Hipster PDA. Photo by John Arundel, September ...

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Ideas are paradoxical. While hours of urgent deep thought might leave us without a clue, at other times ideas seem to pop into our heads effortlessly, dazzling us with their perfection. Alas, these brilliant moments of inspiration come all too often when we’re busy doing other things — driving, showering, drifting off to sleep, or waiting on line at the bank.

In fact, because our unconscious mind continues to mull things over even when our conscious minds are on other things — especially when our conscious minds are on other things! — is it most likely that our best ideas will come when we’re least prepared. A good part of your job as a writer, then, consists in being prepared for those moments when you’re least prepared.

Ubiquitous capture is the name of the game here — being always ready to grab hold of and record for later use any idea that crosses your mind, when it crosses your mind. Since inspiration might strike in any number of different situations, you’re probably going to want to have several different means of capturing ideas in your writer’s toolkit to assure that, when the moment comes, you’re not left without any means of capturing it for later.

My preferred means of capture is pen-and=paper, and I’m rarely without a pocketful of pens (and my pants all have the ink stains to prove it!) and a notebook in my back pocket. This serves my needs about 80% of the time; the other 20%, when my hands or attention are needed for things like driving, or when my inspiration comes from something I’m reading or looking at on my computer, I rely on somewhat more high-tech tools.

Good old-fashioned pen and paper

Nothing beats the feel of a comfortable pen laying good ink across a smooth page. There’s something almost magical about watching words spin out under your fingertips — so magical that just the act of picking up a pen can inspire us with new ideas.

While a tattered 69-cent spiral-bound notebook can hold your ideas just as well as anything else, a lot of writers (among others) are discovering the joys of writing on high-quality pocket notebooks like the Moleskine. With a rigid cover, elastic strap closure, and creamy paper available in lined, gridded, and blank styles, Moleskines and the wave of copycat notebooks that have followed in the wake of Moleskine’s success offer something more than just a place to write — they offer, if you’ll forgive the expression, a “writing experience”.

Of course, this is fostered in part by Moleskine’s own marketing; each Moleskine comes with an insert explaining the Moleskine story, how artists like Van Gogh and Picasso sketched in Moleskines in French sidewalk cafés, how Hemingway carried one to capture his thoughts, and so on. Of course, it’s codswallop; they used notebooks, of course, but what brand and what style, nobody knows for sure.

What we do know is that Moleskine’s are sturdy and feel good to write in. The paper is just the right thickness to prevent even very liquid inks from bleeding through much, the barely off-white color of the pages is easy on the eyes, and the sturdy binding makes it easy to work in your lap, on the grass, or in your hand just about everywhere. Plus, they hold up well to being tossed around in your purse or backpack, or even to the rigors of back-pocket travel.

They’re pricey: around $11.00 for the pocket-sized notebooks, and they’re never on sale (not that I’ve seen, anyway). You can pick one up at most Borders and Barnes & Noble stores (look up front, near the register) or order them online. $11.00 seems like a lot for a notebook, but trust me, they’re worth it. Still, there are alternatives. Both Target and Wal-Mart sell leather-bound pocket notebooks for $7 or $8 that are clearly inspired by the Moleskine — the same rounded corners, off-white pages, elastic strap, even the signature pocket inside the back cover.

Another alternative are the hard-bound notebooks Office Depot sells under it’s store brand, Foray. Available in letter size, 6′ x 8″, and pocket-sized, these are a bit of a departure from the Moleskine model. The covers are paper-bound and square-cornered, and there’s no elastic strap to keep it closed (on looking, I see they do have an elastic strap). What they do have that’s nice is a cluster of project planning pages at the front, which are great for to-do lists and brainstorming. I use a larger one for each of the projects I work on.

For an even less expensive and lower-tech solution, there’s always index cards. Index cards are cheap, easily available, highly portable, and can be printed on in most printers. One creative index card solution is the Hipster PDA, a fancy tongue-in-cheek name for a stack of index cards bound with a binder clip. A simple idea, but very engaging –Google hipster pda and see all the variations people have come up with to customize this simple idea to their own lifestyles.

