I keep a commonplace book because I want to keep track of the best articles and books I read. A commonplace book is like a “thinker’s journal” that serves as a focused act of self-reflection and way to learn. In a previous blog post, I wrote about why my commonplace book matters to me. Now I want to explain how I keep it organized.
It can be daunting to think of useful ways to keep a notebook organized. I write on paper, and I keep my old notebooks accessible to me in my home office. But what if you want to find something you’ve written, but can’t remember where or when you wrote it? If the goal of a commonplace book is to learn and reflect, you need a strategy to keep organized.
There’s no set way to keep a commonplace book. This is the way I’ve developed because it works for me. Your mileage may vary.
My strategy is simple, and it comes from three core principles:
My solution for all three principles:
Before I go into how I do this, here’s a quick rundown of why I keep a paper notebook instead of using a program like Evernote. Studies show we retain information better when we write something out because we are engaging with it actively and using the information in a novel way. Copying and pasting or clipping something from the web is too passive; you’ll forget about what you’ve saved in a few hours, anyway. I prefer to write out ideas and quotes because I want to remember them or use them in some other way. Taking the time to write helps me better process and remember what I’ve read.
To keep everything simple, I use a standard notebook. I used to like the composition notebooks you can buy at any department store but now I prefer a sturdier A5-sized notebook (though recently I’ve also used a traveler’s notebook, which I like).
No matter the notebook, I start it with at least two pages set aside at the front for a table of contents and one page at the back for an index. Then I number each page as I go.
This is simple enough. Just number each page. I number each page in the lower right-hand corner.
If you don’t want to number each page or if you’re worried you’ll forget, I recommend buying a Leuchtturm 1917 notebook, which includes a table of contents section at the beginning, and each page is numbered. That’s what I use right now, but I’ve used all types of notebooks in the past.
Every time I add something to my commonplace book, I write the article or book name and author at the top of the page. Once I’ve finished writing what I need to write, I add the title to the table of contents. Here’s the first page of my current commonplace book’s table of contents (notebook is a Leuchtturm 1917):
I love using tags on my computer and Evernote because they add context to my files and notes. You’d think this can’t be done on paper, but it can.
I use what’s referred to as the “Japanese notebook hack.” I discovered this at The Highfive Notebook. In short, it’s a visual marking system to tag and categorize what you’ve written.
I create lines for types of content — for example, “book notes,” “article notes,” “quotes,” etc. — and for specific content, like “Far from the Tree” by Andrew Solomon. Then I mark the edge of each page relevant to that topic or type, which in the end looks like this:
This reminds me of the X-ray feature on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. And like tags in Evernote or hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, you can organize it however you like. For example, I use the catch-all tag “article notes” for stuff I’ve read online but I tag articles from a magazine I subscribe to with the name of the magazine and the issue, that way I know where to find the article.
This is all you need to keep your notebooks organized. But what about archiving and saving your notebooks for later? One option is to scan your pages into a program like Evernote where the pages become searchable. Both Evernote and Onenote use optical character recognition (OCR) to turn your handwriting into searchable, digital text. This is possible, but time consuming. Other options are expensive, like the Livescribe pen or Moleskine’s Smart Writing Set.
What I do instead is type up my table of contents into Onenote. I number and date each notebook so I can organize it in the table of contents. That way, I can search for something on Onenote and grab to the right notebook from my shelf to find and read the content.
Ideally, I’d scan each page and link those scans back to the table of contents, but this is too time-consuming for me. The typed table of contents allows me to search for content inside Onenote, and then quickly find what I need in my book using the table of contents at the front of the book and my tags at the back.
Writing on paper works better when you create an adaptable, organized system. Sometimes digital works better, but on the whole I find keeping a notebook fulfilling and better suited for the job. Do what works best for you, and do what yields results. Most importantly, do what you enjoy. Enjoyment is the ultimate motivation for keeping a commonplace book. What I described above doesn’t feel like a chore because I enjoy what I read, and writing out stuff gives me an excuse to use my nice pens, inks, and notebooks.
