How to Collect Writing Ideas While You’re Procrastinating Online

writing ideas

Work while you play: gather writing ideas while procrastinating

I love the web. In fact, I think it’s the single greatest invention of the twentieth century. It allows people to meet, connect, conduct business, and gather information quickly and easily, all from the comfort of…well, anywhere. It’s also an entertainment mecca. All that art! Music! Films! Literature! And games.

The web is an enormous resource center, playground, and time suck.

We’ve all been there: You hop on the web to look up a quick fact, check your e-mail, or post an update to one of your (many) social media profiles. But what was supposed to be a two-minute action item stretches into a two-hour adventure as you click through an endless stretch of videos, articles, and cat memes.

Distractions Abound Online

Distractions affect everybody, but writers are especially susceptible. As we sit crafting our prose, sometimes the muse escapes us and we’re tempted to venture away from our writing to find her again. The strongest among us will be able to resist the alluring pull of the Internet’s dazzling distractions. But most of us, in moments of great weakness and in times of desperate procrastination, will succumb to the clicking, often forgetting about the muse completely.

Now, I’m not going to encourage anyone to dawdle. But a little procrastination can be helpful. In fact, I’ve come up with lots of great ideas for blog posts while watching interviews on YouTube. I’ve concocted story ideas from images I perused on iStockPhoto. Tweets on Twitter have inspired poems. There is no limit to the writing ideas that can be found while randomly surfing around the Internet.

Mostly, I’m pretty good about restraining from distractions, but when I do succumb, I put procrastination to work for me!

I Made a Stash File

As I navigate around the Internet while avoiding inevitable tasks, I come across fascinating stuff — stuff I’d like to use — but later (because, you know, right now I’m working on something, sort of). In the past, I used my web browser to bookmark interesting sites so I could revisit them later. Eventually I switched to social bookmarking.

Things started getting spread out. If I wanted to go back to an illustration of an alien I saw three months ago or a mesmerizing poem I found a few weeks back, I would have to scroll through all my browser bookmarks, and then log in to three or four different accounts looking for the item of interest. The system wasn’t working for me.

Then I made a stash file.

Sometimes the Simplest Solutions Are the Best

It started with a text file. I found a particular site that I wanted to use as inspiration for a poem, but I didn’t want to lose the URL or forget where I’d stored it. So, I opened my text editor. I copied and pasted the URL along with a quick note to myself and saved the file to my desktop. Later, when I was ready, I knew exactly where to find it.

I started using that same file for other writing ideas that I found online. Then, I decided to expand my stash file. I created a folder on my desktop and moved the text file into it. Now I could save images to the folder. But for some of the images, I wanted to make notes. So I added a Word document to the folder (Word lets you copy and paste images directly to the document).

Now my stash file is bustling with writing ideas. I still use my other bookmarking systems, but for ideas and inspiration, I strictly use my stash file, and I love it. Sure, paper notebooks feel like home, but when you’re collecting ideas in the digital realm, you need a digital way to store them. I mean, who wants to hand-write URLs?

Tips for Stashing Your Collection of Ideas and Inspiration

You’ll need the following:

  • A desktop folder containing a text file and an MS Word file
  • The ability to copy and paste
  • Some time to waste

Over time, I’ve found a few ways to make this little system quite effective. For example, once I use an idea, I can delete it. This keeps the files short and easy to peruse. I’ve also thought about creating a third document that I can label “used ideas.” Then, I can just move stuff to that document and it will be there in case I need to refer back to it later.

My favorite feature in this system is that I can easily search through the material to quickly find what I’m looking for. It doesn’t matter if my documents grow to 10 pages or 100 pages because I use the Find feature. That’s when you hit command-F (control-F for Windows users) and then enter a word or phrase to search for. Within seconds I can find an item that’s buried in a document. Easy as pie.

How Do You Harvest and Store Writing Ideas?

I’m always looking for efficient ways to keep track of all the great writing ideas I come across. How do you do it?

