The Writer’s Notebook

Next to writing materials, a writer’s most important tool is the writer’s notebook.

It helps you with your writing. It is a lot of fun. And it can even enrich your whole life…

What is a Writer’s Notebook?

In her video Overview of Keeping a Writer’s Notebook, Diane Buchanan puts it very nicely:

“We grow as writers and thinkers by fooling around with ideas, words, images, phrases in a safe, judgment-free place.”

This is exactly what a writer’s notebook is: a safe haven for us to experiment with words and to capture ideas in order to grow—both as a writer and as a person.

I use my writer’s journal in many ways:

  • to jot down notes for my fiction writing and for my blog entries.
  • to write down observations, ideas, quotes, words and phrases I want to remember.
  • to draft texts that I can later work out.

In education, the writer’s notebook long has its place as a way to encourage writing and critical thinking in students and to foster active learning.

More than in school, however, I think that writer’s notebooks deserve to be part of our private lives as the place where we can…

  • gather information and observations,
  • collect ideas about topics that are important to us,
  • play with language and ideas,
  • listen to ourselves and hear what we have to say (which can sometimes be a surprise even to ourselves),
  • feel free and rejoice in our interests without having to fear rejection or criticism.

And, most importantly, it is one more place to be creative. 😉

From Writer’s Notebook to “Creativity Notebook”

Such a notebook is not only good for writing. It can be used in all sorts of creative activity.

  • to plan creative projects,
  • to capture sudden inspiration that you later want to put into practice,
  • to collect great and inspiring ideas that you come across,
  • to capture new techniques that you learned,
  • to document your creative projects…

Be it knitting, woodwork, photography, cooking and baking, computer programming, music … everything that fascinates you can be planned and documented in a creativity notebook. Where graphic artists have their sketchbooks, other creative types should have a notebook.

Writer’s Notebook vs. Diary

Many professional keepers of such notebooks insist—emphatically—that a writer’s notebook is NOT a diary. If the protests get too severe at times, they have a defensive undertone to my ears. They want to be taken seriously, and thus need to distinguish themselves from the clichés typically associated with diary writing, such as little girls hiding their innermost thoughts in cute journals with little locks and grade schoolers making their first attempts at writing.

I consider these defenses quite unnecessary since I don’t care whether others take my journalling serious or not. But then, I’m not a professional writer. My blog is about being creative for one’s own enjoyment.

Yet, I find myself agreeing to this argument, at least to a certain point. Not for the appreciation of others, but for our own contentment.

To make this clear, yes, a writer’s notebook is not a diary to the point that I would never make entries into my writer’s notebook such as “Today was a very pleasant day. We went to the movies and later had pizza. In the evening, I had to study for my exam.” Or things like: “My best friend Jesse is completely infatuated with Tony from the gym. She says he has such a lovely smile.”

I have nothing against diary entries such as these. The only reason I think a writer’s notebook is the wrong place for them is that they have no potential to spark a creative flame. Aside from your own reminiscences, this is not an interesting read later on. (Unless you are Tony and are dying to know what the attractive friend of the diary writer thinks about you. 😎 ❤ )

However, if you turned the day at the movies into a short story because maybe something extraordinary occurred to you there or if you use the infatuation with Tony as a starting point for a meditation on love on first sight, then they would indeed be writer’s journal material. While, at the same time, they could still be part of a versatile and creatively written diary.

I guess the only difference between a diary and a writer’s notebook, if you must differentiate, is just the focus of the writing. The purpose of a diary, I think, is to deal with the writer’s personal life, relationships, and emotions. It is very much about how we feel, what happened to us recently, and what we plan to do with our lives in the future.

A writer’s notebook, on the other hand, has its focus on the projects we are working on. Of course, this can include our feelings toward these projects and how we plan to advance them.

My advice: If you don’t want to differentiate, then don’t.

On Form

There isn’t one “correct way” of keeping a writer’s notebook. There never is.

Ideally, the way your notebook looks and is structured should represent and reflect your personality and style. It thus depends on your personal preferences, your lifestyle, your character etc. how you want to keep your journal.

Still, there are some things to keep an eye on.

1) Find a format that matches your requirements

Ideas hardly ever come at convenient times. They can choose the most unlikely moments to appear. Only to disappear again in an instant. Often for good. It is thus absolutely vital that you carry your writer’s notebook with you AT ALL TIMES.

Thus, find a format that is most suitable for you to carry around. It should be small enough to fit into your pocket or purse, but big enough to give your writing some room. Initially, I started out with a tiny notebook only big enough for 3-4 words to fit into one line. I soon found that it is good for jotting down short notes and quotable quotes. But, it gave me no room for writing drafts or gluing anything in.

