About Doug Toft

Writer and development editor. I help busy experts finish their book manuscripts. More at dougtoft.net

Turn Your Notes Into an Extended Brain

SONY DSCWhen explaining how he finished three books in three years, Ryan Holiday said: “Always be researching.” In fact, Ryan’s books all begin as a humble collection of note cards, which become blog posts and then book chapters. (He describes his method here.)

Ryan’s method is one form of distributed cognition — using tools such as note cards and computers to extend our thinking. After all, your mind does not reside only in your brain. It’s distributed across all the objects that you use to incubate and share ideas.

For me, the practical application of distributed cognition is to change the way that I take notes. My goals are to:

  • Capture ideas faithfully from many different sources
  • Recall ideas easily (and never forget them)
  • Combine ideas creatively
  • Ease into writing projects

Instead of a simple pile of archived notes, I want a personal bank of ideas that grows organically over time and becomes an active partner in thinking.

Turns out that there’s a word in German for such a thing — zettelkastenChristian Tietze defines it as “a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.”

Christian has written about this extensively and has a book in process. His blog posts tagged Zettelkasten are here. Following are some of my favorites.

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten: Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes.

Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten: In short, you and your note archive can communicate with one another if the results your archive produces are sufficiently surprising and thought-inspiring.

You Only Find What You Have Identified: The objective of a Zettelkasten note archive is to store notes and allow connections. Both are necessary to extend our mind and memory.

Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing: Notes can and should stimulate new associations and foster your creativity just like a good talk does.

The Need to Craft: Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.

Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing: A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through.

Note: The zettelkasten is another version of the commonplace book.

Shakespeare on Crap Detecting Ideas




Thus has he—and many more of the same bevy that I know the drossy age dotes on—only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter, a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.

— Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark


He’s like so many successful people in these trashy times—he’s patched together enough fancy phrases and trendy opinions to carry him along. But blow a little on this bubbly talk, and it’ll burst. There’s no substance here.

—Modernized version of the above quote, from the No Fear Shakespeare rendering of Hamlet

Celebrating Mistakes—Or, The Joy of Wrecks

DSC_9955I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot . . . and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed—Michael Jordan

I never learned a thing from a tournament I won—Bobby Jones, golfer

Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses—Rosalind Russell, actress *

This is an ode to mistakes.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from instructions in books, and from people who serve as positive role models in my daily life.

But my most powerful and persistent teachers have been my mistakes.

And, the mistakes that embarrassed me the most have also taught me the most.

Please understand: I do not mean that I set out to make mistakes. Instead, I strive to do my best. And, if I do make a mistake, I look for a lesson to learn.


I can write about mistakes with authority. Why? Because I have made so many.

Once upon a time I reduced a client to tears by editing her work. She had no idea that there are different kinds of editors. As a content editor, I spent hours crafting structural changes to her book manuscript. She thought I was a proofreader who was merely going to “dot her i’s and “cross her t’s.”

Big mistake.

The lesson: Always explain to clients what you do. Don’t assume that they know.

For another project, I spent weeks editing a book manuscript and greatly expanding the content. Then the designer “poured” the text into his book template.

The result: I’d submitted 200 pages of material beyond the client’s desired page limit.

Two. Hundred. Pages.

Another big mistake.

The lesson: Clarify word counts up front. Then use your text editor to regularly check word counts before you submit a manuscript.

When people approach me about working on a book project, I’ve assumed that they have something to say—and enough content to justify at least 20,000 words of text.

Yet another big mistake.

The lesson: Ask yourself three crucial questions before starting a book project. If the answer to all three is yes, then begin with a book proposal.

My wish for you: May you forever be blessed by the lessons you take from your mistakes.

*These quotes are taken from But They Did Not Give Up—something to read whenever you make a mistake.

Never Lose An Idea—Naming Files to Find Them Later

IMG_0127When writing, the last thing I want to do is waste time searching for a specific fact, anecdote, or quote in a mass of disorganized notes. Through painful experience, I learned to store notes in small plain text files (documents) and title them for instant retrieval.