What if you want to keep a digital commonplace book? That will be the topic of the next article in this series.
I’m done self-hosting my site and dealing with the headaches that come with it. I’ve moved Critical Margins over to Medium (all the links should redirect with no problems).
Why the move to Medium? I want to keep things simple. I don’t need all the features of a self-hosted blog. I want to focus on writing and nothing else. Medium allows me to do that with no headaches.
It’s been well over a year since I’ve published anything on this site, and a lot has changed in that year. I seriously considered deleting this site and starting over, but I just couldn’t do it. I love what I created here.
But life gets in the way, and interests change. I have two kids now — a two-year-old son and a nine-month-old daughter — and I watch them during the day while my wife works. I also, somehow, manage to squeeze in a full-time freelance editing career in the evenings and weekends. Blogging, as much as I love it, is not a high priority for me right now. I hope that will change soon, but we’ll see.
My interests have changed a bit, too. Digital publishing, and e-books in particular, just don’t hold my interest. There’s evidence e-books are not the revolution they were promised years ago when I started Critical Margins. Nothing wrong with that, it just means it’s time to change my focus.
I want Critical Margins to interest me and also engage my readers. I have ideas, and I hope to develop those in the months to come. I’d like to loosen up, take it slow, and build from there. This site means too much to me to give up on it.
On another note, I’m on Instagram a lot (you can find me at pensandtype) and I posted this photo of my typewriter, coffee, and notebook. This photo comes to represent the direction in which I hope to take this site. I’m still writing, just not on my computer as much. I prefer to go offline more and use my pens and notebooks, and yes, typewriters, too.
I’ve streamlined Critical Margins (and a life update) was originally published in Critical Margins on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
For centuries, authors and thinkers have kept commonplace books: focused journals that serve to collect thoughts, quotes, moments of introspection, transcribed passages from reading — anything of purpose worth reviewing later.
Why keep a commonplace book today? When we are inundated by information through social media and our digital devices, it’s easy to overlook what drives and intrigues us. Keeping a journal helps, but keeping a focused journal is better, even if that focus is on self-fulfillment.
A commonplace book helps you process, understand, and retain anything that’s valuable to you. Ryan Holiday (“How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book,” Thought Catalog) defines a commonplace book as “a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.” In other words, a “thinker’s journal.”
Writers like Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson kept commonplace books, and the practice is alive and well today. Do a quick Google search of “commonplace book” and you’ll find examples of how people use their commonplace books on paper and on apps like Evernote.
Woolf wrote about the practice in her essay “Hours in a Library”:
Let us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. . . . Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink. (Virginia Woolf, “Hours in a Library”)
What else can a commonplace do for you compared to keeping other types of journals? I’ve kept a commonplace book for a few years now and it’s become a routine. Here’s what I’ve gained from the practice.
When I read, I keep in mind the things that interest me most or that I think will benefit me long term. I mark these things and then add them to my commonplace book. I try to do this daily or weekly. As a result, my reading practice has changed: I read in part to find things that can keep me mentally flexible. By that I mean I purposely seek out contrary ideas or things I don’t know already or want to understand better. The best of what I discover goes into my commonplace book. Over time, what I’ve collected begins to tell a story about how I view the world and how I understand things I don’t agree with or won’t need to know later.
With an open-ended journaling practice like the morning pages method, it becomes too easy to fall into patterns of self-doubt and rumination. You can lose focus on your goals if you spend too much time on things you can’t control. A commonplace book can keep you focused. Self-reflection only works if you use it to learn and adapt, and rumination rarely leads to positive outcomes.
I find I can fight against self-doubt or avoid navel-gazing by focusing on what I’ve acquired: a meaningful song lyric, a poignant sentence from an essay, a funny tweet. The whole of these acquired ideas becomes its own narrative, and one worth keeping for later.
Cognitive scientists say creative thinking can come from connecting disparate ideas that wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. I’m always looking for things to add to my commonplace book, and this leads to new connections and creative breakthroughs. The quote from a science fiction novel I’m reading sits next to a pasta recipe I found online, which leads to a new plot line in the short story I’ve been writing for months. Who knew?
