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How many notebooks does it take to… thumb

How many notebooks does it take to…

Shoot me down in flames if you don’t agree with me, but I’d say that a writer who does not have at least one notebook, is not a writer.
To me, it’s the most essential tool. So essential that it’s the very first thing we look at in Writing Skills; Keeping a Writer’s Notebook. Just as a sketchpad makes you think like an artist, using a notebook transforms your approach to writing.
So, new writers are asked to keep a notebook, but seasoned writers don’t just keep one; even though my fingers are now hardwired to use a keyboard and my writing (and spelling) has deteriorated to chimpanzee level, I am never, never without my many notebooks. Right now, I’m using notebooks for;

  • Short story ideas and jottings
  • Characters I like the idea of
  • Poems, especially haikus
  • The novel I’m writing
  • Ideas for future work


One of my students wrote to me recently to say this; “Now I have to write regularly,  I’m writing on any available scrap of paper – the top of the cereal box at breakfast, the back of junk mail, the receipt from the supermarket, the birthday card someone sent me. I’m beating a track of ripped-off bits of paper towards confusion. Sometimes I never find them again. I emptied out my pockets the other day and a confetti of golden nugget of ideas floated to the floor…”
So how can ‘confused scrapper of Cheltenham’ avoid his problem? My advice is to rush to the nearest shop and buy a notebook, stick or clip all the scraps into it, and keep it close by so that you never need to be scrappy again.
With this in mind, don’t forget that as well as having a notebook for each subject, as I have, you can keep separate notebooks for separate times, too.

  • One by your bed
  • A little one for your pocket or handbag
  • One by your desk.
  • One in the glove compartment of your car
  • A bright, new one with blank pages for your holiday adventure

And what sort of notebook should it be?

  • A recycled green notebook if you care about the planet
  • A Pukka Pad or similar; you can slide your cuttings straight into the pockets and use the sections to break the project up into manageable categories
  • An A6 lightweight one to tote around
  • A really fancy one, so the luxury of the paper urges you to write and makes you feel special…or a dog-eared cheapie, so you’re not terrified to write.
  • A business-like hardback, such as the Red and Black notebook.
  • An ipad or tablet if you really must
  • An accounts book or organizer, so that no one will know you’re writing a book!
  • An unlined sketch book for mind mapping (see below)


Having finally attained your notebooks, there are so many ways to employ them. Check the suggestions in Project 1 Part 1 Writing Skills, which include;

  • Factual Diary
  • Creative Diary
  • The blank page hurdle
  • The confessional
  • Aid memoire
  • Polishing up your description
  • Jotting down information
  • Recording passages
  • Recording your dreams

As well as all the above, you could also use your notebook as;
A Place you can Freewrite: See my blogpost go-with-flow for a description of this technique
To-Do Lists:There’s a great sense of satisfaction in ticking off your to-do list, or, better for some, ticking off your have-done list after you complete writing tasks.
Journal: Each day use your notebook to record thoughts or events as a writer, or dip into your personal history and get those memories written down.
Which leads us to…
Motivator: Write on the front page of a new notebook, the time each day you’ll use it. Say, on the train to work or (not) watching the 6 o’clock news at home. Stick to the brief you give yourself.
Mind-Mapping: Put your theme in the middle of a new blank page, draw a circle around it and around it. Jot down idea until intriguing results turn up.
Polishing Up Description: Whenever you see or experience something that can be described, whip out your notebook. Travelling is a good time – sitting in the bus or tube, or waiting at a station. When everyone else is dozing after the picnic, you can be taking down descriptions of the landscape. Read my blogpost here.
Recording Passages: Sometimes, a scene or piece of dialogue will come to you whole, often in the most inconvenient place. Keep your notebook with you at all time, including on the bedside table, and you’ll always be able to get it down.
Competitions: Keep an account of competitions you’d like to try for, ideas that would work for certain ones, and, most important, a list of what you have sent where, so that you don’t, as I did once, send and succeed with two at once! See my blogpost
Recording your Dreams 
Project Book: A book that will really get you thinking about the new piece of work
Recording Information: When out, you can note down anything from a telephone number to something read in the library. At home, you may want to makes notes about other writer’s text, to remind you later.
Your Writing Diary: Finally, you need a separate place to record the writing diary you’re asked to keep for your OCA creative writing course. This can be electronic, of course.


Some final hints and tips about your notebook

  • You should never throw away a notebook. Hide or store them, but don’t let them disappear.
  • Bearing the above in mind, please don’t be precious about the writing – remember, half the point of a notebook is that things aren’t written in stone.
  • No one need ever see what you write.
  • You don’t even need to read it through. If it suits you, you can ‘write and go’.

Posted by author: Nina
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15 thoughts on “How many notebooks does it take to…

  • Hi Nina –
    Since developing base of thumb arthritis in both hands, notebooks are out as writing is very painful although fortunately, typing is not. I make notes on my phone, but they are of necessity very short. I am very much aware that if I don’t jot things down quickly they can be lost forever, so getting to the computer the moment I get in can be vital.
    Getting old is no fun at all!
    All the best, Liz

