TTT – Keeping a Writer’s Notebook

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A writer’s notebook is, after an over-active imagination, the most essential tool in a writer’s arsenal. They serve as a repository for our thoughts and observations, and become fertile ground we can grow the seeds of ideas. So, why is there so much confusion between writers as to their relevance, especially in the age of smart phones and instant information access?

I’ve always been the first to admit that nothing works for everyone, but EVERYONE needs a notebook. It doesn’t matter what format it takes (paper, digital, a series of audio-recordings. You can write everything down your trouser leg, for all I care), but it does matter that you have one and that it’s to hand when you need it.

One thing I don’t understand is the fervent belief held by a lot of writers I speak to that notebooks are archaic, a throwback to the days of yore when writing was a pursuit oft done by candlelight. I know a lot of writers who tell me they don’t need one; they can keep all their ideas in their head. Their biggest argument is that anything they are likely to write down is available somewhere on the internet and what’s left can easily be remembered.

Our brains are fantastic pieces of kit. They process information at an alarming rate, more so today than ever before. And with that constant stream of distraction, remembering our daily observations to the level of detail we require as authors as well as keeping track of every snippet and intangible thread of an idea is nigh on impossible. But you claim you can…

I’m not a sceptical person but I’m calling B.S. No one has that good a memory and most of us can barely remember what we had for breakfast ten minutes after eating it, much less the subtleties of how it tasted, the smell, and the feel of it on our tongues.

Why risk losing that one perfect idea or metaphor? Write it down.

“But, write it where?” I hear you ask.

And I say: “You’re trying my patience…”

What is a writer’s notebook?

There are many different types of writer’s notebook but essentially it can be anything you can use to store ideas, inspiration, observations, etc… Traditionally, a writer’s notebook was, as the name suggests, a paper-based notebook that never left the writer’s side. Since the advent of pocket technology (excluding calculators), many have made the shift to a digital format and use note-taking applications, online folders and digital cameras to capture much the same thing. The only real stipulation is that it must be of a format that can be easily transported, the reasons for this will become clear.

Types of notebook
Paper-based

This can be anything from an old, school exercise book (very fashionable again these days) to a £100 luxury, hand-bound, leather tome. I know writers who keep a pocket full of 3 x 5 index cards which serve the same purpose.

My own notebook (pictured) is paper-based: a durable, leather-bound, customisable Midori Traveler’s [sic] Notebook. It is lightweight, a little too big to be classed as pocket-sized but the ideal size for me. My reason for staying paper-based is two-fold: one, I write faster than I can type and so stand half a chance of writing down my thoughts before they’re gone; and two, it never runs out of battery power.

Digital

This type seems the most common these days and even I have a back-up in digital format. Smartphones are astonishing things and, with a plethora of note-taking apps on the market, a migration to digital seemed an inevitability. Couple that with the ability to take and attach photographs and even voice notes, a digital notebook is a very powerful tool indeed…until the battery runs out.

Audio

A frequent sight in the 1980’s (for those of you born in the 21st century, that’s just after the extinction of the dinosaurs) was a suited, businessman/woman recording their thoughts into a hand-held Dictaphone for a secretary to transcribe later. Although not as popular these days, audio-recorders are another great way to record those ideas and observations and I know a few who put them to good use. The only real issue with audio is that browsing through previous ideas is more labour intensive than other media.

What makes a good notebook?

Two things make a good writer’s notebook:

  1. Portable – a notebook to capture ideas is useless if it’s still sat on your desk at home. Whatever you choose to use should be small and lightweight enough for you to take it everywhere.
  2. Something you’ll actually use – you have a notebook/audio-recorder/phone, you have it with you when that idea for the next bestseller hits, you don’t want to write on those pretty pages/have the confidence to talk into it with people around/know how to use the app. Really, I despair. What good is a notebook you are uncomfortable using? None at all.
Tips on keeping a notebook
1. Take it everywhere with you (and I mean EVERYWHERE)

Inspiration can come at any time and capturing it while it’s fresh is paramount. To do this, you need your notebook with you wherever you go. I have a panic attack if I’m more than three metres away from my notebook (five metres from my phone).

