Many people now have their own Youtube channel, blog and newsletter, and anybody can start making content for free. This is great because these creative projects you start today can be a source income for you or even your full-time job someday.
But one of the common problems we have when we start creating content online is coming up with ideas — what should I write about? what video should I make?
You can simply brainstorm, but that only gives you a limited amount of ideas.
I struggle with this too, but recently I remembered some writings by Andy Matuschak and Sönke Ahrens about something called bottom-up note-taking approach which is part of the Zettelkasten note-taking method and their way of cultivating ideas for new writing projects. I thought it was really useful and can apply to not just for writing, but other forms of content creation too. So in this article, I want show you my process of bottom-up note-taking.
The tools we need are just your laptop and a note taking app like Obsidian, Roam, RemNote and Amplenote (apps with bi-directional linking feature).
For most creatives, there are three steps in content creation; Learn, Create and Repeat. That’s it. If you follow these steps, you should be able to produce content consistently.
But some people skip the first step and jump to the Create part. As a result, they struggle to come up with ideas for content.
The key in this Learning step is getting lots of inputs and taking notes. It sounds obvious, but getting inputs means you need to read lots of articles, books, listen to podcasts, TED talks or go on Twitter to find out what’s trending. Then you have to take notes of what you learned.
The reason why getting lots of inputs is important is that creating content is about mixing different ideas together. If you mash up different components from different sources, it becomes your original content.
Most successful creators are just really proficient at getting inputs and mixing them up or just remixing it. So, the more inputs you get, the more combinations of ideas you can make, therefore more potential content ideas.
And you can use apps like Feedly to read blog posts and essays to collect information. But my favourite apps are Refind and Mailbrew because I think they have better curation system than other apps. Anyway, I made a video about them before, please check it out if you’re interested.
As you get more inputs, you will find some of the information to be really helpful for you, which probably means other people will find it helpful too. So, if you think something is useful, take notes about it.
I usually take notes using the Zettelkasten note-taking method, but it’s a bit complicated so I won’t go into detail. But please watch this video if you want to know more about it.
Anyway, let’s say I find this article helpful. I usually make highlights first. If you’re using apps like Instapaper and Pocket for reading articles, you can make highlights in the app. But personally, I use this Chrome extension called Eloquent Quick Capture because it lets you grab the title, author, and url of the article with "/" commands:
It also lets you make highlights too:
Once you’re done making highlights, copy them and paste it into your note-taking app. It doesn’t matter which app you use, but my favourites are Obsidian, Roam, RemNote or Amplenote. In this article, I’m going to use Roam Research.
I paste the highlights and have a quick run through of them.
If I think some of them are useful for my future writing and videos, I will rewrite it in my own words. Rewriting is very important because it forces you to think through what it means and how it can apply to your life.
Okay, now here’s the trick – for each note you make, think about potential titles of blog posts or videos you can make. It’s kind of like keywords and tags, but more specific. Think about how you would search on Google. You almost never search for general terms like productivity or marketing, right? You would search more specific things like how to take notes to create more ideas. Find that specific thing that could make use of this note.
This is similar to the idea of creating speculative outlines by Andy Matuschak. He says;
When you write a new note, add it to one or more outlines you’re maintaining, creating a new one if necessary. Substantially-complete writing projects will naturally emerge.
This is the underlying idea of Bottom-Up note-taking; you make notes about whatever interests you, and each time add that note to potential outlines. As you repeat this process, new writing or video projects will naturally emerge.
Personally, I organise my speculative outlines as pages that start with Q, so it’s clear what outlines I have. And in each page, you can check how they’re growing:
Once an outline feels ripe, you can take it and turn it into an actual article or a video script. This is easy because you already have enough notes about the topic and all you have to do is just reorganise them in a coherent way. Then, you will immediately get a manuscript.
1. You need lots of inputs to come up with more ideas for content
3. Make a note every time you found something useful in your own words
4. Add that note to a potential outline, and repeat this process to grow the outlines.
I know this approach can take time, but I find this method super helpful to produce new blog articles and Youtube videos consistently.