Why Every Writer Needs To Know About Commonplace Books

A man with a cap writing in a notebook

Photo: Brad Neathery

You know how you wake up in the morning and think ‘Whoa, that was a weird dream’, and you’re pretty sure you’ll remember it for later, but before you’re done making coffee, all that remains are the vague leftover feelings?

That’s memory for you. Here’s another example. Try recalling what you had for dinner last week. Doesn’t really ring a bell, am I right? What about last month? Last year?

The reason why I bring this up is exactly because of last week’s dinner. There I was, stuffing my face with chicken and rice, and this thought popped up in my head.

What if I wrote a blog post about remembering every dinner I ever had?

Bad idea, I know, and I would’ve totally forgotten about it too, had I not written it down in my writer’s journal. And that brings us to this article, one that initially covered general journalling and nothing more.

But as I pored over the various writers’ peripherals, I chanced upon something much better: the commonplace book.

So! You ready to take your writer’s journal to the next level?

What the heck’s a commonplace book?

I know what you’re thinking. How come I haven’t heard of it if it’s so common, huh? Well, to be fair, you probably already have one in some form or another. So what exactly is it?

I like to think of it as a Pinterest of sorts. You like something? You pin it. And that’s all there is to it.

It’s a place for you to store everything from inspirational quotes to ideas you can use later. Want to return pages of notes to mull over a subject you’d just learned? Or record a particularly moving piece of prose? The commonplace book is the place for it.

The contents of a commonplace book is entirely up to the owner, and that’s the beauty of it. You could all start one with the intent of collecting information on writing, and each of you will end up with a totally different book altogether.

People like Virginia Woolf, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Marcus Aurelius (all the way from the second century) have kept commonplace books, and you know how it goes—if it’s good enough for the greats, then it’s good enough for us.

But Stuart, you might be thinking, what’s the difference between a commonplace book and a journal? Good question!

For one, you wouldn’t be deathly embarrassed should someone accidentally flip through it. In fact it’s something that you would want to share with others. Secondly, while your journal focuses more on the happenings in your life, the commonplace book is all about information.

Someone writing in their journal with peripherals such as a laptop, books, and coffee on the desk

However you choose to keep your commonplace book is up to you. Photo: Thought Catalog

Why should you bother?

I’m probably one of the few nerds here who’s actually excited about this concept, so forgive me if I sound a little too biased. So, why should you keep a commonplace book?

Well, wouldn’t it be awesome to have an entire notebook filled with research info before you even start on your next novel? How about flipping through your motivational section every time you’re feeling down? Sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it?

And if you’re a writer, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to connect the dots between two totally different topics? Having quotes on standby to pepper into your articles is pretty handy too. Here’s one I just added today: ‘How do you be good at anything if you suck at being you?’

Lastly, you could think of commonplace books as your legacy. Of something you’ll leave behind once you’re gone. Who knows how much you could change the next person who reads them? I mean, realistically, they’ll probably be thrown out with your other belongings, but it’s a nice thought to hold on to, isn’t it?

Take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and tell me you don’t wish he’d kept records of his learnings. Who knows, you could be the next Leonardo da Vinci when it comes to video games, or gardening, or social media.

Start today

Okay, so maybe you’re sold on commonplacing. Maybe you already own a bullet journal, and don’t mind having a use for the various other notebooks you’re probably hoarding. Well then, let’s aim to start yours by the end of today.

First, you’ll need a book. Yes, you can use 3×5 notecards or Google Keep, but let’s not overcomplicate things. Also, I believe that you retain knowledge better when you write them down longhand, so we can leave out the digital counterparts for now.

Also, most of us could probably use a break from screens, so let’s keep things low tech. Don’t want to add to your eyestrain by scrolling through a year’s worth of notes.

What’s next? Filling it up, of course.

Remember the part about your commonplace book being uniquely yours? That’s how you’ll be approaching this. A rule of thumb is to list down anything that leaps out at you in daily life.

A movie made you feel emotional? Note which and why. A quote had you fired up? Put that down. A blog article about commonplace books giving you some great ideas? Scrawl that in.

I personally lean towards great quotes, teachings from non-fiction books, poems, and even little nuggets of wisdom from YouTube videos.

Your one-stop writing resource

If you’re the type that needs to know everything before you start, then let me just tell you that it’s best to just dive headfirst into this. Don’t worry about following Ryan Holiday’s filing system, or coming up with an extensive list of topics. Work on filling up your first book first, then create new systems as the needs arise.