2. Learn how to use it

You don’t want to be consulting the user guide when that idea strikes, you need to get the idea down. Learn how to use any parts of your chosen platform before you actually need them.

NOTE: This doesn’t typically apply to paper-based notebooks but, if it helps, the pointy end of the pen/pencil is where the writing comes out.

3. Use it

Now you have a notebook, it’s time to use it. But, what type of things should you write down? Well, anything really. Write down anything that inspires you. Oh, you want me to spell it out for you…I suppose a few examples would be okay…

  • Brief synopses of story ideas;
  • Quotes and snippets of overheard conversation;
  • Descriptions of people and characters;
  • Newspaper and magazine clippings;
  • Character quirks;
  • Sketches – maps, people, objects etc.;
  • Names;
  • Story titles (trust me on this one);
  • Dreams (oh, shut up!)
  • List. Lists. Lists (you know who you are); and
  • Anything you find that interests or inspires you.

As well as being a place to capture ideas, notebooks should be used to expand on those already recorded. Sometimes an idea occurs to us that is only half-formed and not enough to create a story with. But, as idea after idea is recorded, we can start drawing links between them. Suddenly, half-formed ideas become a short story, or even a novel. Your notebook is the best place to make this happen.

4. Review it

It’s no good writing in it if you don’t go back and read through what you’ve captured. Make a habit of reading through (listening to) your notebook regularly. I tend to do this with a highlighter, marking the observations and ideas I want to revisit sometime.

13 thoughts on “TTT – Keeping a Writer’s Notebook

  1. This is really good advice, but I’m always surprised by how many of my fellows don’t follow it. My first, begun when I was like 14, was a Spongebob flip-book, and now I have a small plain one I keep in my messenger bag. I would never judge anyone for using a digitally-based notebook, but I value the freedom of being able to cross stuff out and draw arrows and scribble sideways. 🙂

  2. I have 8 notebooks on the go, with two ‘dump everything’ ones and then six for different projects. My problem is that I can have what I want in my head, but then open the notebook and it refuses to come out and instead disappears forever.

  3. I have an old-fashioned paper, spiral bound notebook that travels with me. Great for thinking on paper. I take a lap top with me when I travel for interviews and writing down longer impressions. My handwriting can be unintelligible, even to me!

  4. I have a notebook for work, a notebook for home, a notebook in my bag, my phone, and a camera. None of these are leather bound and sexy looking. I need a new notebook.

    1. Leatherbound and sexy are bulky. Sometimes practical is the 99-cent steno pad. Wear it proudly!

  5. That notebook is making me drool. 😉
    I like how your posts are informative and funny. And a little convicting. I’ve tried to keep a notebook, but I forget about it. I forget to take it places. However, I might try again.

  6. I have random notebooks, and a bad tendency to write things on other random scraps of paper, which are then easy to lose. The trouble is, since I don’t carry a purse, having a notebook isn’t always easy (I don’t have smart phone, either). I also keep a notebook for writing stories in, so I end up with other notes interspersed with rough drafts. I usually work from both ends at once (from the beginning for my main WIP, from the back for everything else). Then I’ll find myself at a PTO meeting needed to make some notes. . . in they go.

    I am chaos personified.
    Rebecca at The Ninja Librarian

  7. A thoughtful post on one of a writer’s top tools! I have a lovely letter bound notebook that is near me at all times at home, but too big to cart around. I have a little notebook for my purse! And I agree about sticking with paper. Love all the digital tools, but there’s something about writing in a notebook that keeps me reaching for a pen! Thanks for sharing, Chris! TiV

  8. I keep a notebook in EVERY room in the house. SERIOUSLY – every room. I also have one in each purse, one at my work desk and one in my car. Is that overload??

    I find it useful. I use ’em all. I go back and refer to ’em all.

    I have pretty notebooks, but basically, I like the ones I can tear pages out of (spiral) because I tend to tear my idea pages out and then three-hole punch ’em into a looseleaf binder.

    Yeah, it’s overload. But it works for me. And I use them exactly as you described above.

    This was a great post – useful info. Thanks.

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