About Doug Toft

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

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.

Know Your Big, Beautiful Question

PA281186One of my mentors in print is Gordon Burgett, a prolific author and self-publisher. And the single most important thing he taught me is that your nonfiction, how-to book exists to answer a single question.

I call it your big, beautiful question.

Consider Three Examples

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks one big, beautiful question: How can we reliably cultivate independence (personal autonomy) and interdependence (the ability to work effectively with other people)?

In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen asks: How can you create a rock-solid inventory of all your current projects and trusted reminders for the very next action to take on each of those projects?

And in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey ask: How can we prevent our unconscious attempts to sabotage the changes that we consciously intend to make in our lives?

Saving Your Sanity

Defining your big, beautiful question takes time. But it will save you hours of writing time. Why? Because you’ll know what to put in—and more importantly, what to leave out—of your book.

My heart bleeds for writers who don’t know their big, beautiful question. That question leads to an outline (table of contents). And as Ryan Holiday explains, the lack of an outline can quickly turn your book project into burnt toast:

An author friend recently told me that he’d written 115,000 words for the book he was working on; a book that contractually was only going to be 60,000 words. And worse, it was only just now that he’d really figured out the thrust of the book.

It almost broke my heart.

Obviously there are many different ways to skin a cat, and I’m not hating on another writer’s style because there are many legitimate ones. But this writer could have written that book in half the time if he’d simply started with a clear outline before he started.

I strongly suggest that writers avoid the temptation to “find the book as they’re writing.” It’s not going to happen. And if it does, it will be a costly discovery.

The person that Ryan describes wrote 55,000 more words than he promised to his publisher. That’s almost another entire book!

Knowing your big, beautiful question can save you from those additional words (and the hours it takes to produce them). Just keep your question in front of you as you work. If the paragraph that you’re writing doesn’t provide a relevant answer, then let it go. Now.

Discovering the Structure of Your Book

How do you create an outline, as Ryan suggests? Just turn to your big, beautiful question again and let it expand naturally.

For example, Stephen Covey’s answer to his big, beautiful question is seven key habits. Each chapter in his book describes one of those habits.

David Allen answered his big, beautiful question with a five-stage model for your personal workflow and another five-stage model for “natural project planning.” The table of contents for Getting Things Done was born.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey answered their question with seven “languages for personal transformation.” They explain each language in a separate chapter of their book.

(For another example, see How to Develop a Table of Contents for Your Book.)

This path to structuring your book is pure magic—a joy to behold.

And it all starts with a big, beautiful question.

The Business Case for Writing a Book


Michael Port

If you make a living by selling services and ideas to clients, then Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid might be the most useful business book you ever read.

Michael explains how you can benefit by creating information products such as a book. Since he says it so well, I’ll just quote him:

Products create opportunities for multiple streams of passive or leveraged income. They can be in retail stores or online, at your web site and the web sites of your affiliates, 24/7/365, with worldwide availability. You can consistently get orders for your products from people all over the world.

Having a product enhances your credibility with your prospects, your peers, meeting planners, and the media because it establishes you as a category expert and sets you apart from your competitors.

Products can help you land more clients because they speed up the sales cycle. Since your services have a high barrier to entry, your potential clients may need to jump a few high hurdles to persuade themselves they need to hire you.

Having a product to offer based on your services gives potential clients the opportunity to test you out without having to take a big risk. Then if they connect with you and are well served by your product, they will upgrade from the lower-priced product to the higher-priced service.

If you use public speaking as one of your marketing strategies, having a product at the back of the room when you speak gives you credibility, and you also have a relatively low-cost way to introduce prospects into your business and generate ancillary revenue at the same time.

Products leverage your time…. For example, if you speak in front of 100 of your prospects and you’re able to sell a couple dozen of your information products at $50 each, then you’ve just increased your hourly rate from $100 to more than $1,000 an hour.

What is Your Personal Table of Contents?

file7641301548646Much of my work consists of helping clients create a table of contents for a book they’d like to write. This is essential work. Lately, though, I’ve concluded that our primary task is to think bigger.

