about stories he was writing or wanted to write.
Even George Lucas keeps a notebook with him when he’s shooting a film. Perhaps he should have carried around that notebook a little longer while writing the prequels.
Even if you write fiction, you are a collector of ideas.
Perhaps you collect stories from your personal life in a journal, like the time your two-year-old daughter jammed a pink crayon up her nose and you had to buy a pair of tweezers to take it out?
Perhaps you collect small details from your day, like the time your ordered a lasagne and salad and the waitress heated both in the microwave?
Perhaps you collect random moments like the time you were waiting outside the gym to collect your wife from yoga, and you watched a body builder walk out, open a pack of cooked chicken fillets and eat them one-by-one?
Perhaps it’s all material.
The more materials you collect, the more you’ll have for your craft.
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