Buckets and Chunks:
An Exercise in Writing Everything Down

Bucket of Gold

This is a guest article from Ryan Imel of Theme Playground.

Sitting down in front of a blank screen, you type out a string of words followed by a period.

You pause.

You backspace it all away.

Another, new string of words. Pause…

Lather, rinse, repeat. You get the idea. Why is it that at times writing comes easily, like a fire hose, but at other times it barely trickles out? Part of the reason may be that you’re losing all of your best ideas (read: best potential articles) in between those sit-downs at the computer.

One of my favorite speakers of all time, Rob Bell, spoke at a conference I attended last year specifically on preaching original thoughts and ideas (it’s kind of his thing, if you’re unfamiliar). Some of his thoughts on this topic, I think, are very useful.

“I try not to present anything that hasn’t been marinating for months and months of my life. Look at the next six months and plan ahead – you can always be spontaneous in the moment, and that’s okay. But what if (when you sat down to write) you literally had to choose: I don’t know which I’m going to do because a bunch of them are ready to go.”

Bell drops his thoughts and ideas into what he calls buckets, which are nothing more than Word files on his computer, so that he never loses anything which could potentially contribute to a solid lesson. These buckets, when they cross over to one another, he collects in what he calls chunks, at which point they start to develop into something stronger.

One of the reasons he does this is so he can accumulate wisdom on topics over time. If his thoughts weren’t down, either on paper (scary) or on his computer somewhere, he may not remember when he reads a related topic in a book or hears a story that applies. Without that way of connecting what he has thought before to what he is experiencing or thinking now, some of his best lessons might go out the window.

The same principles can apply to blogging. When you have ideas or see things which get you thinking, write them down. Catalog them in some way. Odds are within a few days of doing this you will see connections and trends you wouldn’t have caught before. This will lead to more quality content. Not to mention: consider the exceptional quality of a post that has been written over the course of weeks (even months)?

Something I’ve found myself doing since then, and since I began writing for the web, is starting up a lot of draft posts in WordPress. At any given time I can have anywhere from five to 15 posts either halfway completed or standing as headlines only. While it can be daunting to stare at a big list of posts waiting to be written, it can also make the process of beginning to write a bit easier when I hit creative roadblocks.

Beginning to write everything down

  • Grab a writing tool that tracks changes. I use Writeboard, but there are others out there. Even Word can track changes if you want. Keep your ideas flowing, and keep working on them over time. See what happens.
  • Make your process a fun one. Call them buckets and chunks or streams and rivers if you need to, but keep the fun level high so you can train yourself to come back to the process often.
  • Don’t skip over silly ideas and stories. You never know what might come in handy later.
  • Actively investigate the world around you. Be a journalist all the time. Ask questions and look for details. You might be surprised at how many ideas jump out at you.

WordPress users, get more great stuff from Ryan Imel over at Theme Playground.

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Reader Comments (36)

  1. says

    I have been using a “bucket” type of concept for some time when writing complex documents, like white papers.

    However, I do not have the luxury of letting the ideas sit for some time and bake.

    Nice first post!

  2. says

    Thanks! It can be tough to let something bake very long, especially when it’s good. Not to mention, for most of us, writing is a sidebar to our lives/working lives, and not the main feature.

    Thanks for the compliment!

  3. says

    The bucket idea is a very interesting one. I suppose I do something similar with my PDA by sticking ideas into separate memo files. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have some means for recording ideas with me all the time, whether on paper (gasp) or digitally.

  4. says

    Ryan, great post. This is very similar to what I do and described in my post “Draft Drafts“. Like Michael, though, I’ve not made it a policy to let things sit or stew for that long. I’ll have to give it a shot with a couple of posts.

  5. says

    Google Notebooks – I would be lost without it. My wife is thrilled that I’m not printing out page after page of news article or blog post to pull the threads together. I just throw it in a Notebook and let it simmer.

    By the way, great links. Thanks for the leads…

  6. says

    Believe it or not, after having tried nearly every idea-capturing tool under the sun (like Google Notebooks and Wridea), I have found that the DeadTree 1.0 platform featuring LiveInk works the best for me. 😉

    The only other thing I need is a voice recorder for when I’m commuting.

    Great article, Ryan. Nice to see you guest-blogging over here!

  7. says

    @ Peter: I’ll have to check out Google Notebooks. Haven’t yet, and I like to stay on top of little tools like that. Sounds useful…

    @ Michael: Thanks!

  8. says

    Great Article Ryan. I’ve tried several methods similar to buckets and chunks and I’m still evolving my process. I do try to capture as many thoughts as I can and have many draft posts going.

    Like Michael I find if I let them sit too long to bake they never come out of the oven. For me it’s less about luxury though and more about out of site out of mind.

  9. says

    I can tell this works for Rob Bell. I saw him speak this past year and was simply put in awe at his presentation. His words. This thought process. His delivery. He presented something I had heard many times before, but was able to translate it in a whole new way.

    I like the bucket idea – I tend to store drafts like that as well, just in case I can formulate my thoughts more on a specific topic or subject.

  10. says

    Hey Ryan! Great tips bro! :)
    I’ll probably be using whiteboard more, since you told me about it, I like the interface.

    “silly ideas and stories” – I tend to write a lot of those, some get deleted, but some I refine and publish. And those usually get the most traffic and comments, oh well.. hehe

  11. says

    I just started my blog and I have already got quite a few drafts in publishing queue.

    I also write down raw ideas whenever they occur without paying attention to grammar and spelling mistakes. They can always be corrected later. The important thing is that I pin the dodgy ideas down with the pen :-)

  12. says

    great post Ryan. When I get an idea or even just the basis of a good post I save a draft on my blog to remind me to come back to it later. It’s so easy to forget good ideas so its important to make sure you come back to it :)

  13. killerog says

    Nice article, Ryan!

    I had already written some spontaneous ideas down and thought of another one last night when I couldn’t sleep. Your article reminded me that I hadn’t written that one down. When I wanted to do so, I just noticed my paper is gone.
    So I’m going to stop writing now and start searching like crazy! Maybe writing this down digitally is not such a bad idea (although my harddisk crashed last week :))

  14. says

    Three cheers for Buckets and Chunks! In this world of information overload, getting little golden nuggets into their proper places until you’re ready to do something fun with them is the only way to go. Thanks for insight and reminder, Ryan. :)

    -Lani Voivod
    “A-Ha Yourself!”

  15. says

    I LOVE this concept. It took me back to my MLM days when I had an “invisible” bucket next to my desk where I would “dump” all the “no’s”. Eventually that bucket would fill up and spill over, and inevitably, that spill over became results.

    I can absolutely see where the ideas will begin to form and come to life. Thanks for sharing!

  16. says

    I was feeling a little overwhelmed earlier and have been looking for a way to make this a little better, and used the “buckets” approach – very helpful! Thanks!

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