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


52 Responses to “How to Collect Writing Ideas While You’re Procrastinating Online”

  1. Kelvin Kao says:

    I am now using Google Wave for the stash, so I can have access to it no matter which computer I happen to be using at the time. Also it shows me the history of changes in very convenient ways. (As a computer programmer, I highly value version controls and version back-ups.) I more or less use it as a rich-text document / private wiki. I have one wave for video ideas, one wave for blog post ideas, and another one to store links for online tools that I might use or should look into. I have similar arrangements for work-related stuff as well.

  2. LZ says:

    Firefox has a toolbar that you can copy pieces of a page to save, but I tend to use StumbleUpon or Delicious. Both have toolbars that make is simple to click to save a page, and you have the added benefit of giving the writer some additional exposure.

    • I used those bookmarking tools too. I still do, sometimes — just not for ideas or items that I want to come back to for inspiration. I think my problem was that I had too many accounts and browsers. It was easier to just create a file. But I like the way you’re doing it, keeping it simple with two accounts and a toolbar.

  3. Hannah says:

    I use the bookmarking method as well when surfing the interwebs. I also use my GoogleReader for blogs and webpages I want to read. And I also change my google homepage to inlcude websites I like to visit regularly, like this one!

    I’ve found so many inspirations online, pictures, writing prompts, creative exercises, flash fiction contests…etc. They have helped considerably.

    • Thanks so much, Hannah! I used Google Reader for a long time, but I found that I rarely went back to the starred items, and when I did, there were just too many to sift through (there’s too much good stuff out there!).

  4. Sarah Turner says:

    I’ve started using Evernote ths year which is pretty cool. You can even save tweets straight to Evernote.

    Evernote means I can access my ideas file wherever I am. (I used to carry a USB around all the time!)

    • Hm. I have Evernote, but I haven’t really explored it in great depth. I guess I should carve out some time to try it out. I think Evernote lets you record notes (audio/vocal) too, and that could come in extremely handy, especially when I’m on the go! Thanks, Sarah.

    • Liz says:

      I second Evernote. Great service. I’ve been using it for about 3 years now, and I keep everything in it. Now that I can also access it on my Android phone, I’m in heaven. Besides writing stuff, I have my recipes and shopping lists in there.

      • I’ve had Evernote for a couple of years but haven’t really experimented with it yet. I suppose I should set aside some time for that because it looks like a great tool. Normally, I’m quick to adapt but with my writing notes and ideas, I seem to be stuck on paper notebooks.

  5. Hahaha I love LOL Cats!

    I get a lot of writing ideas online, especially for blog posts. But most of my ideas for fiction and/or poetry come from everyday life. For example, I had a great idea for a short story the other day while driving home. And I wasn’t even thinking about writing.

    All my ideas and bits & pieces of inspiration get written down into a little Moleskine notebook I carry around with me.

    • That Moleskine just keeps popping up. I’m getting anxious to finish my current journal so I can start using the Moleskine I recently purchased. My business/blog ideas are separate from my other creative ideas. I keep professional stuff in an 8×11″ notebook. I always wonder where you get your ideas and information for blog posts because your blog has some of the best articles for writers and readers!

  6. tuxgirl says:

    I do something a bit odd, I suppose. On my computer (linux), you can get an application called “fortune”, which has as its main purpose to spit out a random quote, joke, etc each time you run it. Well, fortune gets its list of quotes from text files in a specific format. So, I have created a file of writing ideas in fortune’s format, and i use that. I can search in the file if there’s a specific thing i’m looking for, but if i’m just trying to figure out what to do next, i can have my computer pick an idea for me.

    (looks like with some googling you can find fortune for both mac and windows as well. linux users should know how to get it…)

    • That sounds awesome! If there’s one application I’ve yet to find for any OS, it’s one that allows the user to create packages. For example, let’s say I’m writing a children’s book (I’m not). I might have the text in a Word document and various illustration files in Illustrator and/or Photoshop. Additionally, I might want to break these files into separate chapters for the book, but keep them interlinked. It would be awesome if there was a slick system to do that for creative professionals. I bet musicians and artists could use something like that too!

