I have been writing and selling my work for more than 20 years, but I still struggle to start and complete manuscripts. I spend more time collecting ideas than developing my best ideas into salable manuscripts. I hoard ideas. Perhaps you are an idea hoarder too.
If you ever watched the TV show Hoarders, you know how hoarding anything can cripple a person’s freedom. The homes of extreme hoarders have clutter, some rotting and covered with insects, piled to the ceiling. The hoard, with its toxic stench, entombs the people, preventing them from moving forward in their lives.
Likewise, a hoard of ideas can overwhelm you as a writer and keep your best ones buried and forgotten.
Even if your home is organized and squeaky clean, your collection of ideas and research material might be too vast and disorganized to be useful. Look around your work area. Do you know where to find your best ideas? Look on your nightstand. Perhaps you have dozens of small notebooks, in which you jot down ideas for stories and articles. Some notebooks might be bulging with sticky notes stuck between the pages.
Over the years, you may have stacked boxes, filled with newspaper clippings and sample magazines, in your closets or basement. What about the folders in your file cabinet? How many hold completed manuscripts you sent to editors? Not many? That file cabinet is another dumping place for research material you will need for future writing projects. When will you get to those projects? Life is short.
Reasons for hoarding
Dr. Robin Zasio, therapist on Hoarders and author of The Hoarder in You, says that many people who hoard are perfectionists. They take items home, but cannot find the right place or use for those items. So they just do not deal with the items. I can relate to those people. As a writer, I am a perfectionist. When I cannot immediately see how to develop an idea, I stash it away with my other clutter. Maybe you are a perfectionist, too.
There are other reasons for hoarding my ideas. I have many interests and find it difficult to focus on one. As a children’s book author, my publishing credits include two short historical fiction books, several biographies and a few history and science books. I have completed manuscripts for several humorous picture books and one middle grade novel. Recently, I have begun to write and sell devotionals. Perhaps you, too, have many writing interests. You might have so many hobbies that every day you get new ideas for projects.
Like me, you may love to read. In addition to reading novels, do you also surf science and history websites, printing pages of fun facts? At the library, do you pick up parenting magazines and pamphlets about nature trails and museums? How can writers pass up all this free material, right? It might provide the spark of an idea.
All successful writers are readers, but be honest about your reading habits. Do you spend more time reading because it is easier than doing the hard work of developing ideas? I do. At times, I lack the drive and confidence to do the hard work of writing. But I have not given up. I am determined to change my behavior and move forward as a writer.
In The Hoarder in You, Zasio suggests we think about our goals in life and consider whether our clutter helps us reach those goals. She encourages people to challenge themselves and take action. We writers who hoard ideas should follow Zasio’s advice, think about our goals and challenge ourselves.
This year, I culled through my hoard of ideas and designated eight binders for my current writing interests: articles for the religious, educational and parenting markets; picture books (fiction and nonfiction); chapter books and short middle grade novels. You might benefit from culling your hoard of ideas.
Declutter and organize
Instead of having hundreds or thousands of ideas scattered and hidden about your home, make a few lists of your best ones. First, look at your notebooks. If you have fewer than a dozen idea notebooks and they are small and easy to store, you might keep all of them. But whether you keep all the notebooks or discard some, you should review your notes and highlight the ideas that really pop out and excite you. Then type a list of ideas (50 or less) you feel you can develop. You might arrange them in categories: science, history, fiction short stories, novels, how-to articles, essay topics.
Next, quickly scan through the boxes of newspaper clippings and research material. Identify no more than 50 topics for future writing projects. Type a list of these ideas and keep the research material related to them. Discard the rest of the material. Ouch! Yes, I did say discard. Do not worry about how you will feel in the future about the tossed material. Think about how you will feel when you complete more manuscripts and sell more of your work. The goal is to free your writing spirit and make it easier to move forward.
After studying your lists, choose three ideas for short works. At this point in your writing journey, you may need to complete two or three manuscripts rather quickly to build your confidence and give you momentum.
Until you complete at least two short projects, try to refrain from collecting more newspaper clippings or research materials. But feel free to jot down ideas in that notebook you keep on your nightstand.
Although some writers can work productively in a world of clutter, you might not be one of them. If you are like me, you may make more progress if from time to time you clear the decks. Then you can focus on the hard work of actually developing ideas and writing.
Catherine A. Welch is a writing instructor with more than 20 children’s books to her credit. Her articles have appeared in Children’s Writer, Writer’s Guide to 2014 and Today’s Catholic Teacher.
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