One of the most popular blog posts I ever wrote is 100 Ways to Improve Your Blog. Although it’s been more than 7 months since I’ve published it, I still get a few re-tweets per week and a decent number of monthly thank you emails. For a single blog post, that’s a lot.
If I would have to pick only one tip from all 100, one tip that drastically improved my blogging performance, that would be “keep an idea incubator”. Keeping and managing a posts ideas incubator impacted my blogging in so many positive ways: I never run out of interesting things to blog about, I always have a bird eye view of my blog topics (hence, I’m able to sketch my potential audience in more accurate way) and I’m constantly feeding my blog with fresh content. Which, to be honest, is the most important advantage of all.
What follows is the description of my own posts ideas incubator. I don’t advocate the use of a specific application, feel free to use whatever device/application you want, but I do believe that following a certain structure and strategy is beneficial. I’ll start with the strategies of capturing, will follow with strategies of inbox management and using a blogging setup, and will finish with a short tutorial on how to use the ideas incubator you just created. Be aware that this post is rather long, more than 2500 words.
How To Capture Blog Posts Ideas
I don’t know about you, but I get the most interesting and exciting blog posts ideas while I’m driving. Or while I’m in the middle of a conversation. Or while I’m exercising. The bottom line is that I get the best blog posts ideas while I’m NOT at the computer. After a few frustrating episodes (in which I even tried some mild self-hypnosis in order to recall “that brilliant idea” I had this morning in the car) I gave up trying to remember those bits and pieces and set up a capturing environment.
I soon realized that I need capturing devices for only two environments: mobile and computer.
1. Mobile Capturing Devices
I own an iPhone and I use it. Two of the most used applications on my iPhone (apart from all the social media apps for Twitter and Facebook) are iBlueSky and Voice Recorder.
1a. iBlueSky Mind Mapping
Every time I have more than 5-6 minutes available, I use iBlueSky for capturing, a nifty mind-mapping app for the iPhone. I start with the post idea as the main node and then draw as many nodes are necessary until I squeeze out all the juice.
After I finish, I send the generated mind map as an email attachment. That’s all.
Mind mapping is my preferred way of capturing ideas. Most of the time, the nodes are becoming blog posts paragraphs and their titles are becoming paragraph titles. It’s like I’m able to create the blueprint of the future article in one run.
1b. iPhone Voice Recorder
But unfortunately, I’m not always able to get 5-6 minutes in the same block (I’m pretty shocked my self while reading this, believe me 🙂 ) so I’m forced to just use 1 or 2 minutes while waiting in line at the grocery store, for instance.
That’s the time when I quickly fire up the iPhone Voice Recorder and start talking. If you’re not used to talk to a microphone (without having a real person listening on the other side, that is) it will feel strange. Luckily, I worked as a radio anchor for 7 years, so that wasn’t a problem.
What was a problem, though, was how to look like I’m having a conversation and not talking to myself. I confess I wasn’t able to sort this out, yet. Anyway, when I’m in a crowded place and use the Voice Recorder, I try to make it look like I’m having a short conversation with somebody else. I know, it’s silly 🙂
2. Computer Capturing Devices
Some of the blog posts ideas are popping out when I’m working at something else, on my laptop. For that, I’m using Quicksilver, the MacJournal shortcut and self-addressed emails.
Quicksilver is the swiss army knife of Mac. Unfortunately, it seems that the developer is not supporting it anymore, but as it is, is still a very usable app and, if you ask me, a gem. I won’t go into details about the functionality of it, feel free to do a search on my blog abut Quicksilver (yes, I wrote a few articles about it in the past) and you’ll know more.
So, every time I’m in the middle of something and I have an idea, I just hit Ctrl + Space, Quicksilver window comes in, I hit “.” (a dot) and start typing.