  7. Procrastinating on the internet is my biggest problem–I don’t waste time watching TV (except for the Olympics and American Idol) but the internet is another story. Currently I’m just bookmarking sites, but that is getting unruly and unworkable. I used to use Google Notebook but that got unworkable, too. So I’m going to study your method. There are some good bits in the comments, too. Thanks for a great post.

    • American Idol! Tell me about it. That show is the biggest time suck ever. At one point in the season, don’t we give them four hours a week? Really, it’s ridiculous (but oh so addicting!). I hadn’t heard of Google Notebook, so I just popped in to check it out and it connected with all my Google Bookmarks. I’ll have to explore it more later, but I’m mainly curious to see what kind of files from my computer it can include (if any). I hope you’ll come back and let us know how trying my method works for you, especially if you come up with any tweaks to improve it. Thanks, Charlotte!

  8. S.D. says:

    I cruise for inspirational photos and stock art for photo-manips for my stories

    • Oh yes, I’ve been to a few times. There’s a lot of fun stuff to sift through on that site. I also find some interesting images on iStockPhoto and by simply using image search on Google.

  9. Lori says:

    I’m wondering exactly how I can make hay with Bejeweled Blitz…..

    Great post, Melissa. 🙂

  10. Matthew Dryden says:

    If an idea catches my attention, I focus on it until it becomes something substantial. If it’s not enough to stand on its own, I usually include it in another piece of writing and make it fit.

  11. Paulo Campos says:

    I treat writing blogs differently than I do other sites I read. I’m technically procrastinating while I visit them, but (unlike failblog or LOST theories) I can justify the time spent as productive.

    When I find a really interesting post I do two things: 1) I copy and paste it into gmail and send it to myself and label it “Fiction” that way I can find them easily on my phone if I’m not home. 2) I print it and file it in a binder kept near my writing space, which I’ll leaf through when I’m stuck or frustrated.

    I like doing this because it reminds me of ideas I found interesting but may have forgotten, which occasionally can get me back on track.

    Thanks for the interesting post (kind of meta-textual-since I’m procrastinating right now).

    • Ah, I used to e-mail myself a lot of goodies that I found on the Internet. I forgot to include that as one of the many methods I’ve tried. Eventually I got on a kick to streamline my inbox and e-mail folders, and I stopped using that method. But it’s a good one, and I like that the materials are available from any computer with an Internet connection. I think Google Docs (or perhaps Google Wave — we’ll see) might be good for that too. Thanks, Paolo!

  12. Amanda Fall says:

    You mean my messy little notebook I keep with unreadable scribbles and strange phrases that no longer make sense (“remember zebras don’t always have stripes”) isn’t the best solution? Whaaaat?

    I like the simple text file idea–copy, paste, search. Nice! Thanks for the tips . . . and the reminder to get off the Internet. Off I go!

    • I believe that the best solution is whatever works for you. I always prefer the messy notebook to digital files, but it’s too difficult for me to track content found on the web that way. Also, I almost never use a printer. In fact, i don’t even keep a printer in my office. It’s in another room! Way back in the day (and I mean in the early to mid 90s), I used to print everything out and keep it in a binder-type journal. It just got to be too much. I guess that’s another old method I forgot to include. Wow, you guys are reminding me of even more ways I’ve tried to keep track of all this stuff from the web!

  13. Nadira Jamal says:

    I do David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” program, so I keep a list of projects and a list of next actions in a personal database.

    When I get a random idea, I add “expand on X” to my next actions list, and mark the priority as “someday maybe”. The “someday maybe” items are hidden in the default view of the list, so they don’t clog up my to-dos unless I choose to display them.

    Once I get the chance to develop the idea a little, I mark it done (if I decide not to pursue it), or create a new entry in the project list (if I will be pursuing).

    • Wow, that’s quite a system. I have used a database to track my to-do list. Actually, it was just an Excel file. Now I just use a basic text file. However, if I used it (or Excel) to store all the inspirational material I find on the web, I think my action items might get lost in the mix! Then I’d never get anything done!

  14. J.D. Meier says:

    Beautiful point on stash files.

    There is a lot to be said for consolidation and precision.

    A lot of my day job is consolidating and condensing information that is spread over threads and heads … time and space.

