The notebook is such a classic part of the writer persona that nearly every single stock image with the keyword “writer” has a notebook in it.
And why not? They’re useful. Daydreaming is a crucial part of the writing process, and you’ve got to put those down somewhere or they’ll get away from you.
But if you write just about every thought that comes into your head, you’ll end up with the scribbles of a madman, and you won’t find anything of use when you sit down to write later.
We need to be selective about what ends up in our notebooks. That said, there are some things you should always put into the notebook when they cross your mind.
This article will go over three notebook must-haves, as well as the one thing you should avoid including—it might surprise you!
Sharp Descriptions Always Belong in a Notebook
Whether you’re writing fiction, copy, or a blog post, your descriptions need to strike the right balance between brevity and accuracy.
Long, sweeping descriptions of armchairs and bedrooms are relics of an age without television and internet videos to claim your reader’s attention span. Likewise, if your blog post struggles to convey a concept accurately, you’ll lose readers after the first paragraph.
For example, in a recent post on my personal blog, I compared querying agents to being stranded on a dying ship in deep space. You can bet that I wrote that analogy down the moment it came to me during my lunch break.
The first step to writing anything decent is to pay attention to the world around you. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll pick up. It can be as simple as the way a person wrings their hands when they speak, or as complex as the sound a car muffler makes as it drags in the street.
So what does that look like in practice? Here are a few examples from my own notebooks:
- “She had large, veiny hands, and picked at her nails as she listened.”
- “A paint-flecked T-shirt, like he wiped his fingers on it between brushes.”
- “Tattooed dots where the eyebrows would be, shrinking as they neared the temples.”
These examples came from people I’ve met, or just observed out in the world. That said, your descriptions don’t have to be just about people. Take what you see, hear, or smell, and find a way to communicate it. How does fog look when it’s drifting over a road? Does it have long, spindly fingers that scratch at the pavement? How does it feel to drive through it? How would that be different from walking through?
Pay attention to the world like this, and you’ll fill up your notebook with great descriptions in no time.
Use a Notebook for Realistic Conversations
One of the great challenges in writing fiction is coming up with convincing dialogue. Often, that’s because we sit at our desks and try to conjure up words people would say from the nether. That’s a surefire way to create fake-sounding dialogue.
Great dialogue is built from bits and pieces of real conversations, spiced up to be more interesting than a simple “Hello, how are you?”
Pop out one of your earbuds and whip out your notebook next time you’re on the bus. With just a little bit of eavesdropping, you’ll get a better sense for how different people talk, and it’ll make your characters come to life.
We all speak in a particular way, but stiff dialogue makes every character you write sound the same. Listen to the people in your life, on television, and out in the world. Notice the little things that make all of them sound different. Is there an expression they use over and over again? How do they communicate common concepts? Here are some bits of conversation—thoroughly out of context—that stuck out enough for me that I put them in my notebook:
- “I had a high school teacher who had a blind dog and taught us yoga. She was cool.”
- “I kind of dressed like a hot dog today. Not a hot dog shape, but just the colors.”
Travel is a great opportunity to hear the way people from beyond your usual sphere of awareness speak. Public places, such as coffee shops and restaurants, are great for this kind of exposure as well. You might just get a whole new perspective on language and how we use it.
Remember the Big Picture (Because You Wrote It Down)
This one is a little more abstract and needs a bit of context. I first decided to make a real go at writing for a living while at my day job.
I was working away, entering data that didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere, when I suddenly sat up and thought up this sentence:
“How many more days of putting my soul to the grindstone?”
I wrote it in my notebook and that sentence has stuck with me ever since. As freelancers, professionals, and entrepreneurs, we have so much kicking around in our brains that sometimes we lose sight of the reason we do any of it. We just go through the motions, trying to get everything done on time and as best we can.
So, next time you have a minute, think about why you chose to do this in the first place. Do you want to change the world? Make someone’s life a bit better, daily? Or does having a boss suffocate you?
I’m sure that, even as you read this, there’s a sentence forming in your mind that perfectly encapsulates your mission.
Write it down.
Then, whenever your discipline falters, or you’re not sure you can go on, go back and refer to it. I can promise you that it will keep you moving forward.
What You Shouldn’t Put in Your Notebook
Okay, before you start throwing the tomatoes, just hear me out. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with what you believed was the greatest idea you ever had and, by God, you needed to write it down because it was going to change the world? We’ve all done it, but what happens when you refer to it the next morning?
“What the hell was I thinking?”
Ideas are tricky things. When they first show up, a kind of high runs through you. They’re new and shiny, and they get us all excited about taking them all the way. But eventually, with some distance, some of those ideas start to lose their luster, and we realize they weren’t all that good in the first place.
That distance is only gained through time, and it’s crucial before launching ourselves into an idea, whether it’s for a blog post, an essay, or a novel. Otherwise, we risk throwing ourselves into something that doesn’t have a solid foundation, and we realize halfway through how much we’ve erred.
Maybe you’re already clutching your notebook, worried that you’ll lose a great idea if you don’t write it down. There’s absolutely a risk of that. Your brain isn’t flawless, and your memory will fail you. Just because the best ideas stick around doesn’t mean you won’t lose a couple along the way. But you’re better off losing the occasional great idea than piling up half-baked, dysfunctional concepts in your notebook.
If you write down every idea, you’re never going to lose the bad ones. They need to kick around in your brain for a while before you realize they’re rotten. If you write them down, they’ll look fresh every time you refer back to them. Don’t believe me? Well, maybe you’ll believe the King himself:
I think a writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. —Stephen King
Bad ideas trick us often enough, passing themselves off as something they’re not. Don’t make it easier for them.
Strip Away the Mystique, Keep the Tool
When you strip away the mystique and luster of the writer’s notebook, you’re left with a tool. Like any other, you need to use it in ways that maximize its strengths.
Descriptions and dialogue are concrete, practical things. Stuffing your notebook with them is like studying before an exam. Sure, you don’t have to do it, but things will go much better if you do. Characters are built from pieces of real people. An essay is an exploration of things you’ve seen and felt. Feed the dialogue in your notebook to your characters and see how it grows. Inject your daily observations into your essays and watch as they turn into pure manifestations of your truth.
Resist the temptation to write down every idea, despite what “common sense” wisdom dictates. Rely on your brain—and your experience as a writer—to retain the good stuff. That way, you’re less likely to work off of a bad idea for months.
At its very core, writing is not just a way to communicate, but a way to remember. If you focus on getting descriptions, dialogue, and your mission statement down onto paper, your mind will be less cluttered, and your notebook will be more than a chaotic mess of half-mad ramblings.