After I’m done, I send the text to myself as an email (more on that at point 3b), create a separate text file with it or just put it on the screen with big fonts. Sometimes it helps to look at the idea in big fonts again before saving it. 😉
2b. MacJournal Shortcut
MacJournal also features a keyboard shortcut, so every time I feel my idea will be pretty close to a blog post (as opposed to other types of ideas, like blog post series, guest post ideas, strategies or just interesting bits and pieces) I use this shortcut directly.
Hitting “Alt + Spacebar” brings in this little window and I can safely add the idea directly to my blogging journal. Note that I still need to get back to it and do some mark up around, in order for the idea to qualify for a “Next Posts” journal. If this sounds a little bit fuzzy, just go to the “How To Create And Use A Blogging Setup” paragraph and follow the link for the original post, it will all fall into pieces.
2c. Self-addressed Emails
There are some times where I’m too busy to check all my inboxes during the day. During those times the only inbox I check regularly (apart from my Twitter stream), is my mail inbox. So it kinda makes sense to send self-addressed emails every time I have an idea. Maybe I don’t have time to look into MacJournal, but I will surely look into my mail inbox.
I use whatever comes handy at the moment, if I have the mail client open I will use it, if not, I will use a fast Quicksilver shortcut.
Later on, I will put the snippet into its appropriate place.
How To Empty Your Inbox
And with that, we’re coming to the next part of my ideas incubator: inbox emptying strategies. An idea you left on a dusted shelf will never become a blog post. So, capturing ideas is useless if you don’t set up an emptying routine, in which you’ll bring all those inboxes to zero, transferring the ideas to a workable setup.
After more than a year of having this into place I established the following routine: I empty the mobile inboxes every week and the desktop inboxes (email and MacJournal, that is) whenever I feel like.
As you can see, the mobile inboxes are the ones that carries around most of the idea traffic, so I have to keep them in good shape. On the desktop, although it sounds I get a little sloppy, I’m not: I get in touch with MacJournal almost daily so every time I see empty spots, I add the necessary meta data to make the blog posts available for writing.
This is a concept borrowed from GTD (I was a big fan of GTD, although lately I’m just using a slightly downsized version of it). Every week I set up between half an hour and an hour and just empty my iPhone Voice Recorder. Since all the mind maps created with iBlueSky are going directly to my mail inbox, there’s no need to do something special about that. Every few months I delete the old mind maps on the iPhone to make room for the new ones, but other than that, iBlueSky doesn’t require special attention.
Emptying the iPhone Voice Recorder is a little slow, because you have to pause an restart the app as you type along. But it’s also very useful. There is a big difference between the ideas sketched as mind maps, and the ideas “spilled” in the Voice Recorder. Sometimes I spend around 15 minutes just to make the idea understandable.
On the other hand, some of the sentences I record live are sometimes left untouched and become some of the best blog post openers or finals. I guess this is called “spontaneity” 🙂
How To Create And Use A Blogging Setup
I extensively wrote about how to create and use a blogging setup using MacJournal, so I won’t rehash those ideas here. I will only give you a short description of what a blogging setup is and how to combine it with a blog posts ideas incubator.
A blogging setup is an integrated environment in which you can list all your past and future posts, along with some meta data. You can also write new posts and edit the old ones. Ideally, a blogging environment will let you see all your future posts (or next posts, as I call them) in one place, so you can focus only on them. Basically, on my blogging, I have a list with all my published posts, with the posts I want to write, along with some meta-data which helps me quickly identifying what I have to work on. Some of these posts are in various stages: underway, needs polishing or completed. Think at the WordPress “drafts” concepts on steroids and you’ll have a pretty accurate image of what’s a blogging setup. (If you want to know exactly how I did this with MacJournal you can check out the above blog post.)
Emptying the inboxes should always be done in conjunction with your blogging setup. In other words, you should always put the articles ideas in the first spot where you’re going to use them. Creating separated folders or files somewhere on your hard-disk just to put some “someday / maybe” blog posts ideas is the best way to… kill those ideas. What’s important to know is that once you finished importing an idea into this blogging setup, you should forget about it. Delete it from the device (iPhone Voice Recorder or mail client) and keep the focus only on the blogging setup.
