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.
Here are the notebooks I currently use.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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