I myself use an indexing system I stole off a journalling subreddit. I have an index page marked with stickers and labels, and I mark the pages of the book accordingly. That way, when I look at my book from the side, I can instantly see where the corresponding pages are. then I mark the corresponding sections in my book based on that.

It’s hard to explain, but you’ll get a better sense of it with the GIF below.

A GIF of Stuart's indexing method for his journals

Each section has a sticker corresponding to the index for quick access.

I encourage you to develop your own style and method of commonplacing. In the end, I hope I’ve dug a new rabbit hole for those who aren’t already familiar with this practice.

And for those who already keep a commonplace book, don’t forget that your methods matter too. I’d love to hear how you go about collecting and organising your info.

So there you have it. Now go forth and commonplace all your uncommon inspirations!


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59 thoughts on “Why Every Writer Needs To Know About Commonplace Books

  1. Great idea Stuart. I do something like this – although it’s not a book. I have various sections under my notes app for different topics/quotes etc. It could be a little more organised though. I shall, at some point, try to string altogether in a common place book.

    • I’m pretty sure a lot of us already do do this in some form or another. Now all we need to do is to consolidate everything into one place. Hope it helps you with your craft and life!

  2. No, Stuart, youre not the only nerd whis fascinated by this. I’m wondering why I haven’t done this a long ago.
    This is a really good idea, it’ll really help me link my thoughts together.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. If I ever start a commonplace book be sure my friend, this post will be its chapter one. Once i read a writer must read about everything, all the time. Other author insisted how much autohelp books had helped his writing, by showing him quick lessons on psychology. As for you post, it is Beautifully crafted, thanks for your inspiration.

  4. Notes on the post in numbered form because I’m an (un)organized freak:
    1. That will be one of my favorite posts from you. I love it when you give practical advice rather than abstract inspiration (the second sells, I’ve gotta be honest, but the first actually helps), so this will be added to my group of ‘stu fav posts’ along with the one about the Hunter-Gatherer Method, and that older one about micro-writing (THE post that made me love your content).
    2. My first thought of what a commonplace book would be: a novel that you get from a local library. Sounds stupid — IKR? I don’t know, I connected ‘commonplace’ with ‘local’ and ‘book’ with an actual novel. The actual meaning is so much snazzier though!
    3. If I’m honest, I’m not sold enough on commonplace book-ing (comonplacing, you say?). I mean, I like it and all — but this is one of these posts I might bookmark and open (a few years) later, only to re-bookmark it with the label ‘Great idea! Inspirational! Try some day.’
    4. Lookin’ snazzy (if you’re wondering why I’m using the word ‘snazzy’ too often, it’s because — this will sound cliche or whatever — I learned it from reading the caption under the featured image of your ‘ my new book is coming out’ post. Call me crazy.), you gradient subscribe button! Speaking of that … any updates concerning the mailing list? Am I the only one who doesn’t check my spam folder, or are you gathering emails before sending along the real jewels? Totally okay with it, but I’m crossing days off my calendar for the first email! But no pressure.
    4. Anyway, thank you for this post … and yes, I suppose, thank you for reading this 274-word comment. Best of luck!

    • Whoa, always thankful for long comments because it’s people like you that spur me on with your effortful (am I even using this word right) comments.

      Love your feedback, and will definitely keep your reader’s points in mind!

      Ooh yeah, when I first heard the term ‘commonplace book’, I actually thought it was referring to books that are so common like Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter. Little did I know.

      And you’re right, I haven’t crafted my e-mails yet. Thanks for keeping me accountable :P

      • Lolol I don’t really mind if you’re waiting up for a couple dozen more subscribers, but ya know I can’t be patient for something like that.
        Anyway, thank you!
        P.S. If you’re wondering what’s this Emily Clarc account that popped up in the comments a few posts back … I used to be called Redoubtable Writing, if memory serves.
        P.S.S. Lol, feedback? Like all your posts get a 10/10 from me so I have no idea what you can improve. Thanks!

  5. I’ve been doing this exact thing since I was 14. I wish to transfer everything to a newer notebook as mine is around 33 years old now and falling apart. Great post.

    Also, there’s a lot to be said about a physical notebook. It’s nice to unplug and get the notebook and pen out – gives you intentional focus.

    • That’s so awesome that you already have a practice like this. And yes, going the pen-and-paper route for this is therapeutic for sure. The downside is not being able to easily organise notes. Thanks for stopping by, Brad!

