Idea Capture Tools

May 3, 2023 | Better Writing

I bet you’ve had an experience something like this. You’re out for a walk, or maybe riding in an elevator, or maybe cleaning out the garage. Suddenly, BAM!, you get a great idea. You’re sure you’ll remember it because it’s so powerful, but by the time you get to your desk, you can’t remember exactly what was so great.

That experience is part of the human condition. Your brain and mine are connection-making engines. They throw up new ideas all the time. What separates the people we call “creative” from the rest of us is that they do something with those ideas. But first, they need to capture them.

It doesn’t matter how big or powerful your idea is. If you don’t capture it soon after you get it, it will flit away from you like a butterfly on the wind. You can’t use any idea you don’t capture. An idea you don’t capture can’t help you produce better writing. That’s why it’s important to capture your ideas. Here are three ways.

Use a digital voice recorder.

A digital voice recorder is a great way to capture ideas because you just take it out, punch a button, and speak your idea. That’s far fewer steps than using the voice memo feature on your phone. It’s the perfect capture tool for times when you’re walking, exercising, or driving.

Of course, you must move the ideas from the digital recorder to some kind of file you can use. That’s an extra step, but it comes with its own advantage. As you transcribe files from the digital recorder, you can edit them or delete them. The ideas you’ve already captured may inspire new ideas, too.

I recommend a small recorder that will fit in a shirt pocket. I use an Olympus WS-853.

There is one big downside. There are places where you can’t use a voice recorder. It would be disruptive for me to use it when I get a good idea in church, for example. In situations like that, two other tools can help you capture your ideas.

Use index cards.

Lots of people love index cards for capturing their ideas. A three-by-five index card will fit in a pocket, so it’s easy to carry around and easy to grab when you need it.

There are “holders” for index cards. I have a Levenger Pocket Briefcase that I’ve used for more than 25 years. There are less-expensive alternatives like the Oxford At Hand Note Card Case.

You don’t necessarily need to transcribe an idea on your index card to a file, but you can. You can also add notes to the card.

The big advantage of index cards is that you can move them around. Many writers do that to experiment with different orders of presentation.

If you’re looking for a digital equivalent, consider using PowerPoint or similar presentation software. Treat each slide like a single index card. It’s easy to change the copy on individual slides and easy to move them around to test different orders of presentation.

Use a small notebook.

Many writers use a small pocket notebook to capture their ideas. The big advantage is that you can keep all your ideas in one place. That makes them easy to scan and likely to inspire new ideas.

There are lots of small pocket notebooks out there. I like the Moleskine pocket notebooks, but there are several lower-cost alternatives.

Create an idea processing system.

No matter how you capture ideas, you should also have an idea-processing system. Your goal is to be able to capture an idea whenever and wherever you have it, modify it, and use it to improve a piece you’re working on.


If you don’t capture an idea right away, it will flit away like a butterfly on the wind.

You can’t use any idea you don’t capture.

Capture your ideas with a digital voice recorder.

Capture your ideas with index cards.

Capture your ideas with a small pocket notebook.

Don’t just capture your ideas, create a system to modify and use them.

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