Get a Notebook and Fill It

If you are a writer, you should have a notebook, a little one you can take everywhere with you. I have a red one so it’s easy to find when I need it. I throw it in my purse when I leave the house, I have it next to me when I’m bored, and when I go to bed, it stays on my bedside table in case I need it when I’m falling asleep or waking up.

There are five things you should do with your notebook:

  1. Collect words. You never know when you’re going to come across a word you love, or one you want to remember. This week I was reading a book and the word “unconcealing” jumped off the page at me. Unconcealing–what does that mean to the writer? What would it maglie calcio poco prezzo mean to the reader? Why would someone use it instead of “revealing”? I wrote it in my notebook. I wanted to have it there to play with later. Writers should be collecting words like painters collect brushes. You never know when you’ll need just the right one for a project.
  2. Gather phrases. Years ago, one of my students gave me a book of poems. It included “My Fiftieth Year” by W.B. Yeats. I read the line, “An open book and empty cup” over and over and over again. I love the simplicity of the imagery.  I wrote the line in the front of my notebook because it continues to inspire me. When a phrase or saying resonates with you, write it down. Quote it in your work or just use it for inspiration.
  3. Borrow ideas. In her book on the power of introverts, Susan Cain mentioned Griselda, a medieval legend princess who withdrew in silence. I thought that was an interesting idea I might want to use in a future post. It’s in my notebook, still waiting to be the perfect illustration. King Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun, so don’t be shy about borrowing someone’s idea and molding it into something you can use. Don’t plagiarize, of course, but borrow and make it your own.
  4. Compose drafts. If you’re working on a line, or a post, or a list you just can’t get right, step away from the computer but have your notebook with you in case you work it out while doing something else. I do this especially when I’m working on alliterative lists. Giving your brain limitations, like making every word start with the same letter, makes different parts of your brain work harder, reach deeper. Keep working with something until it’s just right, and make sure you get it in your notebook.
  5. Make memories. Not everything in your notebook has to be for your audience. Somethings you write can be just for you. Write down a funny joke your son made up, or exactly what you ordered at a new restaurant so you’ll remember when you go again. It’s your notebook. Use it for yourself too.

Do you have a writer’s notebook? How do you use it?


  1. Douglas Wilson in his Worsmithy book deals with this principle of having a Commonplace book. Because I’m over 45, and lived in the dark ages before everyone had a laptop, I did the great majority of my writing in notebooks. I fear they are a dying species.

  2. Love this— and I’m going to do it!! Thank you, friend!

  3. In the song “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger, is a phrase that I absolutely love:

    “You smoke the day’s last cigarette, remembering what she said.”

    There’s an entire novel contained in that line.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Love this idea! Your descriptions of what to use it for are so simple and yet profound. I always thought those little writer’s notebooks were for inspiration about your book or the article you are working on. Love that it can be for inspiration in general for later use!

  5. I’m 28 years old and I’ve been writing since I knew what writing was. My friends tease me for using semicolons and quotation marks in my text messages (there’s no excuse for neglecting punctuation), but I think there is something inherently organic about writing that is compromised by technology. Sure, I have an iPhone I can jot notes into, but I always carry a notebook for the very reasons listed above. I also do it, though, because it is a visible, tangible artifact of my past: a crumb of cookie pressed into the page as I copied a definition, the scrawl of my penmanship as I hurried to scribble down an idea, the dog-eared, yellowing pages that have chronicled my growth as a writer and a person. (Though I suppose they are one and the same.)

    Fancy MacBooks and all, I have and will always prefer the act of writing in a composition notebook or small journal than typing at a computer. Great post.

  6. This is excellent. I’m going out to buy myself a notebook today. Thank you for the advice.


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