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Writing 101: Writer’s Notebooks

Writing 101: Writer's NotebooksWe had a wager in the Sarcastic Muse offices. I bet Michelle that I could write a (passible) Writing 101 post and she disagreed. Actually, I think the phrase she used was ‘over my cold, dead body’. Anyway…guess who won? (Free tip: never cross a horror writer).

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 thoughts and observations, and become fertile ground we can grow the seeds of ideas. So, why is there so much confusion between writers over their relevance, especially in this age of smart phones and instant access to obscure information?

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 in the pale yellow glow of 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…” (Refer to free tip above).

What is a writer’s notebook?

Essentially, a writer’s notebook is anything you can use to store ideas, inspiration, observations, etc… Traditionally, it was, as the name suggests, a paper-based notebook that, like a faithful lap dog, never left its owner’s side. Since the advent of pocket technology (excluding calculators…okay, not all calculators…55378008…hehe, takes me back), many writers have made the shift to a digital format and use note-taking applications, cloud storage 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


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 with pockets full of 3 x 5 index cards which serve the same purpose.

My own notebook 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…well, almost never, there was one time….


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.


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!)
  • 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.

That’s it from me folks. I’ll be back next week with more Writing 101 tips on finding inspiration.

P.S. Michelle’s fine.

P.P.S. Maybe…

P.P.P.S Stay tuned to find out.


Do all of you have a writer’s notebook? Do you use it? What format does it take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

For more Writing 101, check out these links:

Writing 101: How to treat your Beta Readers

Writing 101: How to be a Good Beta Reader

16 thoughts on “Writing 101: Writer’s Notebooks

  1. Since you wrote so well about one of my favorite subjects, I’m gonna give you an epic-length reply. *evil grin* I can’t promise to make you laugh the way your post made me laugh, but here goes.

    I bought a Galaxy S-Note which I use frequently if I’m away from my notebook. (I love that I use the stylus to actually write, whether it’s on the app or into a word doc on my phone). I also keep a 4×4 post-it pad and index cards in my purse. At last count, I had five pens stashed in that handbag, all of them in working order. This is so ingrained that everyone I know automatically looks to me if something needs to be written done.

    My primary notebook is a basic 70-sheet college-themed school notebook. Though I love pretty journals, I found that I was willing to mess around and write with less care if I used a notebook that cost me twenty cents at a back-to-school sale, and that’s important for creative thought. This notebook serves as my writing workbook (story snippets, whole scenes, titles, character names, concepts, you name it), personal journal, and repository for lists (yes, I know who I am, lol).

    I average about one notebook a month. When on a hot streak, I’ve been known to fill almost two. Tell me I’m not the only writer who gets giddy when back-to-school sales hit. Binders, loose leaf (research), notebooks, pens. Anyone?

    I can’t personally identify with taking all notes digitally. The very act of putting pen to paper is an essential daily thing for me. Things come through my fingers and pen more directly and without thought than by any other means. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s the tactile feeling. I just know that, no matter how many words I type on a given day, I still need to write with a pen at some point, even if it is just a list. I’ve suffered the consequences of not doing so. It isn’t pretty. Trust me. 🙂

    I cannot stress enough the importance of reading through your notebook before you toss or file it. I’ve written great ideas for posts, stories, and more that I promptly forgot only to rediscover at the end of the month.

    • Notebooks are like treasure troves. They contain all the ideas, research and snippets of dialogue we could ever need. They contain whole worlds, small towns and sprawling metropolises between simple covers. Inside them dwell more people than we can ever hope to meet in a lifetime.

  2. Now that I’m done crying after losing the first comment I tried posting…

    You write faster than you type? Wow, you must be a very fast writer — or slow typist. I must have been 8 or 9 when my dad gave us kids his old laptop, and I’ve been typing since. I do take notes every now and then – mostly on my phone since it is the only thing I have with me at all times. I really only write down brilliant things I come up with (so rarely). I mean, my goodness, my MacBook Air is lightweight and easily portable (you PC users cannot understand this, I know), so I take it with me whenever I can, making a seperate notebook barely necessary. (I am very defensive on this issue.)

    How often do you use your notebook? And specifically, what are the last three or four things you used it for? If you don’t mind my asking…

    Nice post, Chris. 🙂

    • I was spewed forth into this realm at a time when computers were the accessible things we are spoiled with these days. I learned to write with pencil (later pen) and paper and find my mind processes more words that way than any other.

      I’m not about to enter into the old Mac/PC argument *cough* PC *cough* so don’t try and bait me.

      I write in my notebook everyday. As for the last three things I wrote in my notebook, I brainstormed an upcoming 10K short story, wrote the word Petrichor ((noun) the scent of rain on dry earth) because it’s a beautiful word, and I scribbled the opening lines from a new piece of flash fiction.

      What was the last thing you wrote?

  3. I use a physical notbook, and excessively. My brain works differently when I put pen to paper than when I hack something into the keyboard, and so I not only use it to capture the occasional flash of genius, but to work through whole szenes in my WIP. Sometimes things suddenly make sense on paper that were totally incomprehensible gibberish on a monitor. Strange.

    But yes, I’m good and never go anywhere without it. And it’s a one of my biggest joys to work through them once they’re filled and rediscover all those sunken treasures in there (though more often than not, they turn out to be old rotten boots instead of pearls and gems, but it’s still fun).

    • Everything you record in your notebook is a gem, you just need to know how to mine it. The more you use a notebook, the more you’ll find that seemingly disconnected ideas begin to react and play with one another, eventually forming a single skein of story. One idea is often the tool required to lift the sunken treasure.

  4. Nice post. I’ve added the link to my collection of your posts on the subject of writing in EverNote (which also serves as my notebook). Not counting entries that have turned into blog posts, I have about 230 notes for my favorite blog to write. I like it because I can access it from laptop. phone, tablet and it holds almost anything that I can get into digital form. I also recently bought AudioMemos for my iPhone. It works like the Voice Memo app, but it works with Bluetooth som I can make notes while driving.

    • Evernote is the tool I use to back up and digitally store my notes. The fact that it works cross-platform and cross-device is one of the reasons I chose it. I like that I can add photos and even audio into my notes. Thanks, Dan.

  5. I can’t write ideas and notes on a digital device. I just can’t do it. Something about putting pen to paper helps breach the dam and works better with my creative qi. When i ran out of words for Camp NaNo, i struggled for days to type new ideas to expand my story. In the end i gave up, picked up one of my many many notebooks (i have them dotted around the house, two at work, and two more in my bag) and i started to write in it. Boom! 9k extra words to hit my Camp NaNo target. Despite technically writing it twice, i think it was the faster way to work than forcing myself to type when i wasn’t feeling it.

    Btw, i am still in love with your notebook.

  6. Hell YES, I have a writer’s notebook! I love my laptop, iPhone (actually that’s a love/hate), but my notebook is old school pen and paper. It fits perfectly in my purse and goes with me EVERYWHERE. Great post, Chris.

  7. I love notebooks of all kinds. But my favorite, tried and true, remains the old fashioned ‘Composition Book’ with its soft cardboard, black ‘marbleized’ cover – a staple from most American childhoods. I jot all kinds of stuff down in it.

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