  6. Ooh, I love this! I keep notebooks for my novel projects and for the first time created an index for this latest one. I have to admit, though, I got caught up in organizing it and then let it fall off my radar which made me feel a bit stressed. I like your idea to just fill a commonplace book and then see how I’d like to organize. OR if I want to organize. Thank you for this post, Stuart.

    • Yeah, for people like me, it’s better to do before I get into the details, because just like you, I can get swept away by the process.

      For instance, I wanted to get into drawing, but then I researched the best black-ink pens to draw with, and I spent so much more time looking at pens than actually drawing, lol.

      But if the day ever comes when you’d like to organise though, Ryan Holiday has a nice shoebox system that he uses. You can look him up. Just don’t get lost down the rabbit hole! :P

      • Ah, the ol’ ink rabbit hole…I know it well. Thanks for the heads-up on Ryan Holiday. I’m going to try this on my own and then, maybe, look him up. :)

  7. I really don’t know how I’ve never heard of this. Such an amazing idea.
    I’m definitely getting myself a book just for this.

    Thanks for sharing. I’m so excited to get started. 😂

  8. It’s funny because I’ve done this on and off for years, but never knew that it had a name. I always believed it was just me scribbling into a notebook my thoughts, things I’ve learned, etc. Currently, I’m in the ‘off’ stage, but this a great reminder of how helpful having a commonplace book can be. Although I do store some writing in my Notes App, having something physical is always nice to have.

    Thanks for the great post Stuart!

    • We all have done it one way or another, that’s for sure. Knowing it gives us much more power to use it. Hope you get back to the ‘on’ stage and start boosting your creativity soon. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  9. I love this post, Stuart! I keep a writer’s notebook, which is basically the same thing (without the fancy sections for different types of writing). I like the idea of sections, but that definitely wouldn’t work for me in my writer’s notebook (commonplace book).

    • Writer’s notebooks are such wonderful things. Before that, I used to list every passing idea in my normal journal, and finding them once more was a pain, so commonplace books are an amazing find for me. Anyway, great to have you here!

  10. Great write-up on writerly geekiness! You are not alone and thanks for sharing :0) I have note books littered around my place for different purposes, all are for ideas and projects. I have 2 favourites because of the title that came printed on the front, each is different. One has ‘moments of genius’ printed on the cover, the other ‘big ideas’. To reference and navigate my notes I use a combination of post it notes, dog earing pages along with coloured highlighters and/or symbols on the pages. Plus I always, always date and title every page! I’ve never heard it referred to as a commonplace book so I’ve learned something new. I think of it myself more as a creativity log or WIP depository.

    • Whoa, you’re way ahead on the organising bit. Yeah, it’s a fairly new term to me too, and boy am I stoked to have learned it. I hope to one day amass shoebox upon shoebox of knowledge like Ryan Holiday, but I’ll probably stick to notebook format.

      Also, I was never one for highlighting, dog-earing, and writing in the margins, but since learning about commonplace books, I’m now more open to marking my non-fiction books as a two-way way of interacting with the author. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  11. This looks really cool. I’d like to try but the problem is I’m lazy and very self-critical. But I like the idea because I have very little memory retention of what happens to me and it would be a good way to record stuff in my life without all the emotional analysis that goes into journaling, which for me tends to be light on the day-to-day details. Like a lot of your readers, I’m willing to bet, I have tons of hoarded notebooks and journals, so maybe I’ll try this for a week and see how it goes.

    • Hahaha. Oh yes. Notebook collecting is real. And I’m glad I’ve managed to persuade you to blow the dust off one! Perhaps share the wisdom in yours once you fill it up a little. Thanks for stopping by, Hetty!

  12. I love reading your posts! You fill me with such enthusiasm and energy. I don’t have “commonplace books” per se but have always kept notes etc on a project.
    For me it’s about pen and paper as I believe we connect with a different part of the brain ( instead of a key pad). Keep writing my friend. You’re amazing. 🙂

    • Pen and paper all the way! I’m a little biased because I’m a stationery freak, but I can’t imagine keeping such a trove of wisdom in digital devices. Thanks for stopping by Faye. Always glad to see you here.

      • Oh Stuart! pen and paper is awesome. I couldn’t do it all cuz I’d never get anything done. I can type and let my brain go and come up with stuff I could never write…and vice versa. Always enjoy your writing and site. Thanks.

  13. It’s a great idea indeed, although my ideas come randomly and I may not have such a book handy when I need it LOL! So I survive on post-its or my phone’s Notes app to help me write ideas down before I forget (which happens way toooo often boo-hoo!). Thanks as alw for sharing great tips Stu!