Consider that people who write nonfiction books are now called to become idea entrepreneursThis involves connecting with a critical mass of people who will embrace and embody your ideas (the non-spammy meaning of having a platform).

On a practical level, this means expressing your ideas in multiple formats. Yes, you’ll write your book. But you’ll also create blog posts and presentations as well. You’ll probably also take part in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Perhaps you’ll also do webinars, publish an email newsletter, and play with video and podcasts. And at some point, you’re likely to consider doing another book.

This sounds like a lot of work. But there’s an opportunity as well. Since your job is to continuously develop and present ideas, why not create a single roadmap for all your ideas in all their expressions? This is more than a table of contents for a single book. It’s a table of contents for all the books you’d like to write—and all the other content you’ll publish and present over the whole arc of your career.

I don’t have an official name for this roadmap yet. For now, let’s call it your personal table of contents.

For example, Patrick Carnes is a psychologist, author, and speaker who developed a thirty-task model of recovery from addiction. This is the big picture of all the work that he wants to put out into the world. He’s already published books that cover many of these tasks in detail. Future books are planned about the rest.

The beauty of the personal table of contents is that it becomes a single, big bank of ideas from which you can “withdraw” content as needed for the book, article, update, or presentation that’s on your plate right now.

After all, why re-invent the wheel every time you sit down to create a piece of content? Instead, zero in on a single, small section of your personal table of contents. Then flesh it out with something from your ongoing collection of supporting material (facts, anecdotes, and quotes in your commonplace book).

For me, the whole idea of a personal table of contents is a new idea that’s just starting to come into focus. Stay tuned for more updates.

Three Must-Reads for Nonfiction Authors—John Butman on Idea Entrepreneurs

john-butmanCheck out these foundational posts by John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas.

Idea Entrepreneur: The New 21st Century Career

The idea entrepreneur is an individual, usually a content expert and often a maverick, whose main goal is to influence how other people think and behave in relation to their cherished topic. These people don’t seek power over others and they’re not motivated by the prospect of achieving great wealth. Their goal is to make a difference, to change the world in some way.

How to Influence People with Your Ideas

Answer these questions: What is my purpose? How does my personal narrative convey the idea? How can people put my idea into practice? Do I have enough supporting material? Who do I really want to reach? How does my idea connect with a greater “thinking journey?”

Should You Write a Book?

Is it impossible for you not to?

The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book

sunsetColorsFor me, creating a book usually starts by crafting a table of contents with headings that draw in my ideal reader. I’m a passionate outliner and advocate for plain text files. However, I find that some clients (all women so far) are turned off by this approach. It’s too monochromatic, too minimal, too yang.

This is wonderful resistance. It forces me to expand my cognitive preferences and play with new strategies. The result is a process that’s much more colorful and visual. You might like it. I call it the sticky note system.

This system is geared to my clients, who write how-to books that would be shelved in a bookstore under spirituality, psychology, self-help, “mind-body-spirit,” or business.

Millions of words have been written in these genres. Yet they all reduce to 6 key elements:

  • Problem—a vivid and concise description of a specific pain point: an urgent problem, a persistent question, a gap between what people want and what they have in a significant area of their lives. Call this “point A.”
  • Solution—the key to relieving the pain point, solving the problem, answering the question, or closing the gap. Call this “point B.”
  • Process—a set of practices, habits, and other things that people can actually do to implement the solution in daily life—a way to move from point A to point B.
  • Studies—research and other fact-based material that provides credible evidence for the problem, solution, and process.
  • Stories—examples of people who lived with the problem and implemented the recommended solution (including the author’s personal story, which can run throughout the book).
  • Sayings—concise and memorable quotations that echo the author’s main ideas.