I came to this strategy after diving into the literature on tagging, labeling, keywords, and creating a personal taxonomy. This stuff gets really geeky. Save yourself the effort and consider the following suggestions.

Predict the future you

This is the most important thing: Know your own mind. What keywords will you use to search for a file in the future? To answer this question, assume that you’ll forget:

  • That you created the file in the first place
  • Why you created the file
  • What the file includes

The goal is to create a name that’s easy to find and perfectly describes the contents of the file.

It might help to list the attributes of a file that matter most to you. Merlin Mann, gives these examples of attributes:

For instance, when you are filing or searching for a photo, what do you think of? The location of the photo? The subject or people in the photo? The event taking place when you took the photo? Something else entirely? Write out a list of the attributes that you think of when thinking of your target items.

Attributes of a text file include anything that describes its content. Some examples are the:

  • Topic and subtopic
  • Name of a person
  • Author and title of a book, chapter, article, or blog post

Again, this is entirely personal. Discover the attributes that matter to you. Pick the top two or three and think of corresponding keywords to put in your file names.

Include a project name

This suggestion is based on an über-useful idea from Scott Berkun: Everything that you do in life is a project.

I don’t know whether this idea is Absolute Truth, but it’s insanely useful. It means that you can stem the tide of chaos in your notes and get organized simply by asking one question:

What project does this relate to?

Your answer goes in the name of your file.

Note: There’s a robust discussion about projects in the book Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen. Also, I define projects in this post that mentions GTD. For more about GTD, see its website. The series on GTD best practices will give you other useful ideas for naming files.

Use the “x factor”

Honestly, this is what helps me the most. I stole it from Michael Schecter, who stole it from Merlin Mann. (But it’s not really stealing; it’s research, right?)

The basic idea is to end the first word in your file name with the letter “x.” For example, any project file begins with projectx, as in projectx write a blog post or projectx buy a new car.

The beauty of such keywords is that they instantly narrow down your list of search results. When I search with the keyword projectx, for instance, I only get a list of my current projects—not a list of all the files that merely contain the word project.

P.S. Whatever you do…

  • Be consistent with file names.
  • Use lowercase (easier to type).
  • Use singular words (for shorter names).

Useful links

The following articles will give you more to chew on. Note that suggestions for tagging files are also useful for naming files.

Some suggestions for better tagging

Becoming a tagging kung-fu master

Tagging best practices

Getting Organized: Great Tips for Better File Names

Naming Files And Avoiding Folders by Michael Schechter

How to Use Evernote If You Are a Speaker or Writer

The Joy of Plain Text Editors

DSCN0680For me, Microsoft Word peaked at version 5.1. After that, it became bloated and buggy. But this is a gift because it drove me to Word’s nemesis—plain text editors.

If you haven’t tried a plain text editor, then joy awaits you. These apps are ideal for capturing ideas on the run and organizing them later.

What is Plain Text?

A plain text editor handles ASCII characters:

  • The letters of the alphabet (upper and lower case)
  • Punctuation marks
  • Common symbols
  • Spaces
  • The numbers 0 through 9

That’s it.

What plain text does not offer is formatting—italics, bold, underlining, and different fonts and font sizes. Tables and images are a no-go as well.

Why Use Plain Text?

The limitations of plain text are also its strengths. In short, plain text is:

  • Tiny. Plain text files are much smaller than Word documents—often half the size or less. As a result, plain text demands far less storage space.
  • Fast. In Word, long documents take forever to load. With plain text, speed in opening and moving through your document is the norm.
  • Portable. Most applications can retrieve plain text. In software, it’s a near-universal language.
  • Future-proof. Plain text ain’t going away. Because it’s so basic, this format persists. In contrast, try opening a Word file that you created 10 years ago.
  • Cheap. Laptop and desktop computers typically ship with a text editor included—TextEdit for Mac, Notepad for Windows. You get a powerful writing tool for free. You can buy text editors with more horsepower, but they’re still way cheaper than Word. For example, my favorite plain text editor for the Mac—iAWriter—is currently on sale for $5.