I’ve discovered things about myself through my commonplace book. It’s led me to read things I wouldn’t have read before. I make new connections between ideas that would have not connected in my mind without this focused exercise.
I write on paper because I like to see my progress: I keep my notebooks lined on my bookshelf and read through them every now and then. I also keep a digital commonplace book on Evernote, but I find the best stuff goes into my notebook. Writing it out helps me remember it better.
But you can do what works for you, and that’s the beauty of keeping a commonplace book. With some basic organizational methods, your commonplace can become useful later. And that’s the topic of the next blog post.
One year ago today, my son Connor was born to parents who didn’t know much about how to raise a child. We were ready to do our best, but we knew these next few years would be full of surprises. We knew we’d make mistakes but we’d learn to trust our instincts.
As I write this, Connor holds his sippy cup in one hand and his favorite book, “The Very Busy Spider,” in the other hand. He flips through the pages, stopping to look at his favorite pictures, then brings the book to me. He sits in my lap and I read the book to him. It’s our new tradition.
After we read this book together, I’ll bring him upstairs for a nap. We’ll read books like “Llama Llama Red Pajama” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” until he dozes off. He loves being read to and he carries his favorite books around the house. For that, I am one proud dad.
I’ve had to learn how to be a father on the job. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Before Connor was born, I had never changed a diaper nor had I spent more than 15 minutes with a baby. Today, I’m a stay-at-home dad. I’m always learning something new. It’s been the greatest education of my life.
On many days I feel totally clueless, especially when things don’t go the way I’d planned. But watching my son right now, on his first birthday, I know I’ve done something right. I’ve instilled in him a love of books. I hope it’s a love that will last beyond this first year. I’m sure it will. It fills me with pride to know my son is curious about the world around him, that he can sit and flip through a book on his own at such a young age and enjoy it.
I watch him grow up and I know my wife and I have achieved something great. I hope that as we have more birthdays with him, he’ll continue to grow in his curiosity and intelligence. And soon, he’ll read his favorite stories to me, and I’ll make sure I’m always there to listen.
Recently, I bought the strangest little device: an Alphasmart Neo.
If you’re not familiar with the Alphasmart Neo, then check out this great overview from David Kadavy. It’s a keyboard with a screen, and nothing else — a portable word processor that saves text files and cannot connect to the Internet.
I first discovered the Alphasmart Neo while looking for a cheaper alternative to the Freewrite, which recently received funding on Kickstarter. I wanted a single-purpose writing device for those moments when I waste time on the Internet to avoid writing. I tend to write a lot of first drafts on paper with the computer shut off, but this can be inconvenient. Sometimes I want the convenience of typing without the distractions inherent on a laptop.
I found out about the Alphasmart Neo and bought one on eBay for $14. I’ve been hooked ever since. Here’s why.
If you’re writing, you don’t need much more than a decent keyboard and a screen. This device has a full-size keyboard with a little LCD grayscale screen. Its only software includes a basic spell checker, calculator, find/replace and some “applets” teachers can use to make quizzes or create typing exercises (which I won’t use). It is a single-purpose device to an extreme. You can store up to 200 pages worth of writing in eight “files,” which you switch between using keys located where function keys go on a standard keyboard.
It can connect to a computer via a USB cable, allowing you to send your text to the word processing software of your choice. That makes it easy to move back to your computer when it’s time.
Yes, 700. Seven hundred. Hours. Can a laptop, smartphone or tablet last that long on one charge?
This thing is powered by 3 AA batteries, and nothing more. (You can use NiMh rechargeable batteries as well, but why bother? AAs are cheap.)
Some people online have reported using their Alphasmart Neo for more than a year without having to replace the batteries. They’ve written more than one novel on the device and still had battery life to spare.
Being a single-purpose device has its benefits, for sure.
Having such a limited screen means you can’t see a full page or more of text. This is beneficial when you’re drafting because it helps you avoid self-censorship and unnecessary editing. You have to go to the trouble of scrolling up the document to change text. It’s still possible to go back through your document if you need to because all of the keyboard shortcuts available on a computer keyboard work here. Find and replace works as well.
