Why You Should Start a Swipe File Today 137

Yesterday’s list of 70 sources of inspiration was mainly composed of examples. In this post, I want to explain why the ability to learn from others is essential to your development as a blogger or webmaster.

Here, I’ll outline the process for creating and using something I strongly believe every web publisher should maintain: a swipe file of things they can learn from or use.

What’s a swipe file?

In the copywriting business, a swipe file is a folder (online or offline) the writer uses to collect examples of good copy. Its stated use is for inspiration, but that’s only about half of its true usefulness.

All good examples contain lessons. The key is in unlocking them.

The swipe file idea is aimed at copywriters, but let’s transplant it to our own field: web publishing. What would a web publisher’s swipe file look like and how would it be maintained?

The kind of swipe file we can use is a collection of content, images, design elements, headlines, quotes and resources we like. Think of it like a digital scrap-book: as you browse, you paste items into your swipe file (often literally, via Cut + Paste).

Your own swipe file could take on a myriad of forms: you might use your del.icio.us account, or any other social bookmarking service, for that matter. You could use your browser bookmarks, or a document.

I keep my swipe file with Tumblr, as it allows me to add any element of the page I’m visiting (whether it be quotes, links, images or video) by clicking a button in my toolbar. I don’t have to log in or visit the dashboard at all. I can also follow the tumblelogs of Skelliewag readers and they can follow my updates in return.

The role of the swipe file itself is to aggregate examples of great web content, design, useful articles and quotes, or to keep track of ideas. It’s fun, useful and can be updated on the fly.

The real value of a swipe file, though, is in how you use it.

How to learn by example

When you like something, it’s not simply because it’s good, or because you just do. There are always identifiable factors which add up to a feeling of positivity towards something. Each of these is a lesson waiting to be learned. You can de-construct your positive feeling down to reasons for that feeling, and de-construct each of those reasons down into little, actionable ideas for your own work.

Yes, I just said ‘de-construct’ enough times to make your grimace, but it’s a lot easier than it sounds. I’ll give you an example based on the last thing I added to my swipe file, which is… 40+ Excellent Free Fonts For Professional Design, taken from the notorious Smashing Magazine. There’s no reason behind picking this specific example. You can repeat the process with anything.

I must like the content I’ve chosen, otherwise I wouldn’t have saved it. Things get interesting (and useful) when I start to de-construct why I was moved to save it.

  • I’m writing an eBook and want to make it look good, but I don’t have the money to pay for a professional font. I think I might be able to find a few good choices here.
  • There are more than 40 fonts listed, which promises to provide me with a lot of choice. With that many options I’m confident I’ll find something I like.
  • The list provides useful previews of each font, rather than making me click on each one before I know whether I’m wasting my time or not.
  • From an aesthetic stand-point, the list is visually interesting. I like typography so I really enjoy looking at it.
  • The list could have been longer (there are thousands of free fonts out there) but it seems as if the emphasis is on value over quantity. Every font looks well suited to professional design work.

How to find lessons in what you like

How could a list of free fonts have an impact on Skelliewag? No, I’m not planning on constructing any typographical lists. I can, however, draw out a number of ideas which are directly translatable:

  • A good resource list is constructed with a target audience in mind.
  • Lots of choices is better than few: it increases the chance that the user will find something they love (at least in their own mind.)
  • A good resource list includes previews of each item to help the user make an educated choice.
  • Visually interesting lists are more enjoyable to interact with (this thinking influenced my decision to include thumbnail images in my 110+ Resources for Creative Minds post).
  • The advantages of choice are best weighed against the benefits of consistent value. Anyone can produce a mammoth list with some work, but every sub-standard item devalues the finished product.

How to find lessons in everything

The above process can be repeated for any entry in your swipe file. You can de-construct why a piece of linkbait worked, why a story moved you, why you find a web design attractive, or a million different things. The next (and most important step) is to draw out the ideas you can translate to your own site.

Ideally, you want this to become a natural habit: something you’ll do internally and almost without thinking as you browse.

As you develop this habit, though, a similar exercise to the one I’ve completed above will be really useful. By writing down the de-construction process you’ll train your mind not only to appreciate and enjoy good content but to understand what made it work, and most importantly, to translate those factors into what you do.

So, let’s do it!

If you create a swipe file with Tumblr you can follow my swipe file and I’ll keep track of the updates in yours.

I’ll also use my own swipe file to link out to swipe files from other Skelliewag readers (whether they are on Tumblr or elsewhere).

If you decide to go with Tumblr (and I guess you can tell that’s what I recommend), you can ‘follow’ the Skelliewag tumblelog and I’ll follow yours. If you decide to use another service then leave the address of your swipe file in the comments here and I’ll link out to that as well.

I think a swipe file community could be a great way for Skelliewag readers to connect outside the blog, and for me to get to know you better, and vice versa. Why not share your swipe file with your readers, too?

A bonus tip: De-constructing the process of disliking something is just as useful. It tells you what not to do!