The Gatehouse Blog

How to Use ‘Swipe Files’ to Become a Better Writer

Writer Gene Fowler said: “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Writing needn’t be so tortuous. With something called a ‘swipe file’, you can speed up the process by keeping ready-made material close at hand. Gatehouse’s Head of Content Ian Harris explains.

If you want to reliably produce interesting writing without driving yourself into an early grave, you need something called a swipe file. It’s where you collect little titbits you can use in your writing.

My swipe file is a collection of material I’ve collected from books, websites, Facebook statuses and email newsletters. I try to spot anything that’s smart, funny, interesting or quirky and copy it into my swipe file so that when I sit down to write, I can just open it up and dive in for inspiration. Often, I’ll find something I can use more or less right away, copying and pasting it into my document.

To give you an example, let me open my swipe file right now and have a random look at what I find.

  • What others think about me is none of my business
  • Amazon reportedly says that a product with bad reviews still sells better than a product with no reviews.
  • An Australian man, James Harrison, 74, who has been donating his extremely rare kind of blood for 56 years has saved the lives of more than two million babies.
  • Let’s break some rules made by fools.
  • You can’t strike oil by digging 10 one footdeep holes
  • Never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen
  • John Lennon famously hated his singing voice. He thought it sounded too thin, and was constantly futzing with vocal effects, like the overdriven sound on “I Am the Walrus.”

Like I said, there’s no logic or order – I just throw things in as I find them. (If you’ve seen those TV shows about compulsive hoarders who fill their houses with bin bags of junk, you’re not far off).

Some of it – most of it – I’ll never use. That’s fine, no harm in that. When I sit down to write, I begin with a little tour through my swipe file.

Often, I’ll find a quote or fact or turn of phrase that helps me open my pieces. Going through your swipe fi le is fun. When you kick off every writing session by having a tickle through your collection of gems, you soon begin to associate writing with pleasure.

Using your swipe file

It’s best to know what you want before you go shopping for copy in your swipe file. Otherwise, you’ll be so dazzled by all the goodies on the shelf you’ll never make it out alive.

Here’s what you might be looking for:

  • “I want to say something funny to open my piece.”
  • “I want a clever metaphor.”
  • “I need a tortoise-and-the-hare story that illustrates the benefit of taking your time and doing a job properly.”

What you find is that the type of material you need is also the type of material you tend to collect. Isn’t that handy? It’s a great feeling when you come up with the perfect turn of phrase, or a killer story for your copy.

One thing you’ll notice is that your swipe fi le soon becomes a heavy influence on what you write. If you have a great little tale burning a hole in your swipe, you naturally start looking for opportunities to use it.

You need to become an anecdote magpie. Collecting neat little stories and jaw dropping yarns should become a compulsion.

The way I do it is to read plenty of books. I’m always on the lookout for books that I think will yield juicy morsels or fascinating stories that I think I can use to pique people’s interest – and help me transition onto whatever point I happen to be writing about.

Most times when you read a book or a novel, the chapter will open with an anecdote or story. Get into the habit of saving the best ones. You can highlight them in your Kindle, or just take a photo of the page on your iPhone.

Again for Kindle users, look at the book’s popular highlights – often other users will have done the job of finding the best stories or tales.

I know that this sounds like a lot of work, but it makes writing much faster.

As Abraham Lincoln said: “Give me six hours to chop down the tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Yep I got that from a book.