Freelance Writing: Simple Tips on Complicated TopicsExtracting Information: Don’t Miss Any of Those Important Ideas!

informational techniques Capturing useful ideas as they occur is a writer’s secret weapon for incorporating current interest, color, novelty, and, originality into a project. Since we can’t anticipate what we are assigned, anything that we see or hear in daily life could conceivably turn out to be useful.

How can we maximize our chances of gleaning usable ideas from our environment? How can we recognize, take note of, and retain, successfully, potentially useful information? These are skills worth cultivating. We’ll examine some approaches.

The first strategy is to ensure our minimum daily requirement of nutritionally dense nourishment for our brains. By exposing ourselves to intellectually stimulating sources, we increase our chances of capturing relevant ideas. Similarly, we should go light on the empty calories of media and activities.

To accomplish this we need to be proactive about our media exposure. We can use the time we spend at work, or, if that is distracting, then when we are doing chores. At the risk of sounding biased, the choice between top 40 pop music, or an article on lip gloss, on the one hand, and a piece about an author, statesperson, or scientist on the other, seems clear. Unless your field of writing IS, in fact, the review, critique, and analysis of top 40 popular music, isn’t a serious interview or news program more likely to contain usable notions?

Just in case this is new information, here are some specific info-heavy suggestions: National Public Radio stations offer Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation Science Friday, In Our Backyard, and Writer’s Almanac, among many others. The Canadian Broadcasting Company’s As It Happens, and the British Broadcasting Company’s Our Planet are fine examples as well. These broadcasters usually use decent grammar and pronunciation of unusual words and names; helpful for speakers of English as a second language.

How can we remember the significant points in a news story or interview and locate this pertinent information again?

The main strategy concerns how we listen. Perhaps you have an infallible memory for names. The rest of us wish you Mazel Tov, but are still awaiting a memory implant.
One fabulous piece of technology, hopefully more widespread in the future, is the audio bookmark. This allows listeners to press a button at an intriguing point in a WHYY – Philadelphia news story, and then go to that station’s (or one other NPR affiliate’s) webpage to review that section of the broadcast. Here’s the link to WHYY-Philadelphia, the station that offers this as a thank you in return for a 120 dollar donation.

For those without this budget, our minds and existing technology must suffice. If you can manage listening to radio while working, open and keep open a notepad or word processing document file that you can label, “Useful Info”. If we hear something that strikes you as novel, intriguing, or confirming something that we have wondered about, enter a BRIEF note about the story.

Of course, a pad of paper or inexpensive composition book next to our computer can capture the same notes just as well. The same notepad (or word processing file) can serve as a depository for all sorts of good ideas – for example, about other sections of what we are working on at the moment, or about other projects.

To retain ideas until we can investigate them more fully or incorporate them into a paper or presentation, talking about them helps. Mention them to any amenable family or roommates in conversation. Having little kids is just fine. Your very young kids love your voice, whether discussing Peter Rabbit or financial derivatives. In fact, they benefit from your using multi-syllabic words. This option becomes a bit less feasible with older kids. They may roll their eyes at your discussion of Baroque architecture. Many kids, however, eventually become fascinated with grown-up topics.

How do you decide what to capture for future possible use?

Is it new? Are there specific names mentioned? A news story describing, “recent studies”, without specifying the institution or principal, is virtually useless without significant personal detective work. We want details – the university, clinic, lead researcher, principal author, journal title, and name of the disease, fossil, historical figure, etc.

How can you weave this information into a project?

When looking at potential topics, be thinking of what you have heard that could be applicable to one of them. When starting to outline or write, think back – have you heard anything that could be relevant? Go check these ideas out it if you can. Try to find the original article, if at all possible. Then refer to this information, using proper citation of either the source document or the news story or interview. It might be the one element that demonstrates your commitment to the subject.

Keep your ears and eyes open, and always consider – what is useful, what is interesting, what is exciting? Keep reading for more ideas!

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