Beat writer’s block with a tickler file

You stare at the blinking cursor on your screen, paralyzed. Your next blog post is due, but the well has run dry, and you have no idea what to write about next.

You’re not alone. Writer’s block is an occupational hazard for ink-slingers of all stripes. The best way to beat it is to create a collection of story ideas you can draw from later. In newspaper parlance, is this often known as a tickler file.

Your tickler file requires consistent care and attention, but it’s well worth the investment. If you keep it well-stocked, it becomes a larder that will keep your writing habit well-fed, even in an extended dry spell.

What goes in your tickler file?

What you write will dictate what you use to stock your tickler file. A fiction writer’s tickler will look much different from a freelance journalist’s. The former might want to save scraps of dialogue he overheard in a coffee shop, while the latter will want to save news stories and reports. Your style of writing will be the biggest factor that determines what you file in your tickler.

If you get most of your ideas from print publications, then newspaper and magazine clippings are a nice addition to your file. So, too, are sticky notes and index cards, if that’s where you like to jot down your ideas.

If you pull most of your ideas from the web, then you’re probably more interested in saving links to websites. In the next section, we’ll look at some platforms that can help you organize your links.

Where to keep your tickler file

Tickler files are as unique as the writers who make them. I used to work with a reporter who kept his story ideas on a white board. Others organized their ideas in file folders, in their planners, or on their phones. Everyone has his or her unique needs and organizational preferences, so be sure to find a system that works best for you. It will take time to fine-tune, so be patient and open to new approaches.

Here are some general recommendations for keeping a tickler based on your needs and writing style.

Deadline artists

If your writing is driven by the clock or you’re writing about time-sensitive topics, then using a calendar-based system might be your best bet. Plugging story ideas into a specific day on the calendar helps you to manage your workflow and keep the story ideas rolling.

Many email platforms feature built-in calendars. As more of our productivity migrates to our smart phones, calendar apps become an increasingly effective option. Fantastical 2 and CloudCal come highly recommended for Apple and Android devices, respectively.

As much as I enjoy a well-designed app, I also hold old-fashioned planners dear to my heart. Planners and calendars come in a wide range of formats, so you’re sure to find something that meshes with your organizational style.

Creatives, crafters, and other free spirits

Some writers like to organize linearly, tucking ideas away into neatly organized folders. Others thrive in controlled chaos that allows their creativity to flourish, unfettered by strict organizational systems. For the latter, cork board-style systems may be the ticket.

Pinterest is a great option for writers who enjoy loosely organized systems. Just be aware that the platform doesn’t allow you to pin web links that don’t have an accompanying image. For added flexibility, I like Padlet. This platform that allows you to create a board and customize it with typed notes, photos, web links, and video.

My tool of choice is OneNote, but I’ve heard good things about Evernote, too. Both allow access across multiple devices, which is handy for recording ideas while you’re on the go.

Proper care and feeding of your tickler file

Your tickler file requires constant nurturing and attention. Devote 20 or 30 minutes a day to looking for and adding new ideas. Better yet, make research and reading a part of your daily writing habit, and the tickler file will take care of itself. The well of ideas rarely ever runs dry when you’re constantly replenishing it with new information. Also be sure to review your tickler file occasionally to weed out any unused ideas.

The tickler file is a key element of the writer’s toolbox. It’s insurance against future drought, when ideas are sparse and motivation is low. Put simply, take care of your tickler, and your tickler will take care of you.

Your turn

How do you organize your ideas? And, if you have a tickler file, what advice would you give to new writers who have never managed one before?

Photo credit: Pixabay


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