The Writer's Notebook - What's in yours?
The Writer's Life,  Writing Basics

The Importance of a Writer’s Notebook and What You Should Be Writing In It

I’ve been keeping notebooks for years. In addition, I write bits and pieces into my Google Drive and Evernote. I dictate ideas onto a digital recorder as I drive. I’ve been known to write on napkins, paper placemats, receipts, and old envelopes. And all these scraps of ideas and inspiration end up in file boxes and storage boxes. I begin a notebook only to misplace or forget to use it and revert to the old habit of writing on whatever.

When I was teaching creative writing, I expected my students to keep a writer’s notebook. (Saved a copy of this in June 2021 Ink and Keyboard – file name: Writer’s Notebook Assignment Sheet) As we covered the information, I even had a PowerPoint presentation to inspire my students to keep a writer’s notebook and decorate it to be original. (This was in 2010.)

Why a special notebook?

A writer’s notebook is a resource for your writing career. Even if you are writing but not a published writer YET or even if you are pursuing your writing while working a day job, you are working on a career as a writer.

Think about the use of notebooks in other careers.

  • Scientists keep lab notebooks where they write down the processes of the experiments they are performing.
  • Archaeologists keep records of where and when they dig and what they found. 
  • SCUBA divers keep a record of their dives.
  • Visual artists have moved into keeping art journals.

So, why shouldn’t you as a writer keep a notebook as a resource? I can’t think of a single reason.

Tools and Supplies

There are only TWO essential supplies you need to gather: a notebook and a pen. That’s it.

What kind of notebook?

You can do an internet search for “writer’s notebook” and find suggestions from the expensive dot-paged notebooks to the cheap composition notebooks. For me, I choose the cheap composition notebooks. I buy them when school supplies go on sale, sometimes for 50 cents each. I’ve tried the hardcover journal books, but I find it difficult to carry that in a purse. I’ve tried various-sized spiral notebooks, but I usually squish the spiral. When my favorite spiral, the one that I used for several years, become impossible to find, I moved to the composition notebook.

I even tried a three-ring notebook for a while after a writing workshop. The presenter showed us how to double-tri-fold a piece of notebook paper to keep with us and how to use it. It was great for those days when I had to proctor standardized tests, but in the long run, it sucked as a method for keeping a writer’s notebook.

What kind of pen?

Let me first impress upon you the importance of using ink. Ink does not smear or fade with age or use. Ink can’t be easily erased; therefore, your idea is stuck there on the page.

Your choice of pen is as important as your choice of notebook. It needs to be something that you are comfortable writing with for an extended period of time. 

For me, that means a pen that has a rubber grip on the end and has some weight to it so I don’t have to push down on the paper. It also has to be a thicker pen which makes it easier for me to grip.

I am in search of a favorite all-around pen once again as I dropped mine on a cement parking lot and it broke.

I also keep a set of color-inked pens with me at all times. 

What to include in a writer’s notebook

In 2010, I handed my creative writing students the following list:

Content ideas for a Writer’s Notebook (WNB) 

The following list is just the beginning. The ideas are grouped into two categories: Writer Generated Ideas & Writer Copied Ideas.

Writer Generated Ideas

  • people watching observations – cafeteria, library, Laundromat, elevator, mall, etc.
  • unobtrusive eavesdropping – listening to the public conversations around you and recreate them in your WNB
  • observing/describing – nature, concrete objects, people, places, things, feelings, etc.
  • themes – listing themes and ideas to go with them (loneliness/kindness)
  •  poetry – original
  • dreams / nightmares
  • similes/metaphors (ones you have created)
  • What ifs?
  • contrasts – light/dark, young/old
  • first lines or titles for poems, stories, or other pieces that you want to write (writer generated)
  • reflections
  • basic plotline of book or story you might like to write

Writer Copied Ideas

  • new words/vocabulary/word ideas
  • poetry –published favorites with writer’s name
  • similes/metaphors from a book or story read (include title)
  • newspaper stuff (stories, headlines) you read that could spark a story
  • titles of songs where the lyrics tell part of the story
  • cool quotes & who said/where found
  • your read or movie you watched

Since 2010, my writer’s notebook has become more detailed. In addition to the list I gave my students, I have added the following sections and lists. The following is in no specific order and includes both fiction and non-fiction-based entries and lists.

Record Ideas for storylines: 

  • that story idea that comes to you from listening to music
  • the conversation you overhear in the restaurant between people about parenting their teenager
  • the spinoff idea that presents itself while watching your favorite television show or the news
  • keep it at your bedside to record the bits and pieces of your dreams that could spark a story

Project Research Notes:  (This is one of the most recent additions as I am working on a historical fiction novel.)

  • notes taken as you watch a documentary
  • notes taken as you read a book relating to your project (fiction and non-fiction – can be the source for you comp list)
  • notes taken as you visit the real location of your story
  • notes taken as you create the world of your story
  • questions for an interview with an expert or historian and record the person’s response

WIP Notes: (Work In Progress)

  • Character development lists and notes 
  • family trees
  • relationship maps
  • world maps
  • story arc
  • story premise
  • Freewriting work to discover the backstory of characters or events 
  • Freewriting work to explore a scene you might include

Prompt pages to expand your writing depth and breadth: 

I like these because I copy the prompt to the top of a page and set a timer for 15 minutes and write (by hand) what comes to me. Many times when the timer sounds, I find I want to write longer, or I read through the lines I have written and wonder where the storyline or voice or interpretation of the prompt came from.

Notes from the writing craft book you are reading.

Notes from online workshops on writing

Notes from the fiction book you are reading.

  • What you like.
  • What works.
  • What compels you to read further.

Brainstorming (mind-mapping) topics: putting the topic in the center and then web outward to explore what is related

Quotes that inspire you to write

Use a page to record your writer goals and a way to check off your progress.

Contest information:

  • name of contest
  • deadline
  • cost to enter / winner rewards
  • word minimum / maximum

As a blogger, use the notebook to plan out a month of blog posts.

A place to list research topics and questions as you write or revise/edit your WIP.

Two Important Criteria & One Inspirational Suggestion

First, number the pages of your notebook. I like numbering only the odd number pages on the lower right-hand corner, but some people like to number every page. I like to use a different colored pen to make that number stand out from the text and content on the page.

Second, set up the last few pages as an index. Unfortunately, I’m a purist. I have difficulty putting the list of what is on each page into the front of a book and call it an index. That is the table of contents. I divide each page in half and dedicate one line for each page.

Give your notebook a creative cover and title page. Why? As inspiration. 

A Suggestion

I got an idea a few months ago when I was searching through indexes in search of notes from a book I read a while ago. It took far too long to find the notes, especially since I couldn’t remember what month or year I read the book. I am planning on setting up a master index on an excel spreadsheet. That way I can index entry pages and find quickly the page(s) I want. For example, record the category/list “quotes” and then list the notebook time frame and the pages on which I have recorded quotes.

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