In the profession of writing, there are few tools as sacred as the writer’s notebook. “But Marisa,” I hear you ask, “just what is a writer’s notebook?” Let’s discuss!

a pile of marbled clothbound notebooks with the text "What Is a Writer's Notebook?"

I shall begin this post by saying that before I even heard the phrase writer’s notebook, I was pretentiously carrying around a Moleskine. I had one of the pocket-sized kind, and kept it in the back pocket of my jeans. It went with me to classes and shows and wherever my friends at the time dragged me.

I used it for a ton of different things, and loved the feeling of filling it up. And to this day, I still carry one.

Hell. I even made a writer’s notebook. You can check out The 90-Day Novel Planner right here.

So, let’s talk about exactly what a writer’s notebook is.

What Is a Writer’s Notebook?

This is simply a blank notebook that a writer carries around. There’s no particular brand that’s better than another, nor is there any particular feature you should look for to make it “correct.”

The notebook functions as a way to collect things. Whether it’s ideas that pop into your head, snippets of conversation you hear as you make your way through the world, or just a place you write down things to look up later, the writer’s notebook is a writer’s brain on paper.

I recommend finding something you can easily carry around. And pick something you enjoy writing in. Paper quality is everything, so don’t just grab the cheapest option when you go to the store.

Think about the binding that would make the most sense for you. I, personally, hate coil-bound anything. And I don’t care for lined paper. I prefer blank or grid notebooks. And if it can lay flat while you write? That’s a big, freakin’ deal.

Why Do I Need a Writer’s Notebook?

So, maybe you don’t need one. Maybe you’re cool with keeping everything in your phone. But I will say that it’s a lot easier to find stuff that’s written out than stuff that’s saved in the notes app.

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I think having a writer’s notebook is a great way to put some of your brain on paper, and for that reason, it’s a good way to actually start writing.

Every novel project or short story and even some blog posts have started in a writer’s notebook. I probably wouldn’t have written them all if I didn’t take the time to write them in the notebook. I needed that space on paper to work the ideas out, and for that reason, those words are now out in the world.

But do you need one? That’s up to you. And if you aren’t sure if you need one, let’s talk about all the ways you can use a writer’s notebook.

What Should You Keep in a Writer’s Notebook?

I’ve written before about how to keep a writer’s notebook. But let’s talk about what you can put inside one.

001: Inspiration.

I used to write down things that I really enjoyed in my writer’s notebooks, amongst other things. It was never a full-on journal entry though.

It could be something as innocuous as summarizing a scene in a movie that I recently watched. It might also be a sketch of a poster I saw.

It wasn’t clean or even organized very well, but sometimes, you just need to keep things that might mean something later.

Some folks recommend making master lists where you list all the movies, books, songs, historical periods, or whatever that inspires you. That’s a great way to use a writer’s notebook. Then, you have those things at the ready at all times.

002: Passing thoughts.

The writer brain is a mess under the best circumstances, and ideas keep coming. Sometimes, those ideas just hit you when you’re in the middle of doing something.

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So put them in the notebook. It may be something that will work in a project you’re working on right now. It may be something that you won’t be able to use for decades.

Either way, getting the thought out of your head and onto paper is the only way to ensure that you don’t lose it. And once it’s in the notebook, you can always go back over old notebooks and just see if there’s anything in there that inspires you.

003: Quotes.

I used to write down quotes from novels and poems and even songs. I was the most insufferable artsy girl there ever was.

I never used these quotes in my writing, but I loved writing them down and looking at them and what they mean in the context of their sources and what they meant to me.

It’s weird how even now I can look at these and get the same gut feeling I got when I was writing them down. And anything that gives you that level of emotion more than once needs to be recorded.

004: Story ideas.

This is probably a pretty obvious suggestion. But I’m going to share it just in case.

The summer after I turned 21, I read all the John Irving novels I could get my hands on. And in A Widow for One Year, the writer, Ruth, gets a story idea in her mind and starts a notebook for it.

That seemed so extravagant to me as a 21-year-old. Imagine, starting one notebook just for one story! Who could afford the luxury?

Now, I do that all the time. And mostly because I stopped buying hella expensive Moleskines.

So. There’s that.

Anyway, it’s great to just grab a blank notebook and put everything you know about this story as it’s unfolding to you in it. Eventually, that story stuff will be typed, and maybe put into some kind of wiki where you can keep the information straight.

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But while it’s still brewing in your mind? I recommend putting it in a notebook.

005: Mood boards.

I don’t do this very often, but it’s not because I don’t want to.

It’s because I don’t work in an office anymore, and I can’t clandestinely print color images the way I used to.

Anyway, pasting in pictures and images that remind you of the story world you’re creating is a great way to use a writer notebook. You can create mood boards for the plot or theme, the settings, or even the characters.

The possibilities are endless with this one, but it definitely requires a thicker notebook that can handle all the glue. And it will fundamentally change the shape of your notebook when you’re done. So keep that in mind.

006: Whatever.

The writer’s notebook, as with the world, is your oyster. And far be it for me to recommend a particular process as the only way for a writer to do something.

You can use the writer’s notebook how you see fit, and as for defining what is a writer’s notebook–well.

It’s whatever you say it is. And if you’re ready, I’ve got some tips on how to start a writer’s notebook.

Have You Ever Kept a Writer’s Notebook?

Do you carry a notebook for your writing? Do you like using a writer’s notebook? Are you more likely to keep a writer’s notebook digitally? What is a writer’s notebook to you? Remember that time I threw out a bunch of old writer’s notebooks?

2 Responses

  1. Happy New Year!

    My name is Chuck White. While that short sentence only just narrows the number of possible individuals in the world it could have been authored by, alas, it is what I have as a nom de guerre.

    My question to you is hardly simple. How are you able to stop and write down any of your inspirations, insights, quotes, observations, etc., in sufficient detail to make them useful, while people and work and life are happening around you in a constant cyclone of unorchestrated chaos?

    By the time I find a quiet spot to catch my breath and perchance to annotate anything in a journal, I find that I have either forgotten what I wanted to write down or lost what made them important enough to write down. I cannot tell you the number of journals or notebooks I have purchased with intent only to have them languish alone and unused in some desk drawer or shelf.

    Chuck White
    As honest an representative of myself as I have to offer at this juncture, anything more will take time and an inclination to overlook the rough edges (I’m working on those but I fear I’m out numbered!).

    1. Oh, Chuck! I feel this in my soul. I, too, have shelves of languishing notebooks. The one thing that helped me get out of that habit has been just allowing my notes to be incomplete or imperfect. I write down whatever I can, even if it’s a meager scrap of a sentence, and then leave it. Later, I’ll come back and look at what I have. I may flesh it out, or I may find that I have no idea what I was thinking when I initially wrote it. But it’s there. And if I can use it in the future, I will. Or, maybe it will just be nonsense forever.

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