    • Hi Liz,
      Have just noticed your comment above. We do have trying times enduring attacks of pain. But for my part I thank God I got this at the age of 69yrs…for I have nursed children as young as 10yrs, and older… I have got it at level 6-7 Lumbar, Lt. and Rt.; and I have got it in the neck level 6-7 again on both sides! Injections to the spine got me pain-free. Just had the first on the Left side of my neck! Too early to tell! So far so good. I came out of the Nuffield Hospital and felt I had a neck transplant! 180 degree’s turn. So we made the most of this and the lovely weather as a bonus. I had suffered the pain for so long it became part of me. Had forgotten what it meant to have a healthy neck. Had not taken pain tablets all these years so far only on two occasions! MUSIC! The sound of music, violin concertos, in particular…Bruch,s. For Max, Saint-Saens and all the others are the ones driving the pains away completely with grand bravados; I only played Vivaldi’s on my violin years back, but there is no way I could play with a neck and shoulder joints like I have now. Now I sing, to everyone’s despair, walks and reading…if by books could only talk…, and writing of course. So pain became a chronic friend of a kind. I may learn the piano if I can, now there’s a thought. Writing is the one activity that came to me out of the arthritic pains. It pumps me up for better or for worse. As I age, I kind of take pride and compare myself to an old bottle of vintage wine; that’s what we are far more superior to Beaujolais Nouveau. Vintage wine Liz, that’s what becomes of age as we grow in the years that will come following us.
      Spontaneous writing and poems, on serviettes in cafes, restaurants, parks. Parks also I walk with a small sony recorder, I dictate to it and catch the birds the traffic always entering days, dates, the year even the time. Take spare batteries…I had my moments with this.
      Notebooks…in the kitchen is a must, bedside locker, sitting room, trouser pocket. In my sport socks in the zip, a small one…and in the little room. The paper is always lined and three or four holed at the edge…to file later.
      I do have a meticulous approach to books and the reading of them. All unknown words penciled and recorded per page, later to be entered in the place I have for that book. I have a code D= detail and a small d=description that is where the author wrote in a particularly attractive manner, or the unusual phrase, or metaphor. On many occasions, I allow space for myself to write and create my own if fresh ideas come to mind. I had this habit since early school years and it had never left me. The notes at home got lost.
      I am enjoying Gerrald Durrell. Thank you for the inspiration and input.
      With best wishes Nicholas Poulcherios OCA,LifeWriting(309678)

    • Hi Nina,
      Have found ALL your comments helpful and inspiring. Good contribution from all the Tutorial staff and college. I got the habit of the notebook two years ago and for this I thank you also. The one that attracted my attention also and still does is Mathew Clegg’s A Vernacular Sensibility…as it brought feelings and views from back home. As a Greek Cypriot and having the Cypriot dialect as well, I felt very happy and proud to see Cypriot Authors writing Greek in the…Cypriot dialect. In England, I came across this in reading Thomas Hardy almost two years ago; However it never occurred to me that a similar situation was here also. I am interested, and would like to read his book of poetry too, please. I am waiting for the third book-“Beneath the Tor” with one r, I like the feeling of the Title. Have looked into the Dictionary for the word Tor! Words always tell something, but some do more so than others.
      How many notebooks now? I have three and one on me. However, I now use a small one for the books I read…just like the good old days of collecting unknown words. Now in creative writing imagine I am in the Philippines forest chasing and collecting butterflies.
      The iPad is a good gadget to use also.
      With renewed thanks and best wishes, Nicholas Poulcherios OCA Life Writing(309678)

  • As someone who deliberately does the opposite of whatever is suggested, I’m also suffering from scrap-paper-itis. But having read this article I know the time has come to get organised. I have many notebooks, indeed the OCA supplies them, but I’m just not great at writing in them. Texting myself? Sure. Scribbling on shopping lists? Yep, done that, too. I need to start writing concrete notes. It’ll improve my reflective commentaries, if nothing else!

  • I’m like Liz, with handwriting more difficult nowadays, but still have odd bits of paper all over the place with cryptic jottings. I also started a diary recently – part of my current photography module in this case, although I’ve started and abandoned many such over the years. I decided I would have this diary on my laptop so that in the evenings, sitting dreaming in front of the TV, I could jot down thoughts about the day. Then it got so that I needed to write down dreams and other early morning thoughts and inspirations so, when I was on the main compute,r I ended up sending myself emails so I could transfer the words to my laptop dear later ony. Such are the travails of someone who isn’t even a writer!!

    • I forgot to mention the TV in my Commonplace blog. It’s a marvellous source of material, research and inspiration. Having a writing facility close at hand is crucial; saving material can also be done by cutting out the relevant part ot the Radio Times.

    • I do use my phone ‘notepad’ more and more, especially when I’m out, or for sudden bursts of haiku, etc.

    • Yes, for a start, there is absolutely nothing wrong in having your notebooks on your PC or iPad. A file for each catagory of noting. And, if you have a good memory, there is nothing wrong with having your notebooks in your head; but I know that I would forget things if I didn’t get them down because sometimes I flick through my latest notebook and think… DID I WRITE THAT?

  • I do keep an notebok, both a physical one(s) and on my laptop. I use Evernote on the PC for screenshotting and collecting interesting stuff that I can then either keep in my commplace folder online or print out and and put in my notebook. I also keep a shoebox full of interesting pictures and clippings that can make for interesting story prompts. It’s a fun thing to do to sit in the garden and shuffle through everything, then it’s feet up and let the writing commence 🙂

  • I spend an hourish every day “clearing the pipes!” I use envelopes (tip from Textiles) I write upside down between the lines . I spew! 4 sides of envelope; maybe 6. I could say I vomit my soul and all its disappointments and pleasures………..and then I tear it all into small pieces and take the dog for a walk!

    • the day will come when you realize you wrote something that morning which was perfect, and you now can’t remember what it was…you’ll be piecing those pieces together like a jigsaw

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