Idea Recording

Copyright Charles Cave (c) 2003

I get ideas at all hours of the day. What can I do?
How can I keep a journal to record my ideas?
Tell me about Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks?
How can index cards be used to organise my thoughts?

This section of the Creativity Web focuses on the important activity of always being prepared to write down unexpected ideas and thoughts.

Have you ever been doing one of the following activities when you suddenly had a flash of inspiration but had no means of recording your idea? You thought you could remember the idea until a convenient time to write it down, but you found the idea had vanished as quickly as it appeared?

Our brains are always working no matter what activities we are doing.

Ideas and thoughts are fleeting and unless you catch them immediately, they will be lost. There's no way to predict when a great idea is likely to pop into your mind so you must be prepared at all times to record them. Once you have established the habit of idea recording you will be surprised at how many good ideas you actually think of each day.

Books on writing refer to “your journal” or “your notebook”. It is essential you start using a system to record your ideas, thoughts and observations. These notes will be your primary source book in your creative and humourous adventures.

If you want to write fiction, non-fiction, comedy or anything else for that matter, keeping a journal is a good idea. Ideas (and humour) area all around you, and ideas can appear (and disappear) very quickly. Be receptive to the world around you. There are times when you may hear a snatch of conversation, or see a funny sign. Unless you capture that thought immediately, it will be gone in a matter of minutes.

It is important to be always ready for idea recording. The mind never stops chattering with all sorts of thoughts bubbling and percolating up from the subconscious mind into your conscious mind. Ideas and memories collide against each other in the subconscious melting pot and it is necessary to be ready at all times to capture those combinations that jump out. They just have to be captured. Imagine your ideas are butterflies flying out into the open. You need a net to capture the butterflies and not let them get away.

Types of recording materials

There are many ways to capture your ideas and you should choose a method that works for you. You may want to use more than one method depending on what you are doing.

Journals and Notebooks

A notebook is an effective and inexpensive method of recording your ideas. There are many different sizes and materials available, so spend some time and money in your local stationery store. When you buy a notebook you need to consider the following:

Size. Do you want a notebook to fit in your shirt pocket, an A5 size book for writing or sketching, or an A4 (8.5 x 11) book size. Small size means you are more likely to carry the book with you, but the small books can fill up quickly if you decide to do extensive writing. Small pages will cramp your style if you want to draw a mind map or sketch

Soft cover or hard cover. Hardcover books definitely last longer, and the pages will be protected. Over the years I have used hard-covered A5 size books with ruled pages. They are very cheap and available in newsagents

Ruled or blank. Most notebooks are ruled, and unruled pages usually cost more. Why is that? You pay more for less printing! More recently I have used Visual Diaries which are made from quality art paper. They are unruled so you can use the pages for writing, drawing, making mind maps and sketches

Type and colour of paper. I prefer plain white paper. Notebooks published as journals sometimes add ornamentation to the page which I think is quite unnecessary.


Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo notebook image from the British Museum

For inspiration on how to use your journals and notebooks, explore the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote about a wide variety of subjects and drew sketches as well as writing notes in reverse.

Leonardo’s have been published in paperback although they don’t convey the visual beauty of the handwriting. Oxford University Press published an inexpensive paperback edition in 1980 titled “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci”.

The contents included explorations of the four elements, nature,  mechanics, flight, the arts, architecture. In another section, Leonardo tells tales, fables, epigrams and riddles. I would imagine that Leonardo would have been an entertaining after dinner speaker.

Inventors Notebooks - Thomas Edison

The above image (dated 17 July 1877) shows a sketchand description of a device that would record a telephone message and play it back slowly enough to be written out. 

Thomas Edison kept an enormous number of notebooks and more than 3,500 notebooks have been found. A selection of notebook images can be found on the Internet.

An Article published the “Atlantic” says,

Luckily for posterity, the process by which Edison invented is documented in exquisite detail in a series of 3,500 notebooks. The researchers unabashedly compare his fecundity of ideas to Leonardo da Vinci's. The notebooks are filled with fascinating observations and insights--many pertaining to unrelated projects, in a seeming free flow of associations. Consecutive sketches--some rough and crude, others executed with the exactitude of a draftsman--traverse a vast spectrum of technologies.


Index Cards

In Robert Pirsig’s novel, Lila, the main character Phaedrus lives on a boat and is traveling on the Hudson river.

He is writing a book and uses a system of index cards to record and organise his ideas.

Read an extract from the book, describing these cards.


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Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and many other classic novels) used index cards extensively for recording his ideas, and eventually writing the first draft of his novels.



I have been using system cards (sometimes called “index cards”) for several years. System cards can be bought in packs of 100 from newsagents and office supply stores. I favor the 3.5 x 5 inch size as they fit in my shirt pocket, as well as easy to hold. My children call them “palm cards” because they sometimes use them to write notes for giving talks in school.

Index cards can be cut from recycled paper (A4 or 8.5 x 11" size). The beauty of using recycled paper is that you won’t feel you are wasting good quality cards. The paper is thinner so more can be stored in a given space.

Storage boxes can be set up with dividers to file the cards into appropriate sections. Make sure you only write one idea or fact on each card to make them easy to file.

The beauty of index cards is you can only need a small supply to carry around. I found that writing on index cards is very fiddly when I am traveling on the train, so I made a miniature writing desk and carry case using a piece of thick cardboard. I cut two pieces of card slightly larger than the index cards, and joined them together with two pieces of wide sticky tape leaving space between the card to store approximately 20 cards.   

