Sparks – building a list of ideas

Steven Berlin Johnson, author and well-known DEVONthink user, recently described what he calls his spark file. It’s a rambling document with no organization where he stores his hunches and questions.

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

(via The Spark File — The Writer’s Room — Medium)

This inspired Alex Hillman to elaborate on his perception and use of a spark file. > The Spark File, Steven describes, is a process/tool that he uses to collect “half-baked ideas” and then revisit them. For 8 years, he’s maintained a single document with notes & ideas with zero organization or taxonomy, simply a chronology of thoughts. He calls this document his Spark File.

Once a month, he revisits the ENTIRE Spark File from top to bottom, revisiting old ideas and potentially combing them with newer ideas.

I’ve adopted this process for the last 30 days and it’s had a remarkable effect. The most astounding part is how often I find myself writing the same thing in different ways. I’ve taken that pattern as a clue to explore a concept further, and see if it merits more investigation.

(via Better Answers & How I Learned to Defrag My Brain | Alex Hillman)

This concept of sparks, coupled with a recent article by Federico Viticci at MacStories about Faster Markdown Editing with Nebulous Notes Macros, then multiplied by integration with Launch Center Pro, puts Nebulous Notes back in the lead on my iOS devices. With all of the pieces in place I can now tap a shortcut in LCP, tap the microphone icon on the keyboard, dictate my thought, tap go, and my thought is appended as a new bullet in my Spark File.

I feel like a mad genius watching his creation take its first wobbly steps. This is so simple and makes so much sense. I have already started my spark file; a single plain text document automatically synced among all of my devices where my ideas can percolate. I look forward to seeing what brews in there!

Note: Following links to buy the apps mentioned here help me out.

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Third-Grade Writing Lessons from 1980

My third-grade teacher was infuriating.
Memories of 1980 include learning to read using advanced phonics (man-u-fac-ture), struggling with multiplication tables (I still do), and writing sentences using our vocabulary words. Ms. Robinson (no, nothing like that) wouldn’t let us start sentences with the words “I” or “The.” Furthermore, if my memory is churning correctly, our sentences had to be at least nine words long.
Put your third-grade brain in and let that settle a minute. Those limitations were hard for a third-grader struggling to memorize his 12’s (the 11’s weren’t so bad). I hated her for making our vocabulary so hard. I could crank those sentences out in no time if not for her stupid rules.

  • I like watermelon.
  • The rock was enormous.
  • David Bowie was androgenous.

But noooooo. She had to go and make us think.

  • Watermelon was one of my favorite things to come out of my grandmother’s garden.
  • While our family was on vacation we found an enormous rock by the lake.
  • David Bowie was among the most androgenous progressive rock musicians of the 1970s.

With her simple restrictions, Ms. Robinson graduated a class of third-graders who were better writers than when they first met on a warm day at the end of summer in 1980. My senses still recoil when I began a sentence with one of those two words. “The” or “I” immediately triggers a rewrite that is always better than the first draft.
Thank you Ms. Robinson for making me think. Thank you for making me a better writer.