With these elements in mind, you can structure your own book:

  1. Buy lots of sticky notes in two dimensions—small (3 by 5 inches, index card size) and large (easel-pad size, 20 by 23 inches).
  2. At the top of one large sticky note, describe the core problem in one sentence or phrase. This will become an early chapter in your book.
  3. At the top of another large sticky note, describe your solution in one sentence or phrase. This will be another chapter.
  4. At the top of other large sticky notes, write a phrase or sentence to describe each step or major phase in your recommended process. These will become additional chapters in your book.
  5. Now fill out a bunch of smaller sticky notes. On each of these, write a sentence or phrase to capture the essence of a single study, story, or saying (or any other idea) that you want to include in your book. Whenever possible, include a source (such as the title of a book and page number) on these notes. Use a different color for each element (one for studies, another for stories, and another for sayings).
  6. Sort the smaller notes by chapter. Stick each of these on the appropriate chapter (larger) sticky note.
  7. Sort notes within chapters. Within each of the large sticky notes, arrange the smaller notes by category or sequence.


  • This system is ideal for people with visual and kinesthetic cognitive styles. You prefer to make ideas visible, vivid, and tangible. Also, you like to leave the keyboard for a while, write by hand, and get up and move things around in space.
  • Color coding notes is fun. In a single glance, it also reveals imbalance in your material—chapters that have too many (or too few) studies, stories, or sayings.
  • You have visible evidence of your effort—large notes that cover entire walls and get filled with smaller, colorful notes.
  • You get to physically immerse yourself in your ideas. Psychologists call this distributed cognition. This is the writer’s equivalent of “surround sound.”
  • Flexibility. Rearranging notes into different chapters and moving them around within chapters is a breeze.


  • Expense. Sticky notes cost money.
  • Storage. Your notes take up a lot of room and are hard to file away.
  • Mobility. Just try taking all this stuff to a coffee shop.
  • Clarity. Notes that consist of a single word or phrase can be cryptic, making collaboration with co-authors hard.

Also remember that you’ll eventually need to sit down at a computer and translate all your sticky notes into full sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

If you can live with these caveats, however, start sticking notes today. Let me know how it works.

Find Your Audience by Sharing Your Process—Austin Kleon on Showing Your Work


Austin Kleon

Since quitting Platform University, I’ve been looking for new guidance on building an online presence. The universe responded with Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon. I feel blessed.

Austin’s book is loaded with heart. He explains how to build a platform in ways that benefit everyone: you, your followers, and your peers.

“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love,” Austin writes, “and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff.”

Following is the table of contents for Show Your Work with my annotations. Please do read the book.

1. You don’t have to be a genius

Nobody creates in isolation. Join a community of like-minded people who freely exchange ideas.

Look for a gap in the conversation that you can fill, even if you know nothing about it. Learn about it, and share what you learn.

Voice emerges naturally when you talk about what you love.

You don’t have to have a near-death experience to get perspective and inspiration. Just read obituaries.

2. Think process, not product

On your way to producing finished products, share your works-in-progress. Talk about your “influences, inspiration, and tools.”

Combine pieces of your works-in-progress and shape them into something that you can share online.

3. Share something small every day

Take a few minutes to “find one little piece of your process that you can share.”

Before sharing something ask: Is this helpful, entertaining, or both?

Big things get built from lots of small pieces that you create daily. For example, tweets can become blog posts that become book chapters.

“Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.”

4. Open up your cabinet of curiosities 

Talk about your influences—your heroes; the people you follow; the things you read, watch, and view.

Go “dumpster diving”: sort through the stuff that everyone else is ignoring and share any inspiration that you find there.

When you share someone else’s work, give context: who made it, how they made it, why you care about it, and where people can find more by that person.

5. Tell good stories

When you tell a compelling story about how and why you created something, you create interest in your work.

Novelist John Gardner described the basic structure of most stories: “A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”

Practice describing what you do in terms that people understand. Limit yourself to two sentences.

6. Teach what you know

Whenever you learn something, teach it. Share reference material and step-by-step instructions.

7. Don’t turn into human spam

Promote other people’s work as well as your own.

Stop worrying about how many followers you have. Just share work that’s worth noticing.