Another thing to be careful about is to do a pre-search on every captured ides, looking for duplicates. Sometimes, especially if I didn’t wrote that idea, I find myself re-capturing it again and again. In other words, I had that idea a few months ago, but never wrote about it, so in my head is still a “new” one, so I capture it. But once I confront the content of my idea inboxes with the blogging setup, I can see that I have a duplicate.
How To Use The Ideas Incubator
Now, let’s put all the pieces together.
1. Make It A Habit
The most important advice: create the habit of doing it. Just be aware that you do have the tools to capture any idea you have at any moment. Fantasizing about that idea, trying to concoct some catchy paragraphs in your head, that alone won’t work. It’s far more better to capture the idea and then liberate you thoughts flow. You can always get back to it when you’ll have more time.
2. Don’t Be Shy
If you created the habit, don’t be shy. As I told you, I still feel rather strange when I’m filling up my voice recorder in a public space, but I think it’s far more important to have that idea shaped than the impression I make on some random people I may never see again.
3. Do Some Master Cleaning
Every once in a while try to purge your blogging setup, getting rid of some clutter. Maybe some ideas are not worth your time anymore, maybe some of them were addressed in other posts. Don’t let the empty number of potential blog posts to fool you. For instance, I have around 100 new potential blog posts available at this moment in my ideas incubator, but the total number of imported ideas was around 250. The 150 extra were eliminated in time. I think the total number of available ideas will vary with your niche and blogging approach, but in my case I saw that going over 100 is not manageable. 100 ideas available at any moment seems like the normal number.
4. Draft The Title First
You should always try to draft your blog post title the moment you’re emptying your inboxes. In my experience, this is the most important thing not only for better remembering what you had in mind, but for the future development of the post. Not to mention the impact on SEO optimization.
5. Be Flexible
You should not be afraid to jump from one idea to another. This may sound simplistic, but in fact it’s a completely different approach from the standard “scheduled” blog posts approach. For instance, if you plan to write this week about motivation, you pick two ideas about motivation and start to write the articles. But half-way you feel like you’re not going to make it, something else looks more appealing at the moment. Well, in this moment you should take a look at your ideas incubator and find something that will make you feel inspired. Yes, you won’t write 2 articles on motivation this week, but you’ll write 2 genuine articles (because you wanted to write about those topics) and you’ll also feel good about it. I’m a huge fan of writing about things that are making you feel good, as opposed to a fixed approach and a strict schedule.
6. Be Fresh
And with that comes the last point: keep a variety of topics. Again, this is going against mainstream which tells you to pick a niche and stick with it. Even if you write on a very narrow niche, don’t be afraid to pick new perspectives on that niche. For instance, I write mainly about personal development, but I do share a lot of so called “technical” advice on a variety of topics: travel, online business, or, like this very post, blogging. All these are in fact facets of the same thing: getting better every day.
Keeping a blog posts incubator ideas is one of the most useful things I was able to do to improve my blogging performance. Many beginner bloggers are expecting to have a constant flow of topics and to keep the same writing pace for months, if not for years. From my experience, only an infinitesimal percent of bloggers are keeping their initial writing pace. After a few weeks or months their motivations is starting to decline, many of them are hitting the “writers block” wall and their blogging performance is rapidly decreasing. What’s even worse, is that keeping the same writing pace, without backing it up with some editorial strategy and analysis (which a posts ideas incubator will heavily enforce), will never guarantee your success.
To be honest, a blog posts ideas incubator in itself will never guarantee your success either, but at least you’ll be in a better position for that. It’s like carrying the right stuff in your backpack while preparing to climb the Everest: if you don’t have the right stuff with you, no matter how determined you are, you’ll never reach to the top. But if you have the right tools, AND the right mindset (of you can read more about here) your success is literally guaranteed.