The Alphasmart Neo is a first-draft machine. You wouldn’t want to do any heavy-duty revising or editing, but again, that’s not the point of using this, is it?
It’s as light and about the size of the 11-inch Macbook Air. It’s not as portable as a tablet or a hybrid device like the Microsoft Surface, but it won’t be inconvenient to take it to a coffee shop or the library for some distraction-free writing.
Writing, like most creative skills, requires focus. I can’t focus when I have notifications coming through or browser tabs open. And if you’re like me, you might pretend that you need access to the Internet to conduct “research,” but this research devolves into random Internet searching or social media lurking. I remember the times when I’ve been on deadline only to end up wasting hours on Wikipedia “researching” stuff I already knew. I wonder how much better my writing could have been if I’d used that time drafting and revising.
I used to write brainstorming notes and a rough draft on paper then type it up on my computer and revise from there. I still do this on some projects. But now that I have my Alphasmart Neo, I hope to type out a rough draft on the Alphasmart and send the draft to my word processing app on my computer, revising and reorganizing from there. This won’t work for every project, but it will be perfect for those moments when I need focus, simplicity and flexibility.
There is something nice about having multiple writing options and not feeling tied to a computer. Maybe I will find my moment of writing zen with my Alphasmart Neo in hand.
Many writers know that November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. NaNoWriMo is an international movement to encourage writers at all skill levels to sit and write a novel. It’s a wonderful program.
But what about those of us not interested in writing a novel? Do we have any programs to encourage us to write?
I wanted to participate in a writing challenge this November, but I wasn’t interested in NaNoWriMo. For one, I’m working on a novel already (one that I wrote, in its roughest form, during NaNo 2013), and I can’t commit the time to write 50,000 new words. I sought out an alternative.
I came across one on Reddit called The Notebook Project (NoBoPro). The premise is simple: pick a notebook and fill it in one month. It has a decent online following for people who want the focus of NaNoWriMo without the pressure of writing a novel.
There are no rules other than filling your notebook by November 30. It doesn’t matter what you write. It also doesn’t matter what size notebook you choose. If you want to fill a 48-page pocket notebook, fine. If you want to fill a 256-page A4 spiral bound sketchbook, fine too.
The point of NoBoPro is to write. Forming that habit and maintaining it for 30 days could lead to better writing, more focus in life and business, or whatever.
Because of its flexibility, NoBoPro might appeal to people interested in journaling, sketching, project planning, business writing, or other types of creative writing. For example, I could see NoBoPro benefiting poetry writers or sketch artists.
I chose a Leuchtturm1917 A6 cloth-bound notebook. It has 185 pages, which means I must fill about six and a half pages a day to meet my goal. On day one, I worked out that one page can fit about 125 words, so I write about 810 words a day. That’s doable, yet a bit challenging with my current commitments (and with an important holiday coming up here in the U.S.).
Right now, I’m dividing those pages up into two categories: “mini-essays” (a term I’m coining — not sure what else to call them) and poetry. The poetry is super rough and is sometimes a few pages of stream-of-consciousness I hope to turn into poems later. The “mini-essays” are beginning points for articles I hope to get published or use as blog posts.
I’m not reading back through anything. I’m just writing. I will read the notebook when I’ve filled it.
So far, I’m enjoying the exercise. Putting pen to paper each day is a nice change of pace — a place of refuge away from the distractions on my computer and in my life. It feels good to fill up my pages and it strips away any pretense of “correctness” in my writing.
I realize it’s already November, but if you want to join in, I wouldn’t worry about the start date. You could participate in NoBoPro whenever; I hope to do it again in March. Just pick out a notebook, choose a 30-day stretch and write. There’s nothing else to it. In fact, there should never be anything else to writing. No need to overthink your writing process. Just write.
