So what is a commonplace book?
Well, it’s kind of like the bullet journal’s much less hyped distant cousin.
It’s not a productivity tool, more of a writing-based scrapbook. A place to collect the wit and wisdom that you’d usually stumble across and think, ‘that’s great, I must make a note of that’ only to forget about it two minutes later.
Does that sound a bit nerdy?
It does actually.
And it is, but in a good way.
And if you decide to start a commonplace book, you’ll be in excellent company. Well-known writers who’ve kept them include: Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, George Eliot, W.H. Auden and Oscar Wilde.
Are there any rules?
Nope. You can use your commonplace book however you like.
You don’t need an index or categories. Just let it reflect the way your mind works.
It can be a home for:
- your thoughts about, and reactions to, books you’ve read
- words you’re fond of
- clever turns of phrase
- snippets of conversations you’ve overheard
- book recommendations
- writing that’s made you think, or smile in recognition, or perfectly articulated something you’ve struggled to find the right words for
- anything else that tickles your writing fancy
It’s basically inspiration for you, curated by you.
What if I’m a digital devotee?
Or if you don’t want a book, but still feel the need for a bit less time staring at a screen, index cards might be more your bag.
As long as you’re actually going to use it, the tool you decide on doesn’t matter.
How can keeping a commonplace book help my writing?
In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon’s upbeat guide to creativity in the digital age, he argues that you should take what you learn from others’ work, and use it to find your own path. He says:
The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.
. . . . You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
. . . . Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
Keeping a commonplace book is an easy way of gathering the type of ideas you want to draw on.
It also means that you have an inspiration well sitting waiting for you in times of creative drought.
Ever get bored of trotting out the same old words and phrases? A quick look at your commonplace book can help you get out of a vocabulary or style rut too.
Isn’t immersing yourself in other people’s amazing writing and ideas a bit depressing?
Not really. It can be motivating and help strengthen your love of writing.
It can remind you:
- which writers you admire most
- what you value about their work
- what it’s possible to do with words and language
As long as you don’t slip into the self-destructive negative comparison thing (which, to be fair, we all do sometimes) reading over the kind of passages that make you want to give them a mental standing ovation can challenge you, and give you something to aim for.
My to-do list’s already never-ending. Are you sure I need another thing to add to it?
As long as you’ve got internet access, you’ve got a seat at the table of the world’s biggest information and ideas buffet. It’s brilliant, but it can quickly lead to mental overload.
Having a commonplace book can help take a weight off your mind. Because it keeps anything that might come in handy in the future safe.
So there’s no more thinking ‘did I bookmark that?’ Or having to find a corner of your brain that isn’t already full of passwords, to-dos and random song lyrics.
And no more having to hang on to scribbles on post its or scrappy bits of paper either.
Just one last thing. A commonplace book can be a great resource if you’re a writer. But it’s a bit like having a gym membership. To get anything out of it, you actually have to use it.
So take time to regularly dip into your commonplace book. It’s the best way for the wordy goodness you’ve pulled together to have a positive impact on your writing.
Dawn is an ace wordsmith with a background in arts journalism – writing features and book, food, film, TV, theatre and stand-up comedy reviews. She has also written speeches for politicians, and is a skilled business writer who’s drafted and edited content for the Scottish Government’s website.