10 things to write on in an emergency!

Ideas can hit writers at any time. This post suggests some super new writing surfaces to help you hang on to those moments of inspiration... whenever and wherever they strike!

Once you abandon your muse and accept the fact that other commitments in your life will sometimes prevent you from writing, you can prepare for the unexpected. When an idea arrives, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you need to be ready. The truth is, your best ideas don’t always come to you at appropriate times. I used to regularly find myself without a notepad, desperately repeating an idea in my head to make sure I remembered it. It rarely worked. Usually, I’d forget large parts of the idea. Often, I wouldn’t remember I’d had an idea at all.

This is my advice. If you get an idea, write it down. Even if it turns out to be a useless idea, you just never know. It’s better than losing what could be the foundations of an interesting piece of work.

It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how easy it is to have an idea and find yourself thoroughly unprepared.

Usually, all you need to remember is the spark. Just enough to trigger that same train of thought you stumbled upon when the idea first came to you. You don’t need half an hour and a laptop.

Write here, write now

If the idea happens to arrive when you’re in front of a computer and during some free time, then great. You can stick it in a Word document (other document types are available) and spend a couple of hours refining your thoughts.

If, as is more likely, the idea comes when you’re in a business meeting, on the toilet or bathing the kids, you’re in all kinds of trouble.

You’re going to need one of these 10 things.

A notepad

Of course, the wonderful notepad. If you haven’t got one, get one. Preferably a Moleskine. Then take it everywhere you go and you won’t have to use the rest of this list, which may be a blessing.

Post-it notes

Everyone’s favourite yellow reminding device. I usually use Post-it notes to combine and develop ideas, but they’re also great for keeping round the house. It goes idea > scribble on Post-it > stick to keyboard for later.

Your hand

Another classic. The hand is an underestimated writing surface. Not only is it convenient and easy to use, you’ll be very hard-pressed not to have it with you at all times.

Miscellaneous body parts

The problem with writing on your hand is that your idea automatically enters the public domain. So, if you’d rather not have your boss, parents or fellow train passengers reading what’s on your scrawl-ridden palms, find somewhere else on your person. I have previously written ideas on my foot, ankle and stomach. Don’t forget and have a shower.

Someone else

If points 3 and 4 don’t do it for you, try writing on someone else. Why not? How often do we say, ‘Remind me to…’ or ‘I’ve just had an idea…’ when we’re with someone? If you’re about to go into a meeting and it simply isn’t appropriate to write on yourself, write on your workmate instead. They can read it back to you later.


Nick Cernis over at Put Things Off talks about The Banana Reminder in his marvellous book, Todoodlist. He suggests writing important tasks on your morning banana to make sure you don’t forget to do them. It works. I’ve tried it. However, switch tasks for ideas and add oranges, lemons and any other fruit with a non-edible skin to your list of writing surfaces, and you’re in business. Just make sure you transfer your idea to your notepad or computer before you have your tasty teatime snack.

Beer mats

Made famous by many a lyricist, the beer mat has a reputation for being an ideal emergency writing surface, though almost exclusively for writers who frequent public houses, bars or restaurants, of course.


I get a lot of my ideas when I’m in the shower, which is most irritating. Usually, I can hold it in the think-tank (that’s my head, not part of the shower) until I get to my notepad. However, if I can feel the idea slipping away, I’ve been known to reach around the shower curtain and make a quick note in the steam on the window. Other recommended windows include frosty cars and dirty sheds.

Toilet paper

Oh come on, we’ve all been there. Ideas can strike at any time. Leave a pen in the cardboard tube, just in case. Or behind the S-bend.

The Wonderwall

Finally, an idea I’ll talk about in a later post. The Wonderwall is not related to the once well-reputed UK rock band, Oasis. It’s actually an idea we’re currently putting into action where I work. It’s very simple. We’re designating an entire wall of the office to any ideas and brainwaves we might have. That’s it.

Have an idea or suggestion about how we might work better? Write it on the wall. Of course, in your family home, you might prefer not to cover your lounge in marker pen, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a Wonderwall in your study. If you don’t want to write directly on to the wall (which I do understand), use Post-it notes. If your ideas are related, use the wall to plan and combine your notes.

What do you write on?

