Keeping a Writers’ Notebook

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If you’ve ever had aspirations towards fiction-writing, you’ve doubtlessly heard the advice to keep a notebook on you at all times, to jot down those elusive flashes of brilliance that come at the most inopportune moments. It’s definitely a good idea to have pen and paper to hand as much as possible – however, the discipline of keeping a writers’ notebook means more than just scribbling a few words when inspiration strikes.

Writing every day

One of the best uses for your notebook is to get into the habit of writing every single day. There are lots of different ways to approach this; some which have worked for me (not all at once) are:

  • Write first thing in the morning
  • Spend five minutes writing at some point in the morning, and five minutes in the afternoon
  • Write just before going to bed
  • Jot down some notes before starting on your “proper” writing session of the day

Of course there’ll be days when you feel uninspired, when you have nothing you want to write about, or when you’re hectically busy. But if you’re going to stick with writing fiction long-term, it needs to become part of your daily life.

What do you write about?

Don’t be prescriptive about what goes in your notebook. Some people find it best to work in a deliberately “scrappy” book, so that they don’t feel constrained to only write down gems of wisdom – yes, moleskin notebooks may be hugely popular, but a 99 cent pad will be just as good a repository for your ideas.

Some of the many types of writing filling my notebook are:

  • To-do lists for writing sessions or writing days
    There’s a great sense of satisfaction in ticking things off or scoring them out. If a to-do list makes you feel uncomfortable and constrained, try instead keeping a “done” list and writing down tasks after you complete them.
  • Brainstorming for competition entries
    I wrote two or three short stories every month last year, most of them aimed at competitions with a set theme. A notebook is a great place to begin the idea-generation process; I like mind-mapping, by jotting the theme in a central circle and scribbling different plot and character possibilities around the edge. Once you get beyond the first few trite storylines, some intriguing ideas start to emerge.
  • Character sketches
    When taking part in NaNoWriMo last year, I wrote three or four page character biographies for each of my main characters. Keeping these in my notebook made it easy to find them whilst working on the novel – I wasted as little time as possible when needing to look up details of family backgrounds, hobbies and so on.
  • Plot outlines
    Most writers find that some level of outlining helps, particularly when writing anything longer than a short story. A notebook can be an easy way to develop a plot from initial spark through potential variations to a scene-by-scene breakdown.
  • Snatches of dialogue
    Imagined or overheard phrases can be safely stashed in your notebook for future use: they may be totally inappropriate for the project which you’re currently working on, but could be invaluable a week or two down the line.

Reviewing your notes

It’s just as important to go back over your notes as it is to write them in the first place. Set aside a chunk of time – half-an-hour if possible – weekly, and go over what you’ve written during the past seven days. Make a new entry to record any ideas that you definitely want to pursue. (You might find it helps to use a second notebook at this stage.)

Don’t recycle or burn old notebooks; even if you’re sure that you’ll never want the notes contained in them, store them safely somewhere. They’ll make fascinating reading a year, or ten years, further into your writing career – you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come, and you may rediscover old ideas that you’d forgotten. And if you become famous, perhaps you’ll even end up selling them on e-bay…

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16 thoughts on “Keeping a Writers’ Notebook”

  1. I do think keeping an entire notebook handy, even if it is just a mini, pocketbook-sized one, is beneficial for any writer. When I don’t have an easily accessible, self-contained papersource handy, I will write on any available surface I can find with any utensil within reach. This leaves a trail of “scraps” within my world, which are easily dismissed and forgotten. I might open a used tissue in the bottom of my purse, bend to blot my lipstick and notice scribbles from the past. They might be smeared and without context. This makes it hard to use these “gems” later. Moments of genius – or just goodness – will drop before anyone hears the thud and roll away while you move in the opposite direction.

  2. I second Benjamin’s remark about blogging. That goes a long way. But for those times when we’re not at the computer, a notebook is a necessity.

  3. People are always giving me those really nice notebook to write in, but they make me really nervous, like I’m going mess up or write the wrong thing. Frankly, the give me performance anxiety. I like my old ratty notebook. But, my problem is that when a flash of inspiration comes (Usually a bit of dialogue or a description of something), I forget to write it down and then it disappears from my head forever.

  4. Thought this was a great post so I stumbled you. This is just the type of stuff we hope our WOOF contest at will draw. We would love it if you submitted your work.

  5. I take notes on any available scrap paper. Then, if I think it is worth something, I ll copy it into my “real” notebook.
    BTW the letters and notes of Edith Warton are enshrined in a muesiem (spelling!) museum. I also do this in my “day job”.

  6. I have several notebooks where I “scribble” my ideas, poetry, etc. I try to keep the all together but it’s hard. I love post-its for the simple fact that they are perfect for pocket size. I also kee a small notebook in my handbag just in case I get an idea that I don’t want to lose.

  7. I totally understand the whole ratty notebook thing. I like the way the nice notebooks look, but I get such a bad idea that I need to make all the stuff I write in it fancy and nice, that I don’t want to write. As soon as I get through this one I’m in, I’m going to buy a couple cheep regular one subject notebooks to use instead.

  8. All of my writing began with loose leaf sheets of paper and almost unreadable scribbles. I still have to make my notes that way. I tried new tools like scrivener and I just could use it. Scrappy notes and papers all the way!

  9. I love the idea of keeping a notebook. Its so handy to have all of your thoughts written down in one place! I re-write them on the computer, and its a kind of revision thing for me. As a fantasy writer, I find that having a leather notebook helps with inspiration. Weird huh?! Sometimes I don’t even want to write in it but when I do, I’m glad that I did. Organising notes is a good thing too! I recommend the writer’s notebook for aspiring writer’s out there. Good luck 🙂

  10. I have a writer’s notebook and it works well because i like a messy notebook. So i have loose leaf papers i the front from were i have gone back and looked at my notes and began writing a page and that one page may turn into five.I keep all my pages i wrote in that week and on the last day i read through them and put them in my secret safe place and then through in some clean paper for the next week to come.

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