Writing your commonplace book



Living a writing life means surrounding yourself with books, immersing yourself in words, appreciating the brilliant, the mechanical - and even the failure - as well as writing on schedule.

To read is to journal -- and to journal is to read.

A commonplace book should be a writer's evolving guide, acknowledging the brilliance that has come before and inspiring analysis and contribution to the literary future.

It should read at once as a diary and a declaration.

Through the years I have accumulated books. Stacked by the bed. Set out on tables in the living room. Properly lining the library wall.

Divided by topic, alphabetized -- and unorganized.

I have the Kindle app and a Nook Simple Touch.

And journals -- some empty and some brimming with hopes, dreams, writing exercises -- and the randomness of life.

Yet, I have to remind myself to read. I have to schedule myself time to write. They surround me, but the calls to daily life surround them.

There are no shortage of articles and posts about building habits. In fact, one of my favorite author's, Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project, is working on a book exclusively addressing habit. (Read her blog at www.gretchenrubin.com and specifically the new Habits tab here.)

I recommend baby steps and persistence -- and a commonplace book.

A commonplace book is a journal serving as your memory. It's a record, a collection of significant or well-known passages and notes copied and organized in some way -- whatever way works, but often by topic or theme -- in order to serve as a writer's memory aid or reference.

Highlighting and making notes while reading is instinctive -- copying those highlights and notations to a commonplace book preserves your thoughts should you pass your reading along to a colleague or friend, and allows for reflection of theme and craft over the whole of library.

Develop your commonplace book:

  • Choose a platform. Use an electronic journal or a written notebook. I find the physical repetition of writing longhand serves my memory versus the fleeting flight of my fingers on the keyboard. Yet, electronic journals are infinitely portable. Electronic journals make it much easier to snatch a copy and paste using a keyword search, rather than leafing through pages -- or even books -- to find that fleeting remembrance you seek.
  • Carry your commonplace book, whether electronic or paper journal. Be ready to write.
  • Commit to time dedicated to your reading/noting/writing habit.
  • Review. Remember to spend time reviewing notes past after letting them settle into the pages.

I'd love to hear from you if you have a commonplace book and organization techniques that work for you.

Most sincerely,


Amy A. Ritchart is a reader, writer, photographer, blogger, university professor and lover of the commonplace book. Write her at amy@kavanahlife.com, on Twitter @thekavanahlife, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kavanahlife -- and on her blog at www.kavanahlife.com.

• This post origianlly guest-written for Literary Labors.