If you consistently feel depleted after hanging out with people, avoid them.

Share your secrets with the people who share your obsessions.

Get together with people “IRL”—in real life. Face-to-face.

8. Learn to take a punch

When you put your work out into the world, be prepared for criticism. Take a deep breath and remember that you are more than your work.

Focus on feedback from the people who matter most to you.

9. Sell out

Forget the starving artist stereotype. Much of the world’s greatest art was made for money.

Set a fair price for the work that you want to sell. Then ask people to buy through donations, crowd funding, or “buy now” and “hire me” buttons on your website.

Give away great content and collect email addresses. Then when you have something remarkable to sell, e-mail everyone on your list.

Say yes to unexpected opportunities to do more of the work that you love. Then before you get too busy, learn to say no.

Give credit to your mentors and fans. Offer them opportunities to share their own work.

10. Stick around

It’s a cliché but often true: Success comes to those who persevere.

As soon as you finish a project, ask yourself what you missed and what you could have done better. There’s your next project.

Take sabbaticals—even if they’re limited to a workout or walk through the park.

When you feel like you’re not learning anymore, become a beginner at something else.

Why I Quit Platform University

DSCN0383Last month I joined Platform University, Michael Hyatt’s membership site for book authors and anyone else who wants to build an audience. This is an extension of his book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

Michael clearly knows what he’s talking about. He has over:

  • 300,000 unique monthly visitors to his website
  • 123,000 Twitter followers
  • 92,000 monthly podcast listeners
  • 70,000 newsletter subscribers
  • 17,000 Facebook fans

Those numbers represent Michael’s “platform”—his online audience. If he wants to sell a book (or anything else), all he has to do is let his tribe know about it.

The whole notion of building an online platform according to Michael’s model is seductive. Who could resist?

Well, I did. I canceled my Platform University membership after one month. Perhaps my reasons will stimulate your thinking.

Begging the Big Questions

The bottom line for building a platform, says Michael, is creating great content. But after consuming dozens of interviews and webinars from Platform University, I found myself still wondering:

  • What exactly is great content, anyway?
  • How do you build such content in a systematic way?
  • What is content anyway? How does it differ from the information, stories, instructions, and ideas that we published in books and articles before the Internet came along?

I never got in-depth answers from Platform University (or from anyone else who’s written about building a platform). These are tough questions—and easy to avoid.

Endless To-Do Lists

What I did get from Platform University is an urgent message to get busy. There’s so much to do!

Platform University abounds in suggestions for getting your domain name, choosing a web hosting service, setting up a WordPress blog, recording podcasts, tweaking your website design, and completing a hundred other technical tasks.

But if you have nothing valuable to say, then isn’t all that stuff beside the point?

Endless Demand for Content

One big problem that we face in the age of online platforms is the implicit demand to keep cranking out content. There’s always another blog post to write. Another Twitter timeline to replenish. Another Facebook page to update. Another Pinterest image and another Instagram photo to publish.

And that’s not just for today. It’s every day. For the rest of your working life. I’m seriously wondering whether Michael Hyatt—or any of us—can meet this expectation.

Is it any wonder that the Internet sounds like a vast echo chamber? Content gets retweeted, reposted, and regurgitated in countless other ways. Fluff abounds, clichés rise to the top, and the repeated strains become transparent. In the place of real ideas, we get lists, link bait, and self-promotion.

Can you believe that there were ever people like Margaret Mitchell, who published one novel (Gone With the Wind) during her lifetime? Or Robert Pirsig, who wrote two books (including Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance) and then declared that he was done? That kind of restraint is looking pretty good right now.

There Are Other Ways to Do It

While consuming content from Platform University, I fell into the assumption that Michael’s way of building an audience is the only way. To be fair, Michael doesn’t directly say do it my way or hit the highway. But then again, he doesn’t point to alternative models.

Yet those models abound. There are many people building an online audience, and they do it in different ways. See the following for examples:

P. S. Michael’s a good writer. If you want to build a platform, first check out his excellent blog, which you can read for free.