In defence of browsing…OR how to have a happy accident

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you do your research with single-minded intent or do you know how to have a happy accident?

My research for this column on the value of browsing — looking for something you didn’t know you were looking for, or having a “happy accident” — illustrates a profound problem with trying to find this concept on the internet.

If you search for the word ‘browsing’ you will end up with a list of articles about how to have more effective searches on Google. Pieces like this one, telling you when to capitalize, when to put quotes around text, when to use wildcard operators. 

NO! Not what I wanted.

In fact, I was looking for the exact opposite of being a more effective searcher. I was looking for advice on how and why to become a more random searcher. You know, the sort of experience I used to be able to have (pre-COVID, pre-Amazon) of being able to walk into a bookstore and spend happy hours perusing the shelves, finding books that delighted me.

My favourite such memory dates back to 1987 when I was in London for the first time and I found myself in the famous bookstore Foyles on Charing Cross Road. There, on a table, I had the happy accident of spotting The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed by Karen Gorden. It remains my favourite grammar book — as well as the funniest and easiest-to-read one — and I still recommend it to this day. 

Note that I hadn’t been looking for a grammar book at the time. Finding it was just a happy accident. So how do we writers uncover more interesting, fun and useful stuff like this?

Eventually, (I can’t remember how – it was random) I stumbled across a Medium post by Steven Johnson on the topic of hunch-fueled browsing. I smiled when I saw his name because Johnson is the author of one of my all-time favourite books of non-fiction, The Ghost Map. (If you’re looking for a good read over Christmas, pick up this book! It’s the story of the father of epidemiology who figured out the cause of cholera in the mid-19th century and it reads like a detective tale.) I didn’t know that Johnson has also written another book, which I will read soon, Where Good Ideas Come From. 

Johnson argues, persuasively, that most writing ideas first appear in our minds as hunches. And here’s what he says about what happens next:

“The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good.” 

Does that sound familiar to you? It certainly does to me. Johnson’s solution to the problem of forgetting hunches is requiring himself to write them down. Sounds easy enough, but it’s his follow-up advice that I think makes all the difference.

He suggests re-reading all those hunches regularly, at least four times a year. In chronological order. As Johnson puts it: “Keeping a single, chronological file is central to the process, because it forces you to scroll through the whole list each time you want to add something new.

Now, I’ll confess, I’m enough of an efficiency nerd that on some level this suggestion drives me a little crazy. I like to save all of my ideas/hunches/interesting articles in the software Evernote (you should be using this software, too, unless you’re an academic, in which case you should be using Zotero, Mendeley or EndNote) and I carefully tag each idea or item I save so that I can look for it, easily, later. 

This is, of course, the opposite to casual, serendipitous browsing — it’s using an algorithm, an index. But I realized that even my ultra-efficient-self had understood the inadequacy of this system, several years ago. Because I had also created my own special tag (index entry), *re-read. And I have always committed myself to re-read each of those items at least twice a year. Starting now, I’ll re-read them once a quarter.

Johnson’s advice is a good reminder that the digital world, effective and efficient as it may be, has served to block off rabbit holes, to remove what’s haphazard and to bar any sort of happy accident. And yet we all need more opportunities to appreciate the accidental, to relish randomness, to kindle kismet. 

Over the Christmas holidays this year, I intend to take time off for food and drink with family, walks outdoors with friends and maybe I’ll even take the time to ramble in a real live bookstore in my city — not looking for anything specific. Just seeking the joy of the totally unexpected. 


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed shiny object syndrome for writers. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Do you have a system that allows you to do some relaxed browsing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

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