Writing Tip

Keep a Folder Full of Idea Snippets

They can help you flesh out an article later on

snippets from a local newspaper
snippets from a local newspaper
Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

Writers, have you ever had a fantastic story from your past that you’ve wanted to share with the world, but you just weren’t able to find the footing for it as a full article?

What did you do with that idea that never got a chance to grow up?

I hate to tell you that over the past 8 months, I have deleted many of my incomplete ideas. I’ve left them in the “Ideas” tab of my publishing schedule for a week or two. When I couldn’t get anywhere with them I’d simply wipe them out, so they wouldn’t further clutter up my schedule.

Those unused ideas deserved to live on. Today I will introduce the concept of idea snippets and why you should consider making a home for them.

The 7-year-old content creator

Several months ago, I thought back to my childhood. My mother had been the executive secretary to the advertising director of one of the leading newspapers in our town, so reading the newspaper was always a big deal to us.

Around age 5 or 6, I decided I wanted to do more than read the newspaper — I wanted to write it as well. I created my own newspaper called The Stapord. Like our real newspaper, it had an In The News section with one-paragraph blurbs of news. It also had longer, feature articles and “photos” drawn by yours truly.

A year or two later, I was inspired by another publication that had a prominent place in the Ryburn home: the Sears catalog. I decided to start my own catalog, which I named Ears.

We had a cat, so I imagined a line of cat litter boxes for my catalog. I wrote the description for the lowest-priced litter box to emphasize that although it wasn’t covered like the other two, it was extremely durable. It would last a long time and was a great value.

As for the other two litter boxes, I priced the mid-range litter box only $2 cheaper than the top-of-the-line model. That way, I explained to the readership of my catalog — my mother and grandmother — that nearly everyone wanting something more than the value-priced DuraBox would be tempted to step up and buy the most expensive model.

I thought back to my catalog and realized, holy smokes, I was a content creator at 7 years old. My product descriptions showed an understanding of marketing and pricing that many college students don’t have.

An incomplete idea

I knew that was a story that would connect with many on a platform full of writers. Yet, I could not figure out a way to blow that story up into a full article idea.

Part of the problem was that I felt like I was bragging on myself, as though the title of the article should be “Look How Smart I Was When I Was 7.” I didn’t want to take that tone.

I thought about writing about possible directions my career path might have taken had my mother encouraged me to keep writing product descriptions and home newspapers. That seemed like a criticism of the way she brought me up, though. My teachers told her to keep me focused on math and science. That’s where they thought the gold was. She raised me the best she could.

After a couple of weeks in my publishing schedule, I decided, “It looks like that idea’s not going anywhere. Too bad, because it’s a neat story.” Then I deleted it and moved on to other ideas.

Where I learned about the concept of snippets

Ironically, the math and science background that my teachers encouraged over creativity caused me to think in terms of snippets.

In the 1980s, I got my first personal computer and learned to program. I majored in computer science and math in college and went on to get a graduate degree in computer science. After five years of teaching, I went into the field of computer programming, in particular developing dynamic websites.

When you’re a programmer, there are certain tasks you perform over and over again. When you come across these, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel each time. Therefore, any programmer worth their salt has a library of code snippets they’ve built up, that they can plug and play into the programs they write as needed. For example, I have code snippets to

  • Fill in the From:, To:, Cc:, Bcc:, Subject, and Body fields of an email and then send the email
  • Check to see if the data entered in a text field is a valid 5-digit or 9-digit U.S. ZIP code
  • Take a year and compute whether it is a leap year

None of those is a complete computer program by itself. They’re useful insertions into a computer program when the task they perform is part of the program’s desired functionality.

Idea snippets

Idea snippets serve a similar role to code snippets. They aren’t complete stories/articles by themselves, but when inserted into a longer story or article, they enhance it.

My long-forgotten 7-year-old content creator idea snippet came back into my mind last week. I had been in line at the drugstore, and I had correct change for my purchase out before I even got up to the register. I did that so the people behind me in line wouldn’t have to wait long for me to complete my purchase.

“Consideration for others,” I thought, “I’m glad Mama raised me that way.” That led to an article idea, 5 Habits I’m Grateful My Parents Taught Me. However, originally I only had 4 habits. The others were keeping up with the news, not letting the gas tank get too low in the car, and a sense of caution. It just felt like a fifth example was needed to make the article complete.

Luckily, I thought back to The Stapord and the Ears catalog, and I had my fifth habit my mom taught me — be creative. That made the article complete.

I was lucky that I remembered that idea. How many other idea snippets did I throw away that could have gone in a folder in Evernote, a tab in my Google Sheets publishing schedule — even a piece of paper in a physical manila folder?

I would encourage you to set up a similar system. Capture those undeveloped ideas and re-read them every once in a while and see if they jar any bigger ideas loose. In particular, re-read them when you have a bigger idea that feels like it’s missing a piece. You just might find the solution to the puzzle in your snippet folder.

Snippets can be used more than once

Once you write an article that takes one of your idea snippets and whispers to it, “Oh, snippet, you complete me,” then do you delete that snippet from your folder?

In my opinion, no.

Look at the work of top writers on here. How many of them publish stories that are 100% new every time?

How many times have you been told to unplug from social media to become a more prolific content creator?

How many times have you been advised to drop the mindset that money is the root of all evil?

How many times have you read that meditation is a wonderful part of a morning routine?

Your idea snippet may not be as profound as those concepts. It’s still worth saving to use again, though. Heck, I just got two articles out of a 7-year-old who writes about cat litter boxes!

Takeaway

We all have stories we long to tell, but they feel incomplete. They feel like they’re not quite ready for public consumption. There’s something missing, and you don’t know what that something is.

Don’t delete those partial ideas, and don’t give up on them! Put them in a folder or spreadsheet titled “Idea Snippets.” Or, if you want, give it a long title like, “Haven’t Figured Out What to Do with These Yet.”

Come back to the folder from time to time, and eventually, you’ll find places where the partial ideas fit right in. Best of all, just as a programmer might use a code snippet that sends email multiple times, you will find that your idea snippets can be reused.

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s a related article:

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher https://www.buymeacoffee.com/paulryburn Twitter: @paulryburn

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