The Notebook Project (NoBoPro): A Great NaNoWriMo Alternative was originally published in Critical Margins on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
I credit my morning pages with changing my outlook on life. I’m coming up to three years of a morning pages routine, with only a few missed days along the way. (If you want a quick explanation of the morning pages routine, read this article I wrote about it back in 2013.)
Recently, I came across one of the best descriptions of the morning pages routine from programmer Matthew Lang. He compares the morning pages routine to skimming stones:
Every year we visit Jennifer’s family just outside of Toronto. The holiday usually revolves around shopping for the girls and golf for the boys, but on those days where we want to spend the time together as a group we sometimes head down to the lake. It’s a great spot for a picnic and a walk, it lets the kids explore and of course there’s that love of skimming stones. You spend a couple of seconds looking for a good stone and you throw. There’s no concern about the quality of the throw, a few throws is all that’s needed to get better. Also you know that once it’s thrown that stone is gone forever. Well at least until it’s washed back up back onto the shore again.
Your morning pages should be like this. Just writing, seeing where it takes you and never worrying about that writing coming back. It’s an exercise to clear your mind and nothing more. Also it doesn’t matter about the content of your morning pages. It’s all for you. No-one else. Once it’s written it can disappear from the eye of the public forever. Just like your little stone skimming across the water and disappearing, your morning pages can hide forever.
I’ve been trying to define my morning pages routine for years, and in only two paragraphs Matthew Lang has explained it better than anything I’ve read on the subject.
My morning pages have jumpstarted my creative output and helped me stay focused on the most important parts of my life. I don’t gain direct insight from writing the pages; they are not designed to plan or brainstorm projects. Instead, I don’t set out to do anything with them. I write whatever comes to mind and I try not to stop. I’ve identified anxieties and personal struggles I didn’t know I had, and I’ve broken though the setbacks that have held me back. I have also learned how to praise and credit myself for the good things I do in those pages.
Morning pages are like mindfulness meditation in that the point is to clear the mind, not to clutter it with new things to think about or work on. I write down the things that bother me and that I know will hinder my progress, and I leave them on the page.
The idea of stone skimming matches up perfectly with the point of a morning pages routine. When you skim stones, you throw out the stone not to gain anything but rather to occupy your mind and body for a few seconds. It is about the experience. You know you’ll never see the stone again. You know that not every stone you throw out will skim the water’s surface in the same way. It’s a way to keep your mind off things for a moment and see something happen in nature.
If you write morning pages, train yourself to think like you would when skimming stones. Don’t set goals. Just write, and enjoy the process.
I am fascinated by the pens, notebooks, and other analog tools artists and writers use each day. The New York Times highlights some in a recent article, “Creative Types From Manolo Blahnik to Milton Glaser on Their Favorite Writing and Drawing Instruments”:
Is the pencil over? It’s no secret we’ve turned to keyboards and touch screens to convey our thoughts, complete our work in the office and design everything from bespoke stationery to custom footwear. For most, it’s hard to recall the last time an octagonal wooden shaft rested between our fingers. But for a select set of highly creative individuals, writing instruments are still in high demand.
I’m surprised how many of the artists quoted in the article use pencils. As a lefty, I’ve never been able to use a pencil effectively. But a good pencil has its advantages.
If you want a quick rundown of how I use my notebooks, also read my recent post, “Why Writing on Paper Matters in the Digital Age.” If you’re still into digital tools, read my older post, “Evernote for Book Lovers.”
If you do any creative work (and I’m assuming most Critical Margins readers do something creative) you’ll recognize what researcher Kenneth Stanley calls the “objective paradox”: According to Christie Aschwanden over at FiveThirtyEight (“Stop Trying To Be Creative”), the objective paradox is the feeling that “as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.” This hampers the creative process, which requires “blind searching” and “an openness to discovering whatever arises.”
That’s how I’ve been feeling lately regarding a writing project I hope becomes something someday. I’ve decided to abandon what I thought I was working on (ahem, a novel) and follow where my writing is leading me. It seems this “novel” I was writing has turned into a series of poems and short stories: fragments of things, rather than one coherent whole.