Index cards are a great system for writing books, presentations, designing web sites, storyboarding films, writing speeches, poems and plays. Each card can be used to record an individual idea or concept and laid out on a flat surface to show relationships. Index cards can be pinned on to notice boards or attached to whiteboards with magnets.

Index cards may appear a little old fashioned but they are permanent, inexpensive, don’t require batteries or power, and they support colour and graphics. Important information on cards can be backed up by photocopying, scanning or typing out the contents.

Index cards can be made out of different coloured paper,  graphic paper, grid paper, music paper or tracing paper.

Coloured pens, pencils

For permanence in your diaries I recommend you use a biro or ink pen. Add variety to your writing by using different colours. Consider buying a 4 colour in one biro (Black, Blue, Red and Green) or carry a selection of different coloured pens with you.

Buy a set of fine ink pens such as the Stabilo Boss pens shown on the left.

Pencil is good for sketching and making corrections, but not recommended for permanence in the case of Inventors’ Notebooks.

Micro-Cassette Recorder

Keith Richard from the Rolling Stones told a story about the creation of their hit “Satisfaction”. He said he'd just gotten a cassette tape machine which had just been invented and he used to sleep with his guitar. He got up in the morning and say his tape had run to the end, so he rewound it.

He played it and heard the opening riff to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” followed by 30 minutes of him snoring!.

Ideal for situations when you can’t stop and write, for example, walking, driving or exercising. I am a regular user of my recorder and I take it with me on long walks.

Transcribing the tape efficiently requires another machine with foot pedals. These are quite expensive but I found a software program that does the job beautifully.  The dictaphone is plugged into the sound card of the computer, and the transcription software records the sound to disk. The recording is played back and the transcription software acts like a tape player, with function keys for Stop, Play, Rewind, and Fast Forward. A great feature of the program is the ability to vary the playback speed.

Some tips for using your dictaphone: Speak as slowly as possible and speak clearly. Use long breaks between sentences to make it easier to transcribe with minimal interruptions.

If you are a songwriter or musician, a tape recorder is an essential tool. A technical writer I know is a part time songwriter. He carries a pocket tape recorder with him at all times and uses it to hum or sing melodies he thinks up, as well as lyrics.


Computers are certainly useful for recording your ideas. A variety of programs can be used to record your ideas, including spreadsheet programs. Here is a screenshot from an Excel program I developed to capture ideas, problems and triggers.

A new breed of software is available that combines a tree control and a notepad area. This allows ideas to be organised in “folders within folders” and links created from one idea to another. One such program is “TreePad”. A free version is available for download from (Commercial versions are available with details available on the web site).


Other idea recording methods

There are many other ways to record your ideas. Here are some more methods for capturing ideas:

Further Reading

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An exercise in using idea recording

Here is an exercise you can do to explore your challenge. Pick something from your problem bank and try one or more of these activities to capture ideas.

Speed Writing

Write a statement of your problem at the top of the page of your journal. Read it aloud three times. Then set a timer for 15 minutes and write nonstop about this problem. Think aloud by writing down your thoughts on the subject. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence construction. Just keep on writing.

When the time is up, review what you have written and see what ideas you can find in the writing.

Speed Talking

You will need a tape recorder or dictaphone to do this activity. Write a statement of your problem on an index card, start the recorder and read the problem aloud. Then set a timer for 15 minutes and talk non stop about this problem. Think aloud by speaking your thoughts in a “stream of consciousness” style. Don’t worry about making sense. Just speak your thoughts and explore any associations or side tracks.

A good way to do this exercise is to go for a walk with your dictaphone. Choose a walking route that you know will take at least 15 minutes to complete.

When you are finished, listen to the recording and write down the good ideas.

Mind Mapping

Take a piece of paper, at least A4 size, preferably bigger. Write the issue in the center of the page, summarizing the issue into a key word and image. Set the timer for 15 minutes.

Draw eight lines radiating from the keyword. Start mind-mapping by writing keywords on the branches. Explore the connections and continue drawing the mind map. At the end of the time, review the mind map for ideas.


Set a timer for ten minutes then draw a picture of your problem. Doodle and draw abstract designs. When the time is up, review the drawing to see what insights you have gained into the problem.


Other things for your journal/notebook

Your journal will become your constant companion as you use it each day. Other uses are suggested below.

100 Questions of Michael Gelb

Michael Gelb’s book “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci” has a chapter titled Curiosita (Curiosity). Gelb says that great minds ask great questions. The questions that “engage our thought” on a daily basis reflect our life purpose and influence the quality of our lives.

Gelb suggests keeping a notebook for journal of blank pages. Use it to record your questions, observations, insights, jokes, dreams, and musings. The notebook will encourage freedom of thought and expansion of perspective.

A powerful exercise in Gelb’s book is making a list of a hundred questions that are important to you. He suggests  writing the list in one sitting, then review the list for common themes. Some of the powerful questions quoted in his book include:


Every time you hear a new word, write it in a special place in your journal. At the earliest opportunity, look the word up in the dictionary and write down its meaning.


Write inspiring quotations in your journal. Choose a quotation as your theme for the day and write it in large letters.

To Do List

To Do lists are usually found in diaries, but a to do list can be written in the journal and used as a checklist. Thomas Edison used to write to do lists in his notebooks.

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