When I am writing (usually to give a lecture) I tend to gather data or quotes or other bits into a notebook without knowing in advance whether I am going to use that material. It can range quite significantly but eventually I have a clearer picture of what material I will or will not use. I don't really think of it as brainstorming since I already have a narrowing solution space and this phase of my process could go on for several months. I use tools, like Evernote, so that whenever I see, or think of, something to be added to my notes I can add them right then and come back for further development in the same notebook. So what term (please don't suggest "research" -- it's less disciplined than that) or idiom should I use to express that phase?

  • Sorry, but, you range a gamut? Also, brainstorming is usually a group activity or one that involves at least two people....
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 12:54
  • 9
    I would not have considered 'woolgathering' at all for this activity. That term means "Indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining" (en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wool-gathering), not purposeful thought.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 13:14
  • Why would you not just use gathering (or a synonym) as you did in your question? As you say, you've already decided on an idea. Now, you're just putting together supporting documentation. (I suppose you could say you are documenting it.) Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 13:22
  • 3
    Are you seeking a term to describe the "purposeful thought" per your question's title, or the "gather data" of your question's body?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 13:34
  • @Lambie, sorry for the faux pas. What I meant to say was there is a process that is not word association, or any of a number of other less disciplined forays into thought. Woolgathering, a term I picked up from somewhere, isn't appropriate. I would like a memorable, but more correct idiom to use. Forget trying to use a Thesaurus. They don't really order idioms in a gamut of connotations.
    – Cyberis
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:40

8 Answers 8


If you want a term for the activity/phase1 of

gather[ing] data or quotes or other bits into a notebook without knowing in advance whether I am going to use that material

you could say you are commonplacing or just keeping a commonplace(-book). From Wikipedia:

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. . . . Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator's particular interests. . . . Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.

While you (and society) have moved on to electronic forms of storage, it sounds like your collections of information and your use of that collection otherwise meet the definition and purposes of a commonplace. Wikipedia specifically notes that commonplaces were often used as

an information management device in which a note-taker stored quotations, observations and definitions. They were even used by influential scientists. Carl Linnaeus, for instance, used commonplacing techniques to invent and arrange the nomenclature of his Systema Naturae (which is the basis for the system used by scientists today). [citation omitted]

As for the verb, Wiktionary1 defines it as

  1. To make a commonplace book.
  2. To enter in a commonplace book, or to reduce to general heads.
  3. (obsolete) To utter commonplaces; to indulge in platitudes.

Although this term has more than a whiff of the Enlightenment era about it, it is also being used today. Examples of usage include the above cited Wikipedia article:

By the 17th century, commonplacing had become a recognized practice that was formally taught to college students in such institutions as Oxford.

As well as

[C]ommon placing is one method used in education, but first and foremost, it is a personal habit that intelligent, thoughtful people have been doing for hundreds of years.
Mystie Winckler, "Commonplacing for Moms: 10 Tips to Get Started", Simply Convivial, 2017.

Many other examples in blog articles and Pinterest boards can be found.

A 2015 (scholarly) article directly equates the kind of activities you describe with the older, paper-and-pen(cil) practice:

This paper presents illustrative examples of digital technology that facilitates information sorting and recontextualizing. . . . This way of reusing digital information may be compared to similar analogue information management practices, known as commonplacing, found in early modern Europe.
Jon Hoem and Ture Schwebs, "Digital commonplacing," First Monday 20, no. 7 (2015). From the Abstract.

And another blog post specifically recommends the tool you mention, Evernote, for creating a commonplace (though this author's use of the word as a mass noun is a bit odd to my ear):

Here is how you can take the basic concepts of commonplace and build them into Evernote.
Taylor Pipes, "Taking Note: How to Create Commonplace with Evernote", Evernote.com, March 4, 2016

1This answer applies to what is asked in the body of the question, rather than the title of the question.
2The OED has a similar definition, but it is paywalled.