My refillable travel notebook

For a long time, I used cheap A5 format composition notebooks, until I developed my Refillable Travel Notebook a short while ago. For me, the ideal solution. But if you don’t need such a high degree of organization and/or if you find you don’t have so many different topics to write about, a composition notebook will do just fine.

You can use cheap or expensive notebooks, it doesn’t matter. But make sure you’ll want to not just write in it, but scribble, cross things out, etc. It doesn’t have to look perfect.

But make sure it is one you want to carry around with you all the time. So it shouldn’t be too big and heavy, but not to small either so you can still write in it decently and to give your creativity some room and to be able to glue in snippets.

(A4 is ideal for gluing stuff in and drawing, but A5 is much easier to carry with you)

Depending on your preferences, you can use lined paper, squared paper, or blank paper. It really doesn’t matter. But do take the time to try out which is most comfortable for you to write on.

You can also write on your computer, of course, but you won’t have your computer at hand all the time. And it takes vital time to boot in which the idea could already be gone.

And don’t you think you could write stuff down on snippets of paper and type them up when you get home. Nobody has the discipline nor the time to always do so and snippets will get lost and clutter your bags, desk, drawers etc. If you write stuff on your computer, make sure to print it out and/or make security copies in case the computer crashes.

Using a computer has its advantages, of course, such as being able to include stuff you find online or photos made with a digital camera right away. You can also edit your entries, which can both be a blessing and a curse.

Admittedly, new technologies such as storing data in a cloud where you have access to it from everywhere and tablets with bluetooth keyboards and the like make working with a computer notebook much easier these days. You can even draw and paint on computers now, I’m told.

But with all the enthusiasm for new technologies, be sure not to lose sight of the important thing: Writing down your thoughts and ideas. If organizing your files and booting your computer or tablet and fiddling with endless editing and corrections and text formatting of your entries keep you from what you actually wanted to do, something is wrong. If it helps you quickly organize your stuff, so much the better.

Some people I met in writing groups told me that they never use a computer for creative writing because they feel more connected with their creativity using pen and paper.

Others like to write on a computer because they can type much faster then they can write with a pencil.

Whatever you do: Make sure you have your notebook with you at all times. After a while, it will become part of your life, a constant companion on your travels.

2) Cataloguing system

If you wish to find entries without having to read through an entire box of notebooks, I strongly recommend developing some kind of cataloguing system.

Most importantly: Always, always! date your entries. I know, you don’t care about the date when you make the entry, but you definitely will when you rediscover it later.

Also, it is very helpful to write tags and/or titles above your entries that capture their content. It can be anything that helps you to find the entry again when you’re looking for something in particular.

If your format allows for it, it can help to work with tabs to easily find entries on a certain topic.

Nothing is more frustrating than knowing that you wrote down this great idea or that hammer recipe—somewhere—but cannot find it.

Ideally, mark dates, tags, and titles in different colors. This will help you to spot them while skimming the pages. I use highlighters, but of course you can also use differently colored pens.

The advantage of highlighters, though, is that you basically only need to carry around one pencil (although I usually have at least 2-3 ballpens of the same color in my purse in case one goes dry while I’m in the middle of a writing flow). You can write everything in one color and later highlight the most important points without having to swap pens or carry all colors with you all the time.

If you cannot think of a tag or title for your entry right away, make sure to leave a blank space for them. Surely you will think of one later.

3) Just do it!

Notebook writing is not surgery. It doesn’t matter if we make “mistakes” (and I put this in quotation marks because there really is no wrong way to do it and we alone judge whether we chose our ideal format). And even if we do take some notebooks until we find the right format. So what?

Don’t think overmuch about form or neatness. Just start! Try things out. If something doesn’t work for your or you find that another method works even better, change your method. Period.

It really doesn’t matter at all how you do your writer’s notebooks. The important thing is that you do!

4) No pressure!

Don’t pressure yourself to make entries. Kick yourself in the butt from time to time, and definitely do take the time to make entries whenever you have an idea, no matter where you are or whether you feel like it.

But don’t expect yourself to write every day. This is about quality, not quantity. And it is about fun. If you have to practically force yourself to write, then you shouldn’t.

Entries don’t have to be long, either. They can cover pages and pages if you like, but they can also be just one word or a phrase that you want to remember, a note to remind yourself to look something up etc.

Also, when you write, write with your heart and your soul. Address topics you are passionate about, that have significance for yourself. Don’t ever write about anything just because you think you SHOULD write about it. It is your notebook, and only you decide what is in it.

However, if you get a strong feeling that you’re making entries too rarely—and only then!—try making commitments like writing twice a week (maybe Monday and Thursday) for a month or two.