One brilliant way to get the most out of index cards is to print on them. D*I*Y Planner has adapted their whole set of free downloadable planner pages to print on 3x5 index cards, including calendars, checklists, address pages, and more. For writers, there are project planners, storyboards, character profiles, story idea forms, and more — you can easily craft a full-featured writing support kit from the available templates. In addition to the core set there are also user-created add-ons and a widget kit so you can create your own.

Idea capture on the computer

What do you do, though, if you can’t pull out a pad of paper and hand-write some notes? Or what if you’re already working at the computer where your notes will eventually end up anyway?

There are tons of programs and services for capturing and storing information from your PC or mobile device. Some allow you to save “clips” of websites and other documents, others allow you to text message notes, and some even allow you to phone in your thoughts, transcribing them into text and forwarding them to wherever you want. Setting up the perfect solution for you might take some trial and error, and any system will take some time to get used to before you trust it enough to start using it as an “outboard brain”, storing whatever crosses your mind and knowing that it will be there later when you’re ready to use it.

Some of the services and software I’ve used include:

  • Google Notebook: Google notebook offers a simple, no-frills online notebook that you an type notes into directly or add to using a Firefox extension that adds a “Note this” entry to your right-click menu, allowing you to save either whole pages or selected text on the fly. You can create several notebooks, and sections within each notebook, to keep your thoughts organized; unfortunately, the “Note this” extension always saves to the last opened notebook by default. If you want, you can share your notes privately by sending a special link to your collaborators, or publicly by generating a publicly-available web page.
  • del.icio.us: Billed as a social bookmarking service, del.icio.us (now known as “delicious.com”, but I’m old-school!) allows you to bookmark sites, add notes and tags, and search or browse through them easily. Like Google Notebook, they also offer a Firefox extension that places a button in your toolbar — see something you like, click the button, and add notes and tags in the pop-up window. This is great for web research, as you can store all the links to material you’ve come across on the web. Since you can also surf other people’s bookmarks by tags, or search the site, it’s also a good way to find new material you might have otherwise missed.
  • Various sidebar programs: There are several sidebar programs that place widgets along the right-hand edge of your screen, and all of them have at least one note-taking widget. If you have a Vista computer, Vista Sidebar is built-in; other solutions include the sidebar included with Google Desktop and Yahoo!‘s Konfabulator. As you work, jot your notes into the note-taking widget and go back to the task at hand knowing your idea will be waiting for you when you’re ready.
  • Jott: Jott is a voice transcription service you access via any phone whose number you’ve registered with the service. You call Jott (I have it set as a spee-dial number) and leave a voice message; a few minutes later, it’s sent back to you, or to whomever you request, as a text message. The transcription is pretty good, too! The best thing about Jott is that it integrates with tons of other services — you can send to Twitter, post tasks to online to-do lists, even blog with the service. And although they aren’t “official” services, I’ve figured out how to create documents on Google Docs and add notes to Evernote (described below) — see my instructions in this Lifehack post.
  • Twitter: Twitter is best known for its socializing function, but you can easily set up a Twitter account to act as an idea repository — one you can add to using the web interface or by sending text messages from your phone. You can even send Tweets from some IM programs and desktop clients like Twhirl and Tweetdeck, or using Jott (see above).
  • Evernote: I’ve saved the best for last. Evernote is a powerful note-taking program that exists as both a desktop client and an online service (there’s a Windows Mobile app, and one for iPhone, too, but I’ve never used them). Like Google Notebook, you can add a Firefox extension to save clips from the Web, but you can also use the included Evernote Clipper to add selections from any program on your desktop. And, of course, you can type notes in directly, organize your notes into notebooks, tag them, and so on. Once a note is in Evernote, it’s synched to the online service, so it’s available from anywhere. What’s more, any images are scanned for text which is included in Evernote’s search function (though the text itself isn’t available to users — yet?). It even works pretty well with handwriting! Evernote also allows you to add whole files in PDF format, making it a pretty handy place to store research material, although so far PDFs are only fully indexed (and thus searchable) on the Mac.

There are plenty of other programs, services, and strategies out there for capturing ideas — I’ve only just scratched the surface here. What are some of the ways you capture ideas for later use?

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