All of the above are potent advantages when it comes to curating your ideas.

You can keep these benefits and add formatting by using a text editor with Markdown capability. I’ll post about Markdown in the future, but for now check out:

Some Plain Text Editors to Consider

Caveat: This is an incomplete list and skewed to Mac users. Just key plain text editor into a search engine and you’ll find many more.

First, I’ll list the text editors I’ve personally used:

  • Notational Velocity. This was my go-to text editor for a long time. (Leo Babauta praised it here). Alas, there have been no updates for 3 years, and a couple features are broken. However, other developers have taken up the torch. One result is Brett Terpstra’s nvALT, which includes Notational Velocity’s features and adds more. (Michael Schechter offers useful tips for nvALT here.) For Windows users, there is ResophNotes.
  • TextWrangler. Mac users can download this app for free. I’ve set mine up to look like Notational Velocity.
  • iA Writer. Minimal. Beautiful. Cheap. Works on the iPad and iPhone as well.

Next, text editors that I haven’t used but other people rave about:

Finally, a few online text editors (I’ve not used them yet):

Where to Learn More

A Plain Text Primer by Michael Schechter

Organize Your Ideas With Plain Text Files by me

Brett Terpstra’s awesome list of text editors for the iPhone

The Why and How of Content Curation—Insights from Copyblogger

green_red_bokeh Content curation is the process of:

  • Finding useful ideas about a specific topic from many different sources
  • Organizing those ideas
  • Sharing the ideas in a useful way with a specific audience

I’m excited about this emerging field because it’s critical for idea entrepreneurs. These folks are constantly curating, whether they use that term or not.

Fortunately, Jerod Morris and Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger created a series of podcasts about content curation.

Following is my personal list of take-aways from this series. Also check out the primary sources:

Three Types of Curation

  • Curation is distilling information that’s interesting to you and useful to your audience.
  • Link curation means creating lists of content that’s already been published.
  • Knowledge curation is “connecting the dots” between ideas in ways that serve your audience.
  • Idea curation is your personal process for gathering ideas so that you can easily retrieve them in the future.

Benefits of Curation

  • Curating serves your audience by guiding them to relevant information and ideas.
  • Curating is the logical culmination of something that you’re already doing—reading.
  • Curating serves you as a source of useful content that you don’t have to create from scratch.
  • Curating builds your reputation as a trusted expert—and a creator of products and services that are worth buying.
  • Curating allows you to be a good online citizen by spreading the good work that other people do.
  • Curating helps you build relationships with those people.
  • As a renewable source of ideas, curating helps you avoid writer’s block.
  • Curating content is a useful way to build an e-mail list.
  • Sharing a little bit about yourself as you curate is a way to round out your online presence.
  • At the same time, content curation is just one way to gather a tribe. Consider Seth Godin andCal Newport, who built large followings without curating.

Curating Links

  • Find links to share by following skilled curators such as Dave Pell and Maria Popova, subscribing to email newsletters such as Atlantic’s The Wire and Farnam Street, or using an RSS tool such as feedly.
  • To judge whether a link is worth sharing, think ROAR: I’ve Read it, it’s Original, it’s Applicable, it’s from a Reputable source.
  • Because curating reflects on your reputation, maintain editorial control of the links that you share.
  • Share links on your blog and on the social networks where your audience hangs out.
  • Experiment with sharing links at different times of day to see when they gain traction.
  • If you don’t find anything to share on a particular day, resurrect a good post from your archive.
  • Remember to curate links that challenge conventional wisdom and prompt disagreement.

Curating Knowledge

  • The ultimate goal of curation is to make ourselves and our audiences wiser.
  • Wisdom comes from a combination of reading, writing, and actively testing ideas.
  • Wisdom is expressed when you put ideas in context and find intriguing connections between them.
  • It’s easier to make connections when you specialize in a particular subject and think across subject matters.
  • Consider immersing yourself in one subject per year by reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos, taking courses, and creating playlists.
  • Remember to read books as well as online sources.
  • As you share ideas, balance factual knowledge with emotional intelligence.

