The Case For and Against

Keeping Notebooks, Part I

This is a two-part post.  Part 1Part II.


Lately, I’ve come across a few separate opinions on the worth of notebooks for writers that I found interesting.  They made me reflect upon the usefulness of notebooks for writers in this hyper-connected, fast-progressing and digitized era.

What are notebooks for writers?

It might seem obvious what notebooks are, but the definition can be a bit slippery.  What you think of as a notebook, I might not. 

And for the sake of this article, a notebook is a very specific type of document.

I do not consider a diary or journal to be a notebook, although they might well be stored in notebooks.   Diaries and journals are collections of entries ordered by date, specifically recording events for those dates.  They may or may not include other observations, but at their heart, they are chronological records.

The physical notebook–a bound volume containing blank pages that may or may not be lined—is also not what I’m referring to.

So what do I mean?

A writer’s notebook is an idea collector.

Traditional writers’ notebooks were once kept in physical notebooks and, often, the writer carried their notebooks around with them to record whatever caught their attention during the day. 

Notes could be snippets of description about people or settings the writer had come across, ideas for stories that occurred to them, more ideas for scenes, character development, or observations about the progress of a story. 

Writes often used their notebooks to continue conversations with themselves about…just about anything.  The progress of their book, the progress of friends’ books, the weather, politics, anything they were passionate about.

Also, notebooks were often the location where writers reproduced quotes and excerpts from other books, articles or direct conversations that contained wisdom about writing, the writing life, topics they were interested in writing about, and anything they did not want to forget, or wanted to apply to their writing and their life.

A notebook that contained only quotations from other sources was properly called a “daybook”.  Daybooks evolved when books were scarce and difficult to acquire.  If a writer could only access a book containing information he desired at a single library (and often, back then, the library would be a private one), he would copy all the essential notes from that book into his daybook.

Often that same writer also kept more general notebooks, recording his thoughts, feelings, observations and ideas.

Notebook-keeping is generally an unstructured, highly personal process.  There are no rules. 

Modern Equivalents

With the arrival of computers, notebooks have also become digital.  There are dozens of applications dedicated to notebook keeping, and there are less technical alternatives such as simple text editor files. 

And plenty of writers still prefer to keep their notebooks the original way, in analogue notebooks.  In fact, you can get into a very long and nuanced argument discussion with any group of writers about which physical notebooks are the best/their preferred brand. 

In fact, you can have the same, just as heated, discussion with writers who use digital notebooks. 

Personal Knowledge Databases

With the advent of digital notebooks has emerged an advanced form of notetaking, called a personal knowledge database.  (PKD). 

The idea of PKDs emerged very recently; just in the last ten years or so.  They were inspired, partially, by Zettelkastens. A Zettelkasten is a “slip box” of cards or pieces of paper upon which were recorded a single idea, along with its source.  Ideas could be linked to other ideas in the box.  The cards with related ideas could be grouped together physically or linked by index numbers. 

By keeping a single idea on a single slip, unexpected ideas could be linked together to arrive at new ideas and concepts.  Ideas could be used over and over, related to completely different ideas, re-mixed and blended to come up with new and different concepts and thoughts.  The more slips in the box, the larger the number of new ideas and concepts that could be developed. 

Zettelkasten has a long history, going back to the 16th century, but the modern king of Zettelkasten was Niklas Luhmann, a German philosopher, who built a Zettelkasten of over 90,000 slips.

Luhmann used his slip box(es) to write 50 books and over 550 articles throughout his career.  (Wow!)

His use of the slip box has inspired advanced digital notetaking and the development of different PKD methods.  (Digital Zettelkasten, Second Brain, etc.)

Most of the digital knowledge databases use linking to connect ideas, rather than the numerical indexing the analogue systems use.

Ultimately, though, personal knowledge databases are simply advanced forms of notebook keeping.  Even if you don’t want to fully embrace the sometimes-rigid methodology of a PKD, there are lots of useful ideas that we writers can extract from their processes and use with our own humble notebooks.

The point of notebooks

Writers generally understand how to keep a notebook, and even grasp the wide possibilities of what to put in them.

It’s what to do with the notebooks that is where a lot of writers miss vast opportunities.

Here are the benefits of a good notebook system:

  1. You remember what you have read.
  2. Your creativity is boosted
  3. So is your motivation to write.
  4. You can connect ideas you had for stories weeks, months or years ago, with more recent ideas and produce unique story concepts, characters, settings and more.
  5. You can develop well researched, unexpected ideas and arguments for non-fiction
  6. You can figure out what you think about topics as you write about them, which will develop a deep self-awareness that will serve you, your family, and friends for the rest of your life.

But none of these benefits will accrue unless you do more with your notebooks than simply write in them. 

You need a solid review system that ensures you’re dipping back into the notebooks on a regular basis.

Even though reviewing your notebooks should be a priority, the way you review them could be very simple; just reading through from front to back, and from volume to volume, and making extra notes in the margins, or connecting what you’re reading with other notes elsewhere, will help bring the value in your notebooks to your writing.

If you’re using a digital notebook, you can read and review and link notes together.  You can also delete extraneous material, edit, highlight and more. 

Or you can adopt one of the PKD systems and turn your notebooks into full databases.

It’s up to you.

Whatever system you adopt or develop should allow you to mine your notebooks for

  • Story ideas
  • Character ideas
  • Setting inspiration
  • World building
  • Backstory for people and places
  • Non-fiction posts, articles, books.
  • Project to improve your business.
  • Projects to improve your writing

But before you dash off to buy the perfect pen and Moleskin notebook, consider this:  Should you even be keeping notebooks?

There are some compelling arguments for not keeping notebooks.  And there are some meta-arguments, well beyond the benefits of notebook-keeping, for continuing the centuries old practice.

I’ll explore those next week, along with some of my ideas for the best of both worlds.

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