Have you been inspired and found yourself without something sensible to write on? What do you do in a creative emergency? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.


zoe@zoewesthof.com 30 December 2008 Reply

Love the Wonderwall idea. It reminds me of the bedroom my sister and I shared at my dad’s apartment in NYC when we were young. He let us tackle the walls with paint, crayons, and colored pencils at our will. The result was a fantastic, colorful world that was constantly being expanded.
Though I can’t quite recreate that in my current house, I may try out a chalkboard/whiteboard/post-it version…!

crumbled@gmail.com 30 December 2008 Reply

Interesting post! Another thing I’d suggest, that ties in with your Wonderwall idea, is to invest in some glass crayons (available in most craft stores). Assuming you have mirrored wardrobes or large window panes, it’s an interesting and convenient canvas to work on. I also tend to write inspirational words on there as well, and colour-coordinate my ideas if I’m feeling particular.

tsinfield@emazeholdings.com 30 December 2008 Reply

I use my mobile phone. Whenever I get a new idea when I’m out I’ll whip out my phone and start a new note.

rose.carla@gmail.com 5 January 2009 Reply

Ideas come to me when I’m running or on my spinning bike so I am thinking of getting a small recording device since I cant write and run at the same time! I will have to start taking a Moleskine in my purse with me as well. I have one by my bed when ideas pop into my head late at night.

melissa@writingforward.com 5 January 2009 Reply

Cell phone! You can text yourself, use the notes feature (if your phone has it), or (and this is my favorite) call yourself and leave a voicemail. That last one’s perfect for while your driving or doing anything else that makes it difficult for you to write.

mtm@pixelgraft.net 5 January 2009 Reply

I used to have a collection of sketches on anything in my wallet that was fairly blank, such as bus tickets and other people’s business cards. I did however draw the line at drawing on the money in there.
This collection also extended to my glasses case, and coat pockets which housed any larger items such as the aforementioned beer mats.

philcurtis@btinternet.com 5 January 2009 Reply

Oh how timely these things are – I’m planning to write more this year and capture some of the stuff that floats across my horizon. This site will help me I’m sure.
Still have two questions on the immediate grabbing of the idea- the surface is not the problem for me, the scribing device is what I am always missing – any recommendations?

Even that is moot when most of my ideas spring out, usually behind the wheel as I sit in slow moving London traffic and see something that triggers the senses. Again, ideas welcome, safety paramount.

tirrell_watson@yahoo.com 5 January 2009 Reply

I also have a Moleskine which 97% of the time is in my back pocket whenever I leave the house and 70% of the time when I’m wearing pants.
Other times I may scratch notes on any paper-like thing I can find–reciepts, napkins, envolopes from unpaid bills. But a failsafe is my phone. Or if I’m at a computer, but I don’t have a lot of time, or I’m at work (like now) I will email myself as much of the idea as I can.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 5 January 2009 Reply

Some great ideas here folks.
@cass Hmm, they look good. I might try them out. Thanks!

@Tom and Melissa Ah, the mobile phone. I was trying to avoid technostuff, but the phone is very handy in an emergency.

@Melissa I planned my entire novel out on a whiteboard I nicked from work. Shh!

@Carla Indeed, exercise is a problem when combining writing. You could pop a voice record in your gym shorts and take notes between breaths. There’s always a way!

@Matt Someone I worked with suggested money. It didn’t make the list. I am tight, though.

@t.sterling I have emailed ideas in the past, but found it hard to keep track of in the long term. If it works though, go for it!

iain@writeforyourlife.net 5 January 2009 Reply

@Phil I always used a standard biro, but changed to the humble pencil after reading Nick Cernis’ fantastic Todoodlist last year. It’s the rubbable-outable-ness that I’ve rather taken to.
And as for holding on to ideas when you’re driving, I think again, the safest piece of advice would be to invest in a voice recorder. Check your phone – you might have one already. It’s not something I’ve taken to in the past, but I recommend giving it a try.

melissa@writingforward.com 6 January 2009 Reply

I can’t help mentioning technology because I just got a new iPhone and it’s got some great features that are perfect for writers. I know – we usually like to focus on more traditional writerly tools. . I have a whiteboard too but I really need a bigger one – like a wall-sized one. I can’t pinch one from work, unfortunately (that would be redundant) and they are oddly expensive.

judecalverttoulmin@gmail.com 6 January 2009 Reply

Very funny post, Iain 🙂
I never leave home without a notebook. If I’m going somewhere with a small bag, I take a small ring bound notebook (about 4″ by 3″) with a ballpoint pen refill stuck in the rings. If I’ve got a bigger bag, I take my fat exercise book and multiple retractable pencils. I don’t use these books for writing ideas but for planning and organising jobs to do with the writing.