Anyway, back to the point. Why is it so easy to get stuck? Why is writer’s block and the equivalents in other fields so damaging? Research on creativity reveals that a sort of ordered chaos leads to greater creative output. According to Aschwanden and based on Stanley’s research, those serendipitous “aha!” moments come when we allow ourselves to veer away from the goal and try new things:
Rather than beginning with a specific goal, most creative people “start out with with a hazy intuition or vision,” Kaufman told me. “After a lot of trial and error they get closer and closer to discovering what their idea is and then they become really, really gritty to flesh it out.”
Objectives are fine when you have a modest goal and the path to get there is clear. “I would sound like a kook if I was like, no one ever should have an objective ever again,” Stanley said. “If I want some lunch, I’m not going to just wander around until I stumble upon a sandwich.” But if you’re trying to create something new, an objective can stand in your way.
Seeking novelty instead of objectives is risky — not every interesting thread will pay off — but just like with stocks, the potential payoffs are higher.
This point from Aschwanden also fits in with my experience:
When I’m mired in a pile of overwhelming reportage, sudden insights arrive when my frustration is at its peak. It’s the point where, like that robot flailing its legs, I’m forced to try something completely different because I’ve depleted the most obvious options. After reading Stanley’s book, I’ve started to think of those moments of frustration as prerequisites to creativity instead. I’ve also gained a little more faith in my messy methods. When I give myself space to let ideas percolate, good things happen naturally.
Creative work doesn’t come from the clenching, thinking, concentrating mind. Instead, the best creatives know how to access disparate ideas and concepts and make new connections, which lead to clearer insight and new approaches.
This might be why dreams often lead to creative output. I had a strange dream the other night about the show Mad Men. In this dream, Don and Peggy — two of the show’s main characters — were married with kids living in suburbia in the 1980s, and Don worked as a middle manager at a boutique advertising agency, writing copy for awful cable TV ads. If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know why that’s absurd and kind of funny.
When I woke up, I thought, “this could make a weird fan fiction exercise.” I started writing. Now I have a draft of a story that has nothing to do with Mad Men, but some of the themes from that dream have made it into the story. Strange connections can lead to new ideas. I could have dismissed the dream as silly, but I didn’t. I used it to create something new and something not connected to Mad Men or the show’s characters.
I guess the point here is that “trying” sometimes isn’t the right move, especially if you’re stuck. You might need to throw out your original goal or start over to move forward with your project.
By the way, Kenneth Stanley’s upcoming book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective looks to be a fascinating read. I’ve added it to my to-read list.
It’s becoming the most popular verb tense in fiction writing, and this article by Alexander Chee at Lithub.com defends it:
As a part time professional ‘creative writing tutor’, I can say I only ever teach the present tense as one tool among many. I do not urge it on my ‘sensitive and artistic storytellers’, or any of the insensitive ones either. I teach students that verbs are the way they create a relationship for the reader to time, and function a little like the way a horizon line might in a picture. As for using it to dodge the ‘politically dodgy’, well, I can’t imagine teaching anyone that way with a straight face — and so that strikes me as something of a straw man. Or, woman, perhaps.
We use it in poetry, journalistic profiles, vernacular stories told between friends, screen treatments, stage directions. In literary criticism, when describing what a writer has done, the writer’s work is treated as a continual present — a place where everything is still happening each time it is read. This resembles the way victims of assault and trauma think of their memories — they almost always tell the story of what happened to them in the present tense, because it is a place still vivid for them, in their minds. It is entirely plausible to imagine any of these being an influence on a writer in search of form or texture. The novelist Christopher Bram, for example, says of it, “I’ve used present tense myself only once, in Father of Frankenstein, but didn’t notice I was doing it until ten pages in. I realized I was using it because it’s the tense of screenplays. That seemed appropriate for a novel about a movie director so I kept using it.”
Chee goes on to give several examples of the present tense in classic and modern literature, and he also quotes MFA teachers and writers to show the present tense isn’t begin “pushed” simply because it’s a popular style.
Well worth a read.
Source: “In Defense of the Present Tense” by Alexander Chee, Lithub.com