Write your commitment into your notebook and then keep to it.

Use prompts if you cannot think of anything to write.

But, never, ever allow your commitments to keep you from writing when you have an idea, as in “I’m going to write tomorrow anyway. I can note it down then.” The next day, very likely the idea will be gone, or at least not as fresh and vivid in your mind. Always write it down when it comes up—if you can.

5) The inner critic

Turn off your inner critic while you write into your notebook. This is no place for it. Your entries don’t have to be perfect. They are only for yourself.

If you want to show an entry to someone else, you can still type it up and polish it later.

And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. No-one cares if it looks messy or things are crossed out or if the writing style is not perfect. This is a place to work on ideas and draft texts, not to produce finished products.

Besides, you’re writing this to practice. You will improve with every new entry.

 6) Editing

As I usually write in small and narrow letters and have the tendency to fill the page completely and thus don’t leave room between the lines or on the sides, I never edit in my writer’s notebook. I pour out my thoughts until ideas and time run out.

When I read an entry and chance on a spelling mistake, I correct it. But I don’t read entries again to proofread. I don’t see the point. It’s a waste of precious time better spend developing ideas or getting new ones.

7) Personalize and decorate

If you are a visual person, looking through your notebook—and creating it—can be even more fun if you add pictures, drawings, colorful and artistic titles etc.

One neat idea when noting down a quote that I came across, for example, is to include a picture of the person who said it. You can make it stand out by using different colors or font styles for quotes as well.

In general, you can always create collages with text and pictures as you feel like it, e.g. by commenting pictures that you find and glue in, illustrate your written ideas with drawings etc.

You can also decorate the cover to personalize your notebook even more. Or you could glue inspiring quotes or pictures onto the cover that help you get into the mood for writing when you pick up the book.

Whether you want to take the time for this depends on your purpose for this notebook, of course.

A writer’s notebook is handy because…

  • it helps us to practice our writing. Every artist has to practice, thus write as much and as often as you can
  • if you have your notebook with you all the time, you can write down ideas as they come so you won’t forget anything
  • you can experiment
  • you build a rich collection of ideas, drafts, observations etc. to refer back to later when you need an idea but can’t think of one
  • you can draft texts that you want to write while you’re not at your usual writing place. Once you are ready to start for real, you already have a good base to work with.
  • keeping a writer’s notebook encourages us to pay attention to the world around us and think about things
  • we can use it for active learning (see below)

The Writer’s Notebook and active learning

In many English-speaking countries, the writer’s notebook has long been discovered as a powerful tool for education. Even though it is mainly about writing, it is used even with smaller children who barely know how to write.

In fact, when I did some research, I mainly came across material for doing writer’s journals with primary-school children. However, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be used in higher grades. Or even in adult classes.

Two main reasons are given for using writer’s notebooks in school: Number one, the children grow up developing a habit of writing. Ideally, they learn how helpful and how much fun it can be to keep such a notebook. Number two, it is a very helpful tool in learning.

In this form of “active learning,” learners use their notebooks not only to summarize what they have learned, but also to reflect on it. They can state their opinions about the topic or certain aspects of it, they can add comments or questions that came up during study. Maybe they can later answer their own questions and note down the answers. They can comment on their own progress, their feelings about the subject, or even the learning progress as such in search for more effective learning strategies. They can conduct own reasearch and jot down notes.

This way, learners get a much deeper understanding of the material and can easily look something up. They deal with the topic very thoroughly and still have a chance to organize their learning in their own unique way.

Writing Prompts

Here are a few suggestions for topics you could write about:

  • Journal writing: Describe and reflect about how you keep your writing journal, why you chose this particular system, material, frequency of entries etc. Collect ideas and jot down notes on where you want to go with your journalling in the future.
  • Observation: Observe a random person in public, for example while you’re on a train or in a restaurant, and take notes on their appearance, maybe guess who they might be, where they come from or where they are going etc.
  • If you are a writer, describe what kind of book you would like to write
  • Travel Notebook: While you are travelling, write about the places you see and the people you meet (if you can, glue in pictures and describe what is on them); note down customs and regional features you noticed, or recipes that you liked; write about special events or about trips you took; write an entry for a travelling catalogue …
  • Write about yourself: Describe who you are and how you became that way, explore what matters to you; make a collage with pictures of things that define you, that represent who you are, such as pictures of family and friends, hobbies, favorite foods, ticket stubs, idols, character traits etc. Use these pictures as a prompt to write about yourself.

These are only a few suggestions, of course. It is your notebook. Write about anything you feel like. And remember: All that matters is to write as much as you can.

Happy writing!

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