The writer’s notebook is akin to the artist’s sketchpad. We can think of them as an archive of ideas, a place to think, and a record of how our work progresses.
Writers usually keep notebooks to track, preserve and develop ideas. Notebooks are essentially our active workspace, whether that’s digital or on paper. Personally, I use a digital solution, storing ideas in Evernote. Doing so means I can search for ideas using keywords, and I can keep individual notes stored in project-based notebooks. Tagging notes also helps me to keep them in order, and I can simply go back and add to a note, which is naturally harder to do in a notebook.
But how can you use notebooks as something more than just a place to jot down ideas? Don’t worry, friend. We’re going to explore the value of the writer’s notebook as a workspace and an archive!
Filter Ideas in Your Writer’s Notebook
I once read an anecdote that The Beatles didn’t write songs down during jamming sessions. Instead, they operated on the principle that if they could remember the song the next time they got together, it was catchy enough to keep. It certainly makes sense. A song with ‘stickability’ is a song that people will keep singing long after they’ve heard it.
You can do the same thing when deciding which ideas to pursue. And let’s be honest, writers are notorious for getting distracted by every tiny idea that pops into our heads. The sad thing is, not every idea is going to be a good one. So how do you know which ones to pursue, and which ones to leave to marinate for a while?
In effect, you use your notebook as a filtration system. Capture the idea and then leave it for a day or so. Can you still remember it within 24, 48, 72 hours? Have you started to build on the idea in snatched moments while making a cuppa or walking the dog? If so, then that’s a sign you’re excited about the idea. So work on it!
If not, then maybe it’s not the idea you need to be working on right now. Definitely keep it—don’t throw it out just because you don’t remember it within 24 hours. It just means it’s not the right idea right now. Putting your focus on the right idea right now means you’ll work on the thing that excites you, and that kind of motivation is a great way to build momentum.
Revisit Notebooks Regularly
You never know what gem from a year ago is the perfect fit for your work in progress now. That might be the line of dialogue you need, it might be a character you want to introduce, or it could be a plot point you’d forgotten about. Revisiting your older entries can be a great way to find these ‘lost’ treasures. I once wrote the introduction to a short story, with a few notes about the general concept. Yet no matter what I did, I could not make it work. So I abandoned it to my notebook and moved onto something else.
A few years later, I decided I wanted to write a ghost story involving my bounty hunter character. Lo and behold, I remembered the lost fragment, and now it made sense. I got rid of the parts that didn’t work and slotted what was left into the bounty hunter’s world.
Revisiting your notebook is also a great exercise if you feel ‘dry’ on ideas. You often don’t have writer’s block, it’s more a block on your work in progress. So rifling through old ideas can either unclog that block, or it can give you something else to work on. Writing a piece of flash or a short story can be enough to get your mind working again on your main project. Or use your snippets as a prompt for a freewriting session.
Workshop your novel in your notebook
I’m not one of those writers who’ll say you can ONLY work on one novel at once. If I did, I’d be a hypocrite! I just don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to restrict your focus to one world or set of characters. After all, you might end up writing a short story about one of the characters in your work in progress. Once you do that, you suddenly understand their motivations in your novel far better. It might give you a better insight into the world you’ve created, or their backstory. In some ways, you can think of a novel as a ‘project’. So if you take time out to write shorter pieces within the same world, or using the same character, then you’re simply expanding the project.
It’s important not to confuse writing with typing. Some writers think they’re not progressing on their main novel if they’re not actively adding words. Yet you’re actually working on your novel every time you’re thinking about it. If you’re working on short stories about the characters, then you’re deepening your understanding of them. You’re getting to know them. This means you’ll write a BETTER novel. You’ll also spend less time going down blind alleys, which means less time doing rewrites.
So I highly recommend using your writer’s notebook as a space to work on your novel. Workshop your characters, try out lines of dialogue, or even sketch maps of locations. No one ever needs to see your notebook, so you can think of this as your play space. Of course, once you build an author platform, you can always let readers take a peek at your notes as bonus material! (But that’s another post for another time)
How do you use your writer’s notebook? Let me know!
I hope that has given you some insight into three ways that you can use your notebook. For me, they’re most useful as both an archive of fleeting ideas, and a place to store concepts before I have time to flesh them out. It’s taken me a few years to hit on my favourite method, but Evernote is definitely the one that works for me. I love being able to sync notes across my devices, access them on my laptop, and capture photos, audio snippets, and web pages that I need for each project.
But that’s just me! Your writer’s notebook will grow and evolve, just as mine has. And hopefully, it’ll be a key part of your toolbox for many years to come!
Icy Sedgwick is a writer based in the north east of England.
She writes Gothic-tinged not-quite-YA fantasy novels and Gothic short stories.
When she's not writing fiction, Icy is also the host of the Fabulous Folklore podcast, exploring folklore, legends and the supernatural in 15 minutes (or less).