  • Thanks @1006a! I was unaware of this name for a practice, at least in an electronic form, that I just naturally perform. This seems to center on having a consecutively built corpus, whereas I might have it in a notebook but more often it is in a versioned electronic form because I iterate and make changes to "facts" I have recorded as I do more <whatever I end up calling my process>. Not only the current state but the process and history of getting to that state is something I capture. I will think about this for a bit -- ruminate (hat tip, Lawrence).
    – Cyberis
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 23:09
  • I've been ruminating over your extremely well put answer. If there were a memorable idiom for a versioned commonplace (one that tracked where I am currently and also how I got here) that would really be my process. It would have to be something like..... reaching convergence. This is a term that comes from routing networks when all of the routers on the network have a single shared picture of that network after all the nodes have reported in, and all the routers have shared their routing tables with each other. That's not very picturesque but that is closer. Historical Convergence?
    – Cyberis
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 13:20
  • So, I'm going to mark this as my "answer" because it was well written and helped me converge on my own partial answer. Unfortunately, "reaching convergence" doesn't encompass capture of versioning metadata as data, nor the serialization of that process into a terminal artifact (lecture, sermon, etc). It's also an obscure reference to highly technical jargon rather than a memorable idiom useful to the mainstream. I might try creating an idiom from scratch. I guess that's what I get for overclocking my brain -- new processes requiring new conceptual frameworks.
    – Cyberis
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 1:28
  • Glad it helped!
    – 1006a
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 21:37

Your question's title and elaboration describe different activities.

The "purposeful thought" of your question's title can be called ruminating.

ruminate verb 1 Think deeply about something. ‘we sat ruminating on the nature of existence’ - ODO

The gathering of "data or quotes or other bits" is simply called the gathering phase. Here's an example of the term in use (emphasis, mine):

Part of my process of getting ready for a sermon series is to gather all the available resources I can on a particular subject or book of the Bible and see how these resources will serve my preparation time. Most of the time during this gathering phase, I realize that it would be helpful if I order some additional resources to help me with sermon preparation. - Pastor’s Corner

  • Interesting. I would not have considered ruminate as I too prepare for my sermon series or lectures or what have you. I like it but I was hoping for a term to cover the gathering, deepening "ruminating", sifting, sublimating, and final formation phases. That's because I iterate over all these phases quite rapidly bouncing between phases as required. Often times they are being done in parallel so if there were such an idiom to cover all of that then I have the one I am seeking. Otherwise I imply something with distinct, successive phases and that is not what I do.
    – Cyberis
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:54

I would refer to this process as your discovery phase, whereby you:

may seek disclosure of information that is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence [or in your case, "material you will use"]. This is a much broader standard than relevance, because it contemplates the exploration of evidence which might be relevant, rather than evidence which is truly relevant.

Although this term is born of legal lexicon, I think it parallels quite nicely (and non-litigiously) with the process you described.

  • The term has similar nonlegal usages as well, for example in software.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 3:09
  • nice! in documentation, too, i guess :) "Research" really is a strong contender though, what can i say :)
    – tidbertum
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 13:58

If you want a word for purposeful thought about a specific subject, cogitate could apply. It comes from the Latin for "consider" and means to think seriously about a particular subject or problem.

"The calculus homework was harder than I expected, but after I spent some time cogitating on derivatives I was able to finish it."

An alternative is to deliberate, meaning to take time to think carefully about a thing, especially about a decision or choice. It's often used to refer to the process juries go through when considering evidence to reach a verdict, but can also be used for any sort of careful decision processing.

"I deliberated for over an hour about which movie to see before I asked Clarissa out on a date."

  • Right, to mull something over. In fact, the unconscious does its work, say, over a few days, and the ideas pop up. I was going to suggest cogitate, especially since its etymology is so apropos. Ponder and reflect also work to some extent.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 12:59

In the architecture and design fields this is called precedent research or precedent gathering, and is often the stage prior to building a mood board - the gathering of images and concepts relating to one or more elements of the client's brief, and which may, or may not, end up informing mood, tone colour, form, concept or even specific building systems... it's very open-ended, but not unbounded.


intransitive verb
1 : to engage in contemplation or reflection
- He meditated long and hard before announcing his decision.
transitive verb
1 : to focus one's thoughts on : reflect on or ponder over
- He was meditating his past achievements.
2 : to plan or project in the mind : intend, purpose
- He was meditating revenge.

In English the most famous classical usage in that sense would be the translation title The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius.


construct TFD

  1. To create by systematically arranging ideas or terms.

As in:

When I am preparing a lecture, I tend to construct quotes, data and other pertinent bits into a digital notebook, without knowing in advance whether I am going to use that material.


Exploring would fit. You're exploring the subject.

From the link, definition 1: "to investigate, study, or analyze : look into ·explore the relationship between social class and learning ability —sometimes used with indirect questions "

(This unnecessary copy and paste brought to you by the script that told me my answer would be deleted for brevity.)

  • 1
    Surely that is the right word. All the others suggested: meditate, cogitate, ruminate convey more intensity than the OP seems to me to describe. Also "ruminate" has a (bad) technical meaning in psychoanalysis that is definitely not what is meant here.
    – JeremyC
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 23:36

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