Curating Ideas

  • Ideas will occur to you at random times and come from many different sources.
  • Put a simple system in place to capture ideas on the run. For example:
    • Carry a notepad or index cards and pen.
    • Dictate a voice memo on your phone.
    • Use a note-taking tool such as Evernote.
  • To organize the ideas you capture, create a commonplace book that matches your preferences.
  • Look in particular for:
    • Remarkable quotations about your topic
    • Relevant data points
    • Interesting anecdotes
  • Cite a source for each of the above.
  • Present ideas in narrative form—as a story with a beginning, middle, and ending.
  • Approach your topic as a blank slate and let the story emerge organically from your sources.
  • Stimulate your thinking by creating mind maps and other kinds of visuals.
  • Let ideas incubate while doing “mindless” physical activities such as walking.
  • Record interesting ideas even if you’re not sure how you’ll use them in the future.
  • Trust the process: The best ideas will keep coming back to you.

Chris Brogan on How to Finish Your Book—Five Essential Posts

cbheadshot-300x300While John Butman eloquently explains the why of book writing, Chris Brogan addresses the how. His posts on this subject are practical and grounded in personal experience. The following series goes back a while, but it’s worth revisiting.

Writing a Book—Finding Time

Do you believe that a lack of time stops you from writing a book? After reading this, you can release that excuse. Give up low-priority activities, use small pockets of time, and capture ideas on the run. As Chris notes, “A lot of writing is done before you sit down to actually write.”

Writing a Book—Discipline

This post demolishes the belief that you have to feel “inspired” in order to write. As Brogan notes, “if you’ve kept a decent amount of notes, and if you’ve got a reasonably detailed outline, you can work without inspiration.”

Writing A Book—Structure

Devote at least 25 percent of your book project time to creating a table of contents—a great title along with chapter headings and sub-headings that draw readers in. Then writing your book simply means filling in the spaces between headings. This can be a huge time-saver.

Writing a Book—Marketing And Promotion

No matter whether you sell your book to a publisher or choose to self-publish, promotion is still your job. You can do this without being sleazy.

Writing a Book—Making Money

Can you make money writing a nonfiction book? Well, if you depend solely on book sales, probably not. But if you use your book as a portal to teaching, speaking, and consulting, the outlook gets considerably brighter. Chris lays out the options.

Never Lose An Idea—Recording Your Aha’s and Finding Them When You Need Them

splashYou know the feeling: You’re standing in the shower and while shampooing your hair you get a bolt of inspiration:

  • The solution to a problem that’s been plaguing you for days
  • The idea for the best blog post, article, or book that you’ll ever write
  • The entire structure of your next presentation or webinar
  • The seed of a profitable new product or service that you have to develop

I’ve got to write this down, you say to yourself. But after you dry off and get dressed, the phone rings. Or somebody engages you in conversation. Or life interrupts in some other inevitable way.

What happens to all those bright, shiny aha’s that well up at the oddest times and most inconvenient places?

They’re lost. Forever. Unless you have a fail-safe system to record those gems and recall them when you need them.

The Problem

Ideas are fragile and fleeting. They’re easily lost. They’re helpless babies. They need constant care and feeding.

In this enlightening post, Jerod Morris at Copyblogger says that he lives in “a perpetual state of fear that I’m going to forget a brilliant bit of inspiration and not be able to use it when I need it most.”

Like him, you’re swimming in ideas. They’re coming at you constantly from your reading, your conversations, the people you overhear in coffee shops, and your random moments of inspiration. Maybe one of those ideas could make money, make the world a better place, or do both. But how will you make sure that idea is recalled, fully developed, and skillfully shared?

Right now there’s an emerging conversation about content curation. But for idea entrepreneurs, the cutting edge is idea curation—finding answers to the question I just posed.

The Solution

Today, we are all idea curators—especially if we write, speak, train, or consult for a living. We need a rich, organized, and constantly updated catalog of ideas and supporting material.

Idea curation is an emerging field. We get to create the principles and adapt them to our personal workflow. As you forge your own process, look to these sources for guidance:

Writing Books For Behavior Change—A Checklist

102Most business, self-help, and psychology books have a single purpose — to help readers create enduring and positive changes in behavior.