    • Ya and if I use ‘temporary mediums’ I make sure to transfer these scrap paper notes into my main book before I forget too.

      I think I’m already partial to this method because I hate having written down a few ideas, then not being able to find them later. Anyways, thanks for stopping by as usual, Kelvin!

  14. Hi Stuart, I love notebooks and jotting down thoughts in them. They are mostly scribbles, scraps of ideas that are not quite formulated so at times I just cross them out. Didn’t know that it is called a Commonplace Book. I am not organised enough to have only one such book though. By the way Tinhead City, KL is a captivating tale. I would have read it in one sitting if not for my work. From the face moving narratives, you feel a sense of doom yet amidst the chaos and danger, there lie flashes of hope and grit. The city, Zach, Dice and Tara are well portrayed but I feel it would have been nice to see more of his dad’s character developed. Perhaps the idea is to have this thread of elusiveness running through the story, is that your intent? I like the premise of the story. An engaging read indeed. Not an easy feat. Congrats.

    • You know what’s going into my commonplace book? This comment. All of it. Thanks so much for this wonderful review, and for supporting me!

      Yeah, I definitely have a lot to learn, since Tinhead City, KL was my debut novel, and whatever you’ve observed is true (and not done out of artistic expression).

      Am super grateful for this comment of yours. I’m going to screenshot it and store it somewhere for safekeeping :)

  15. Such a good idea! I keep things scattered over notebooks and documents, but I find that sometimes looking through my scattered notes, I’ll find a gem. I’ve been trying to get a little more systematized though.

    • Haha you’re telling me! Before this, I used scrap paper, my journal, and even Google Keep to jot down ideas, but when it came time to recall, I’ve found that I didn’t have a reliable source I could flip through. Now that I know about commonplace books, I’ll at least have a one-stop solution. Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. Horror author Robert Ford used to pin newspaper clippings into a notebook, collecting whatever disturbing news stories he could find. His recent novel, Burner, was inspired by one of those old clippings. You never know what’ll serve as useful, even months or years down the road.

    • Oh yeah this is true indeed, which is why I too have begun collecting writing and motivational quotes (since I tend to write a lot about these subjects). Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and adding to the conversation!

  17. Interesting… I have a lot of notebooks that are ranged from partially filled to fully filled of stuff, ranging from plots, to scenes, to doodles. Sometimes they will have notes on symbolism or reminders to pay a bill. But I also have a habit of burning notebooks every now and then. I might need to stop that…

    • Haha yeah, maybe you could try the notecard system instead, if notebooks don’t hold your attention for very long. But it’s awesome that you already have this practice!

  18. I love the commonplace book concept! I *sort of* keep something like this but it is in no way organized. This post has me thinking about how to create an organizational system for all the random info in there. Thanks for this!

    • Yeah! I too am so intrigued by the shoebox-notecard method, but I’ll leave that for when I actually fill a proper commonplace book. Thanks so much for visiting, Ashley! I really appreciate it!

  19. I suppose, but motivation for writing ultimately has to come from deep within. Writing is for the long-haul and transient motivations just won’t cut it. The desire to express oneself, to feel one’s wings spreading and taking flight, is the primary seed of all great writing. Motivations tend to be shallow. I’ll go with a strong desire any day of the week.

    — Catxman

    http://www.catxman.wordpress.com

  20. How interesting- I really didn’t know about commonplace books although I understand the idea behind them. I think I just didn’t know there was a name for it. Very enlightening post!

    • Oh yeah, and I didn’t know how deep they could go too. Ryan Holiday’s notecard system is definitely something I’m keen to explore. Great to have you here Pooja. Thanks for your thoughts!

  21. Wow, I didn’t know it had a name, but I think I have been keeping a commonplace book! Well, not exactly a book. Most if it is a bunch of notes written on pocket-sized slips of paper throughout the day, which are stuffed into the back of a notebook. Someday I need to organize those. I do have an actual notebook where I record ideas I want to hold onto for later because I have lost so many great (sounding) ideas through the thought, “Oh, I’ll definitely remember that.” 😅

    Cool topic! I’m glad you’re encouraging more writers to try this.

    • Ooo, then you can definitely benefit from Ryan Holiday’s style of keeping a box full of notecards.

      It’s so cool that most of us writers already do this by instinct, even without knowing what it is. Then once we figure them out, everything starts making sense.

      Anyway, thanks for always stopping by with your wonderful comments!

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