Every writer experiences this situation at some point.
You sit down at the computer, ready to hammer out words, but absolutely nothing comes out. Not a single word.
It’s just you and the blank page, with its blinking cursor quietly taunting you. Eventually you force a few clunky words and then…
Backspace, backspace, backspace.
It’s like someone ran a super-magnet over your brain’s hard drive and wiped it hopelessly clean of whatever inspiration and imagination had been inside when you first sat down.
What should you do when the creativity won’t flow? Prolific artists like Pablo Picasso and Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, offered this answer: When you’re running low on inspiration, steal it from others.
A point of clarification
There’s a difference between finding inspiration in others’ work and plagiarizing it. Don’t plagiarize, ever.
Become a student of others’ work, but do it to pinpoint the style that resonates with you and then make your point in your unique voice.
Build a swipe file
Staying creatively prolific requires smart tools, and the swipe file is one that should be in every writer’s bag of tricks to beat writer’s block.
Marketing pros have used swipe files for years because they’re always looking for a hundred different ways to say something. Starting from scratch every time they need to pitch a product is both difficult and unnecessary, so they’ve learned how to engineer inspiration into the process by making it a ritual.
They’re always paying attention, studying other marketers and collecting ideas. When a smart turn of phrase grabs them, or a competitor’s ad is a runaway success, these experts add it to their swipe files. When it’s time to develop a new concept, they use the swiped ideas to spark their own creative processes.
When I began writing fiction seriously 10 years ago, I borrowed that approach to build an inspiration reservoir, and it transformed my writing.
It all starts with reading
To be a good writer, you must first be a prolific reader. As you expose yourself to ideas and stories, your brain subconsciously absorbs and files source material that will inform your work.
If you don’t think you have time to read, that’s an indication that you need to make time and foster curiosity. Reading both broadly and specifically in your chosen genre will teach you what good (and bad) writing looks like. You’ll develop a palate for language and intuition for good ideas.
More importantly, each idea and word that you experience is like a dot on the page of your subconscious. Creativity is little more than connecting dots, so the more dots you have, the better. When comes time to write, the well will be full.
But reading isn’t enough. You have to steal along the way.
Steal like an artist: How to use a swipe file
We’ve all had times when we’ve had a great idea, or were inspired by something we saw, and didn’t take the time to capture it in the moment. “I’ll write it down later,” we say, but later never comes. The moment is lost, and the idea along with it.
This is where the swipe file comes in. You need one place to conveniently and consistently chronicle the dots as you bump against them.
I use a combination of Evernote and Pocket as my swipe file. Both are free and can be used on a mobile device and laptop, so I can capture text, images and audio notes for later reference.
For those times when I purposely unplug from digital things, I use a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook, though several writerly folks I know use Field Notes.
As I come across things I want to capture, I curate them in my Evernote swipe file or jot them down in my notebook until I can add them to Evernote.
A peek inside my swipe file
My Swipe Book is divided into a few separate sections:
SIPs (Stories in progress)
At any given time, I have dozens of ideas in various stages of development. Stories need space to grow and time to age before they’re ready to be written.
I often have “What if… “ scenarios that cross my mind, and this is the folder they go in until I can more fully develop them.
Reality is sometimes stranger and more fascinating than fiction. I keep a folder specifically to capture those things that I think carry some story DNA. Often, bits of story starters end up in my work in unexpected way.
To be a wordsmith, you should study wordsmiths. As I’m reading during the week, I come across turns of phrase that I love and wish I had written. I’ll capture those in my “stolen words” folder and study them to deconstruct why I love them.
I also flip through this folder when I’m stuck with own manuscript and need inspiration to see things from a different angle.
Putting it all together
It all breaks down to this process:
- Create a swipe file to easily capture ideas for later.
- Explore other people’s ideas and be hyper-aware of what resonates with you.
- Capture great ideas in the moment and curate them in your swipe file.
- Once a week, review your swipe file and see what happens.
Developing a bottomless reservoir of ideas is truly as simple as it sounds. Be curious about the world around you and then document everything that sticks with you. Soon you’ll have more ideas than you can possibly develop, and your imagination will never stall again.
Do you keep a swipe file? How has it helped you as a writer?