This usually means appealing to the whole person — our capacity to think, feel, and act. Readers need to know what to do, why they’re doing it, and how to take the very next step. When our writing touches people on all three levels, our odds for success improve.

Following is a checklist that summarizes what I’ve learned over a couple of decades of writing and editing books for behavior change. I hope they prove useful for crafting your next manuscript.

Help readers learn by thinking

  • Include an early and explicit statement of what your material is about and what readers can gain from it.
  • Focus on a single main topic that’s familiar to readers and a handful of closely related subtopics.
  • Create a clear structure and logical flow in your material with advance organizers (previews), summaries (reviews), and strong transitions (turn signals).
  • In each chapter, focus on a handful of clearly stated key points.
  • Include processes (step-by-step instructions) with a clear, logical, and memorable sequence of actions for readers to take.
  • Use words that readers will know—usually shorter rather than longer words.
  • Write sentences with a minimum of internal punctuation.
  • Emphasize key points with visuals such as icons, charts, tables, illustrations, and photos.
  • Create additional emphasis with design elements such as bold and italic fonts, headings, and lists.

Help readers learn by feeling

  • Focus on problems that readers want to solve and goals that they want to meet.
  • Include stories of people like your readers who face the problems you mention and use the solutions that you recommend.
  • Write stories in present tense and first person.
  • Infuse stories with authentic details by including compelling characters, actual events, and real dialogue.
  • Avoid simplistic stories that illustrate the “right way” and the “wrong way.”
  • Avoid stories that offer a thinly veiled lecture.
  • Avoid otherwise flat, generic, and sanitized stories.

Help readers learn through action

  • Include a variety of elements that guide readers to take specific actions. For example:
    • Ask readers to list examples (or counter-examples) of a key point.
    • Present a sample problem and ask readers to suggest solutions.
    • Present readers with a story and ask them to list the key points it illustrates.
    • Ask readers to provide personal stories that illustrate a key point.
    • Ask readers to practice a script or experiment with another new behavior.
    • Ask readers to state a specific outcome and list the physical, visible actions that they will take to achieve that outcome.
    • Ask readers to deconstruct their desired outcome into a series of Tiny Habits.
  • Encourage readers to do any of the above with guidance from a teacher, coach, mentor, sponsor, peer, or support group.
  • For every action that you suggest, ask: Could I actually do this based on these instructions?

For related ideas, see these excellent guidelines from New Harbinger Publications.

Steal Like An Artist—10 Keys to Creativity from Austin Kleon


Austin Kleon (photo by Ryan Essmaker)

On the heels of Austin Kleon‘s second book Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, I read his first one, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Both are highly recommended.

These form a perfect pair. Steal is about creating good work; Show is about sharing that work with the world. Each book is short, visual, and dense with useful ideas.

I’ve summarized Show here. Following is the table of contents from Steal and a sampling of delicious quotes.

Note: When Austin uses the world steal, he means choosing your influences and finding novel connections between existing ideas—all while giving proper credit to your sources.

Steal Like An Artist

First you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing.

All creative work builds on what came before.

You are the sum of your influences.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

…chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love.

Keep a swipe file.

Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started

It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.

Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.

You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.

Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.

Write the Book You Want to Read

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.

Use Your Hands

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas.

Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important

Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.

Keep all your passions in life…. what unifies your work is the fact that you made it.

The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It With People

…you want attention only after you’re doing really good work.

Step 1: Wonder at something. Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you….

Geography Is No Longer Our Master

…90 percent of my mentors and peers don’t live in Austin, Texas. They live everywhere.

Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings.

Be Nice. (The World is a Small Town)

There’s only one reason I’m here: I’m here to make friends.

You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.

…get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work.

…show your appreciation without expecting anything in return….

… get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored.

…it’s still a tremendous boost when people say nice things about our work.

Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)

Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.

The art of holding on to money is all about saying no to consumer culture.

A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine.

Creativity is Subtraction

The right constraints can lead to your very best work.