The 7 things I write in my notebook as a professional writer

Looking to fill an empty notebook? Here's how I do it.
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As a writer, I love using notebooks to organize my thoughts.

Since grade school, I've always had some form of a notebook within arm's reach, whether it's a 3.5" x 5.5" Field Notes stuffed into one my pockets or a typical 8" x 10.5" in a bag slung across my shoulder.

Each notebook is an extension of a different part of my brain. Every one has its own purpose and holds a bigger world of ideas than I can keep straight in my head!

In this article, I want to share with you the things I write in my notebooks. Hopefully, it'll give you ideas on how you can creatively use them too.

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Why I prefer physical notebooks. I like the feel of pen and paper when I'm trying to work through ideas. It's satisfying to scratch off a task completed, dog-ear pages I want to reference, and use different colored pens to organize my notes. Studies have also shown that physically writing an idea helps people remember it better than when it's captured digitally.

Here are the notebooks I currently use.

Reading notes

First and foremost, I have a notebook dedicated to capturing reading notes. Whether I'm reading books, articles, essays, or anything else, I like to write down quotes, big ideas, page numbers (so I can reread sections), and cited references.

One trick I like to use in my notes is applying different shapes to certain things. For example, I put squares around book titles that I’d like to buy, oval circles around new words I need to look up, and triangles around big ideas or themes I see recurring in the text.

Then, when I finish a book, I can quickly find any of these elements in my notes just by skimming a page.

Education notes

When I was in college and graduate school, notetaking was a grind. Sometimes I’d take so many notes during my classes that my right hand would cramp the rest of the night (I was a very dedicated student!).

Thankfully, I can enjoy education a lot more now that it’s at my own pace. Whenever I take an online course, I make sure to keep my notes organized by section and topic. Since most of the courses I take now are work-related, I want to be able to easily access them again in the future.

One way I accomplish this is by using Post-it Mini Notes to create sections in my notebooks. That way, I can quickly find the answers I need.

Freewriting

Freewriting goes by many different names: automatic writing, brain dumps, prewriting, morning pages, etc. The goal of this type of writing is to empty your thoughts onto a page as quickly and effortlessly as possible, no editing allowed, no structure needed.

I used to practice this exercise at least once a week to reset my writing mind. It helped me clear the clutter, especially if I had a lot of external stressors in my life at the time.

If you find it hard to sit down and write when you need to, I recommend giving this practice a try. You might find that it removes the blocks, even if you do it infrequently.

Quote collections

Quotes are such a great tool to spice up your writing. The right quote in the right place can deeply impact a reader.

To help me curate these, I keep a notebook that I've titled "Quotes to live by." Every time I come across a quote that speaks to me, personally or professionally, I jot it down in there. I revisit the notebook monthly to remind me of the values I'm striving towards as well as what exceptional writing looks like.

Here are two of my favorites.

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.” ― Tim Ferriss
“More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero

Fiction descriptions

Not many people know this about me, but I dabble in fiction writing from time to time. I’m still pretty bad at it, but I’ve seen how it helps my nonfiction writing. And, maybe one day, I’ll have enough material for a novel.

In my fiction notebook, I include 3 main things:

  • Descriptions of locations
  • Descriptions of objects
  • Character notes (appearance, backstory, tone)

I've found that making small sketches next to my notes helps me not only visualize what I'm trying to write about, but also create more detailed explanations. Worldbuilding is my favorite part of fiction writing, so keeping a notebook purely for this purpose makes the whole endeavor much less intimidating.

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Notebooks vs. Journals. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are a few core differences. Notebooks tend to be spiral-bound, softcover books, while journals have glued pages and hardcovers. You can use either type for any content you want. I prefer notebooks because they're often lighter, come in a wider variety of shapes and colors, and even the best ones are relatively cheap.

Personal journaling and tracking

It’s unfortunate that so many mainstream movies make journaling out to be an activity only teenage girls participate in. In reality, many of the most influential people in the world journal on a regular basis. When done well, it can act as a form of meditation. One that allows you to find peace and rhythm through both the highs and lows of life.

The great thing about this medium is that any voice and type of content will work. Here’s a few of the journals I’ve kept in the past:

  • Travel journal — I kept a journal on both my trip to Haiti with a nonprofit organization and in college when several of us went on a multi-state road trip.
  • Food journal — I've used this type to help me become a healthier person, meet my fitness goals, and catalog my favorite recipes.
  • Diary — This is the style most people think of when they hear journaling. Although I no longer keep a personal journal, they were great — especially during trying times.
  • Trackers — I’m amazed by the way people track things, like habits, budgeting, gratitude, goals, and more. If there's an area of your life you want to improve, I guarantee there's an excellent template to help you get there.

On a side note, don't feel like you need to keep your notebooks or journals forever. I used to keep mine for multiple years. But, I found that I got most of my value the first year, and after that, I was usually so engrossed in the next project that I didn't need to reference old notes again.

Notebooks are a tool. After they've served their purpose, it's best to move your attention and mental space on to what's next.

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How I turn my notes into a blog. Even though I purge my physical notebooks regularly, I use them to write blog posts. Then, when I want to reference an idea, quote, or resource, I can just do a quick search on my blog to find what I’m looking for. I highly recommend this method, especially for those who have felt overwhelmed trying to sort through old notes.

Here’s my guide to starting a blog.

Questions and prompts

As a writer, it can feel like you're always searching for new and interesting ideas. Keeping a collection of notebooks has significantly reduced this stress — and one type has been especially beneficial: a question notebook.

Whether its an entire notebook or a section of one I'm already using (this depends on what I'm working on), I like to capture every question that pops into my head. Are some of them strange and not useful? Yes, absolutely.

But many are gems that go on to spark original articles, popular series, and profitable projects. I fully believe that the ability to ask great questions is one of the foundations of a successful life. And the only way you improve that skill is by asking lots of them.

Additional notebook ideas

There are endless ways to fill up an empty notebook. A few more that come to mind include:

  • To-do lists
  • Bucket lists
  • Affirmations
  • Swipe file (to capture great ideas and writing excerpts)
  • Mind maps
  • Event notes (like a wedding, birthday, anniversary)
  • And pet training notes.

Blank notebooks are an invitation to create. The only guidelines that exist are the ones you make for yourself. If you'd like to build a better notetaking habit, or just want more mental organization, I recommend you try the tips listed above. They've helped me evolve from a disorganized college student to a professional writer and content strategist.

If you'd like to know more about my work and how you can make money online with words, subscribe!

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