  15. Deb says:

    I have collected urls and notes in an email that I can keep circulating. Probably this is only appealing for those who use public internet access which makes it hard to maintain a favorites list.

  16. cmdweb says:

    Much like you outlined, I tend to use a txt file and fill it with notes to self, the odd paragraph that springs to mind, draft titles and any URLs I wan to use.
    I like your idea of just expanding that to a folder so I can stick images etc in there too. It might make me more inclined to pick up the half-baked stuff I’ve got jotted down and push them on a bit.

    • It’s definitely a good way to keep notes in one, easy-to-find place. I still have notes all over the place in different notebooks, journals, and files. But one of these days, I’ll get them all organized into one electronic folder.

  17. Kandis Kennedy says:

    I use MS OneNote. It’s a one click wonder. Saves everything for me, including video and recorded audio insights, all in one, easy to use, easy to search, filling program. Plus it supports many different personal ‘organizational styles’ .. classic outlines, scatter methods, even a clip board to arrange your post-its. Check it out.

  18. seanrox says:

    I began using last week. It’s basically an URL-based mindmap. My previous attempts using ‘bookmarking’ sites for storing idea branches and specific were too far too complicated.

    As a heavy notebook writer/artist this is helping me get my ideas in one “manipulatable” online community.


    • I took a quick look at PearlTrees and thought it was interesting. I can see how a creative person might use it to organize websites of interest for inspiration or research. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Khatia Caroline says:

    Why not to use OneNote (Windows) or AmazingNote (Itouch, Iphone, Ipad)
    Diigo is also good to store the links and ideas.

    • Yes, some writers might find these useful. Thanks for adding them to the list!

      I have downloaded several writing-related apps but find that I don’t use them very often, which is why I didn’t include them here. I get a lot of use out of my Wikipedia and Dictionary/Thesaurus apps, but that’s about it. However, that has do with my own style and preference, and I do think a lot of writers would appreciate such apps. Thanks again.

  20. I use Safari as my web search vehicle and it has a great way to save files. All you have to do is click on the + at the beginning of the web address in the search line and you can save an address to your “reading list” which then appears along the left side of your screen or you can add it to a “bookmark list” where you can make any file directory you want to save your work. That’s the easiest I could find. As a matter of fact, I’m going to save this page. Have a blessed day.

  21. Robyn LaRue says:

    These days I use a private pinterest board titled “plot bunnies” to stash all my online idea-gathering. Works great. 🙂

    • I use Pinterest for certain things too. I love it; the only downside is that sometimes there are articles I want to save that don’t have any images, so there’s nothing to pin. Other than that, Pinterest is one of my favorite social media sites!

  22. Jimmy R says:

    I use Tumblr as my timesink of choice and I just started reblogging interesting things to my writing blog. I save images as character reference, or location reference, or fashion reference, or object/item reference, etc. It’s incredibly handy. I’m starting to go back and categorize further–weapons, specific types of places (indoors, forest, house), all the sort of stuff. My writing blog is a lot of inspiration fuel, really.

    • Writing Forward is on Tumblr. It’s a combination of a blog, pin-board, and social media network. Tons of great content there, especially creative and artistic work to explore.

  23. I just use a notebook. It’s one of those journals with a fancy cover and fancy paper, because really it should be fun. Most of my ideas don’t come off the internet though.

  24. Chris Smith says:

    Great post Melissa. I guess we writers are all great procrastinators. Sometime it’s how our story ideas are born.

    I’m a great fan of Scrivener ( for organising any writing and stories. In Scrivener you can divide a document into folders and sub-documents, which means all your scenes can be kept in one place (unlike Word etc).

    You can also save complete web pages to something called ‘research documents’ so I have a file organised into themed folders. That way I can find what I’m looking for and see the entire web page without having to go find it again.

    • Scrivener is incredible. I remember in the days before Scrivener, I’d always worry about how I would ever write a book using Word. Writing is messy business, and Scrivener makes it so easy to organize a bunch of documents in a single project. My Scrivener projects contain notes, outlines, research, character sketches, and so much more. It’s also awesome for e-book conversion!


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