Using a Commonplace Book to Incubate Ideas—The Power of “Zero Drafts”

Of the many benefits of keeping a commonplace book, the one I find most powerful is allowing ideas to simmer, develop, and build  over time.


In a masterful post, Tony Schwartz describes this as incubation—a crucial stage in creative thinking:

The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can’t seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions. After writing for 90 minutes, for example, the best thing I can do to jog my brain, is take a run.

I recommend that you do more than take an exercise break. When you set up your commonplace book, create a section for zero drafts that you incubate over time.

How to create a zero draft

I got the term zero draft from Christian Tietze, coauthor of a wonderful blog about commonplacing. “This draft isn’t meant for reading,” he notes. It’s even worse than the shitty first draft we all need to embrace. This is Frankenstein’s monster turned into text.”

A zero draft is midway between a collection of random notes and the first draft of an article or book on a specific topic. More precisely, it is a growing collection of notes about a single topic grouped into a flat outline.

By flat, I mean just two levels of content:

  • The title of an article, blog post, presentation, or book chapter that you might create
  • Subheadings—one for each major point you could make or story that you could tell to flesh out the title

To create a zero draft, simply “dump” (copy and paste) any relevant notes (facts, anecdotes, quotes, examples, and other information) under the most appropriate subheading. (To get ideas for subheadings, consider some common frameworks for nonfiction writers.)

Note: This process of dumping notes is much harder when you have a “deep” outline with two or more levels of headings: Each level adds another layer of decisions to make about where to place an individual note. By keeping your outline flat, you eliminate all those extra decisions.

Always be researching, always be writing 

Always have several zero drafts in process. Each one might start simply as a note with a working title for something you’d like to publish or present in the future. Add subheadings as they occur to you. When you run across a relevant fact or quote, paste it under the appropriate subheading.

To get the most benefit from this process:

  • Allow plenty of time for adding notes to your zero draft.
  • Review your zero drafts weekly, revising them as you see fit.
  • Remember that zero drafts are not even “shitty first drafts.” They’re simply collections of notes without introductions, transitions, or conclusions. Zero drafts acquired their name because they come before any draft, even the first one.
  • Allow your evolving creations to slowly shape themselves. Some zero drafts naturally fall away and fade into your archives. Others will flourish and expand into projects that you commit to finish. In either case, your zero drafts will speak to you and tell you how they want to be developed. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own.

Two benefits of zero drafts

This approach allows for incubation, as Tiago Forte explains:

Too often, we force ourselves to take an idea from blue sky ideation to practical execution in 48 hours flat. We call it a “rapid prototyping sprint,” and pride ourselves on how little time was spent, as if a new idea is something to be excreted and moved on from as quickly as possible.

But again, this is not how our mind works. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about how the brain continues working on problems through the night, or as you do household chores, or take a shower, or do grocery shopping.

The post from which I took the above quote offers an example of incubation. Tiago describes it as the product of a “slow burn”—a process of collecting notes from more than 25 sources over the period of a year.

In addition, zero drafts help you separate the tasks of researching and writing. Every time I try to combine those tasks during one sitting, I end up frustrated and ready to quit. The mental effort required to switch tasks between gathering notes and crafting notes into a first draft is just too great.

Above all, approach zero drafts with a sense of play. See them as mini-experiments and works in progress. Create them to have fun and guide your learning—independent of any deadline. Allow the slow burn to sizzle and then explode into your next big creation.

For more on this topic, see:

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