All the framework skeleton-building for my books is done in my head on walks. Writing during this mental planning and development stage is a distraction, I need to spend a long time in my head without the distraction of writing.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 8 January 2009 Reply

@Melissa Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I have an iPhone too. And yes it does have some useful features.
@Jude Walks. Shower. On the toilet. Just because you’re not writing, doesn’t mean you’re not taking part in the process of writing. I too need lots of thunk-time.

anne@aboutfreelancewriting.com 9 January 2009 Reply

When I’m working, I write in a computer file… have gotten pretty good at using windoz horrid search function… and my desktop is cluttered!
Most of the time I also have at least a couple of 3×5 cards with me… but it does seem I get the best ideas when I don’t have them and am scribbling on a receipt or something.

Glad to know you’re here,

Anne Wayman, now blogging at http://www.aboutfreelancewriting.com

donnawhite01@hotmail.com 11 January 2009 Reply

Do you have chapped lips Phil?
If so, good. You probably have a lip balm with you at all times. If it is the scribing device you lack rather than the surface, write in a pad with your lip balm. When you get home, simply mix up a pastel-coloured wash to paint over the top and reveal the magic lettering. It’s an effective and fun way to write. I bet it looks so good, it could even be ripped out and put up on a wonderwall at a later date.

savethemedia@yahoo.com 12 January 2009 Reply

Hilarious and useful post. I have to admit, I often get inspiration at odd moments. I always keep a notepad and pen by my bedside. Often, if I’m working on an idea, I’ll figure out a great way to say it while I’m sleeping. I’ll wake up, and write it down quickly.
I’ve written ideas or crafted sentences on napkins, envelopes, my hand, post-it notes (of course — cannot live without.)

One other suggestion: If I get an idea while driving, I will call my work voice mail and leave the idea or snippet of text I’ve thought of on it. Safer than writing while driving. (Not that talking on the phone while driving is safe either, but at least hands-free.)

iain@writeforyourlife.net 15 January 2009 Reply

@Anne Yes, if I’m near a computer I do tend to type things straight into a file. But that’s mainly my fiction writing. My copywriting, and now blogging, ideas tend to go straight to the notebook, wherever I am.
@Donna I’m not sure where you’re going with that one, but thank you for your contribution!

@Anne I don’t necessarily get ideas when I’m asleep, more often it’s those final minutes before I actually drop off. And I can’t just leave it. It must be scribbled somewhere. Very irritating!

nemesisofthevole@yahoo.co.uk 24 January 2009 Reply

Most frequently I get inspiration when in the shower. The whatever-it-is will be practically writing itself in my head and I tend to find myself scrabbling for a towel and running through to the bedroom for a pad and paper. I will scrawl as much down as I can, get dressed, turn on the computer and wish that the inspiration had struck half an hour later when I was actually organised!
Bitchin’ atheist’s last blog post: feeling the pinch

Anonymous 10 June 2009 Reply

[…] These days, many writers work straight to screen. Personally, I like to make a few notes on paper (preferably) and then head for the computer. I find it quicker to type than write by hand. However, if […]

markleann7787@aol.com 30 September 2009 Reply

I get most of my inspiration in the shower. I used to write them down on a dive-slate. But, my hubby recently bought a waterproof notepad for me that suction cups to the shower wall. They’re called Aquanotes.

Anonymous 29 July 2010 Reply

[…] throw back the shower curtain and, snatching a towel to retain some shred of modesty, rocket toward the nearest scrap of paper and pencil. Frantically you press words into the paper’s safekeeping, water dripping from your barely […]

5fabfriends@gmail.com 1 June 2011 Reply


harrykesterson@hotmail.com 12 January 2012 Reply

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