Keeping Notes

Lots of people keep notes, make lists, and otherwise track things they need to remember, whether they’re writers or not. But I’m most interested in how writers keep track of and organize their thoughts, because in addition to all those other things they need to recall — doctors’ appointments, play dates for the kids, due dates for work projects, dinner parties, shopping lists, birthdays, the annual flu shot, getting the gutters cleaned — writers have to keep track of their ideas.

There’s a myth that all writers keep a pen and paper on them wherever they go, be it a nice notebook and a pretty fountain pen or just some scrap paper and a stubby pencil, so when the muse strikes, they can jot down a few words or sentences to avoid forgetting what might be the germ of a poem or article or story. In reality, I know a lot of writers who do no such thing. You’d be amazed how often I attend a writers conference only to have someone borrow my penduring a pitch session so they can make a note of what I’ve asked them to send me.


But many writers do have a system, generally some sort of small, portable notebook where they can accumulate bits and pieces over the course of their day, ideas or things they’ve seen or smidgens of dialogue that felt inspirational in the moment. I’ve heard of writers with notebooks for different purposes; one for actual writing of drafts, another for jotting ideas and notes, and separate notebooks to serve as story bibles for individual projects where all the details of the world are kept in one place.

In this electronic age, however, I see more and more writers who have gone digital. Notes are kept on tablets or laptops or even in smart phones. I acknowledge the convenience, but I can’t help but feel something is getting lost in the process this way. I like the idea of notes that include sketches or scribbled out bits, or of notebooks that have things slipped between their pages — maps or postcards or flyers from tourist spots. Yes, you can snap photos on your smart phone to serve as visual reminders of a particular landscape or site, but it’s not quite the same.

Charles Simic writes about his own adherence to the old fashioned way of tracking his day and his ideas for the New York Review of Books Blog. I love how for him the act of writing down his thoughts is partly about creating a lasting work, almost an art form in itself, that is in no danger of getting deleted or recycled when he upgrades his electronics. Of course, notebooks are not permanent in the sense that they can be damaged or lost, but these seem less of a danger.

How about you? Do you keep a notebook or journal of sorts, whether as a writer or just as an individual interested in keeping record of your life? What form do your ramblings and memories take? And do you ever go back through old writing to visit your past self?

12 thoughts on “Keeping Notes

  1. Interesting post, Nephele. (I’m looking forward to meeting you at this weekend’s Surrey Conference.)
    I carry my writer’s notebook in which I record writing-related notes such as recommended reading, craft tips, character profiles, scene ideas, new contact details, plot outlines, event notes, etc. when I’m out and about, and I use the back few pages as a writing log – keeping track of dates/wordcount/project details.
    I also always carry 5×7 notecards (which fit in the back of my notebook, when I carry it) for ‘pinning the butterfly to the page’ when I get a new idea – they provide a way for me to brainstorm, make connections, record initital research ideas, etc without giving me enough space to get sidetracked from ongoing projects. I do date each one, and if I haven’t added more to the card or carried it forward to an active project within a few months, I file it in a box, which I do scan from time to time to see what dropped leads I might want to pick up.
    Lois Peterson,

    1. Thanks for sharing your system, Lois. And I’m so glad you’ll be at SiWC this weekend! I look forward to meeting you there.

  2. I tend to have a few Word docs for each novel, one that contains an outline of the story, one for random ideas I would like to fit in somewhere, one for jotting down things I know will need revision in future drafts, etc. But I almost always have Post-it notes and a pen with me to jot down ideas when I’m away from my computer. They like to come to me when I’m driving, and I have to pray for red lights.

    1. It is funny how your brain seems to be productive at the least convenient moments. I like the Post-it notes system. Small and handy to carry, but easy to transfer somewhere for safe keeping, too.

  3. I do a bit of both–old school notebooks and files on my ipod. The ipod is always with me–it’s my PDA and I can jot down notes that will then email themselves to me when I’m somewhere that has wifi. But I also have a notebook for each novel. My favorite are the staples brand single subject ones. Got a ton of them on sale at back to school time for 9 cents each(!!!!!).

    I like to be able to go back to my old notebooks. It’s like an archeological dig. Sometimes I’ll find to do or grocery lists in the middle of an outline. There’s something intensely personal about seeing my own handwriting on the page and remembering what was happening in my life at the time I wrote the words down.

    Now if only you could search for keywords across notebooks. . .

    1. 9 cents? Holy cow! That’s a fabulous deal.

      I love that you mix old and new tech. Best of all worlds. 😉

  4. I’ve recently started keeping a little book in my purse to write down whatever…and I do mean whatever. My scribbling is not always writing related.

    For my writing thoughts and new ideas I use an outline. When re-rewriting, I copy and paste that chapter onto a new word doc. and when finished re-insert it into the manuscript. During the re-write time, I often have notes at the end of the chapter – ideas that come to me; information/research I’ve garnered. That type of thing.

    Part of my writing process is ‘simmering’ when out walking the dog, cleaning the toilet, etc. I’ll often write points down in my little notepad or, if I can, get to the computer and insert the ideas before I forget them.

    I liked LJ Cohen’s comment – about finding a grocery list in the middle of an outline. I tend to keep the outline separate and on the computer but in my little handwritten notebook, the same could be said of me.

    1. I love that idea of finding a grocery list or something in the middle of writing notes as well. It’s like an archeological dig; all those layers and you can see just what was happening in your life while you were working on a given project. But I think it makes sense to carve out the writing bits and work on them separately also. Writing can look very different in different formats/contexts and so on, and it’s a great way to find holes or prompt new ideas.

  5. I started carrying a small pad with me everywhere once I ended up scribbling my way across an entire program at the symphony. Now I make powerpoints of the plot bible (for safekeeping), but also carry the printouts with me. That way if I can grab 10 minutes to write or plot, I know just where to pick up.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of using PowerPoint for story bibles before. That’s a very cool idea!

  6. I don’t go anywhere without at least one notebook and several pens in my purse.

    Lately, though, I’ve become a big fan of the voice memos app on my iPhone. I can take notes by speaking, very handy when perfect bits of dialogue or plot twists come to mind while I’m driving.

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