The Case For and Against
Keeping Notebooks, Part II
Last week, I talked about the benefits of keeping notebooks. This week, I’m looking at whether you should even bother keeping notebooks, this day and age.
First up, the arguments against notebooks.
Why you shouldn’t keep notebooks.
Steve Pavlina, a long-time lifestyle blogger, said in a post in January this year:
I don’t use Notion, Evernote, Dropbox or other apps that essentially serve as clutter bins. I’m fairly spartan when it comes to collecting and story information. When I encounter interesting ideas, I do my best to apply and integrate them immediately, so they become a part of my thinking and doing. Otherwise I let them go if they don’t fit.
There’s a lot of interesting ideas behind this claim.
Pavlina is essentially arguing that information should be managed with a “just in time” approach – this is a materials management methodology introduced in the 1980s, where production facilities would micro-manage their supplies so that raw materials, etc., would arrive just in time to be used to build whatever was being manufactured.
This saved the facility from having to store vast amounts of raw materials, as storage is expensive.
If an idea is timely and useful, Pavlina makes use of it. Otherwise, he “lets it go”.
That takes a degree of trust in the universe that ideas will arrive when you need them. Or, to look at it another way; you don’t store anything “just in case” – you can go look for the data you need when you need it.
Also, he calls electronic storage devices and notebooks “clutter bins”. And this may be true, depending upon how you save to and keep your notebooks.
It is a lot easier to save an entire web page to electronic notebooks than it is to write out the important points in a journal, so information can pile up quickly.
Any ideas or information you collect in your notebooks will age. If it’s industry related, it will age quickly. By the time you circle back and find a use for it, it could be quite out of date, and useless.
Ideas for fiction – settings, characters, plots, etc. – won’t age as quickly, but there are trends in fiction, too. If you write strictly to market, your fiction ideas might also be unusable when you come back to them.
A Farnam Street post suggests that:
When consuming information, we strive for more signal and less noise. The problem is a cognitive illusion: we feel like the more information we consume the more signal we receive.
While this is probably true on an absolute basis, Nassim Taleb argues in this excerpt from Antifragile, that it is not true on a relative basis. He calls this the noise bottleneck.
Taleb argues that as you consume more data and the ratio of noise to signal increases, the less you know about what’s going on and the more inadvertent trouble you are likely to cause.
Therefore, the more information you have, the more harmful it becomes, and the less accurate it becomes.
At the very least, too much information is overwhelming, and often contradictory.
Distraction From Your Writing
Writers are inventive when it comes to ways to distract ourselves from writing.
It could be argued that keeping notebooks, and properly working in them to mine them for seeds for our fiction could well become a distraction, rather than a tool.
It can become a little bit addictive, looking for the very best ideas that we can add to the latest manuscript.
And it sounds like a virtuous effort when we tell ourselves that we must spend more time managing our notebooks, instead of writing, so that our future writing is enhanced.
Reasons to Keep Notebooks
But there are some very good reasons for keeping notebooks that move beyond the benefits we reap for our writing.
Filters and Algorithms Hide Data from Us
Just as Amazon and other bookstores try to show us what they think we’ll buy, Google and other search engines also filter and sort and arrange search results to give us what they think we want to see, based upon our previous behavior.
Only, the search we’re currently conducting often has no relationship to any search we’ve done before, or anything we’ve clicked before, or scanned, or scrolled through.
So the results we’re seeing may not include arguments in opposition, unpopular opinions, or older data that hasn’t been updated in a while (because it was already complete and evergreen).
While the average browser probably appreciates the efficiency of filtered search results, they give writers bad information. You have to dig deep, take your time exploring results pages deep, and then re-searching for specific sub-results (e.g.: “why do people agree with fracking in Alaska?”)
Therefore, saving the information you do spend time digging up will ensure you have it when you need it, when a later search will not show the same results.
And yes this is the same argument used for reasons not to keep a notebook, just turned on its head.
Information goes out of date, especially industry information, which is in a constant state of flux.
You may want that historical viewpoint on a topic, or want to keep out of date industry trends, because everything is cyclical, and while everyone has moved on from a now-unpopular strategy or trend, you can take advantage of it.
Keeping that data in your notebooks ensures you have it when you want it.
Pages are updated, or deleted or archived beyond reach. Sites are bought up by porn companies and their contents replaced by offensive graphics and flashing links.
Conversations in social groups are next to impossible to find, once they are of a certain age.
And books are unpublished, go out of print, and cannot be acquired anymore.
But if you’ve captured the information in your notebook, none of that matters.
Public information isn’t the only data in your notebooks.
Your notebooks are also a depository for your thoughts, ideas and ruminations. That information needs to be stored somewhere other than your head, where it will be forgotten.
You need your ideas stored in such a way that you can access them to build future stories and non-fiction. And notebooks, in whatever form you keep them (paper, electronic, personal database), have yet to be superseded.
My opinion: The Best of Both Worlds.
I think every writer should keep notebooks, that are part idea storage and part daybook. And they should use their notebooks, mining them for disparate ideas and creative inspiration.
There are too many fantastic benefits you’ll miss to make not keeping notebooks a viable option.
But the reasons against notebooks are valid, especially if you’re using electronic notebooks.
I’ve honed my own notebook keeping and mining over the last year or so to try to avoid some of the pitfalls of data note keeping, and I’ve come up with very simple guidelines that make the best of both worlds.
Discard as much as you can.
I guarantee that you will snip and copy and keep far more information than you can actually use. But that’s okay. It’s easily fixed.
When you’re reviewing your notebooks, keep in mind these questions: “Is this dated? Can I really use it? Or is it taking up space?”
Discard liberally. Pare down, edit, and only keep truly useful information that would be difficult to replace, if it was lost.
Delete entire articles and pages if they contain nothing new.
If you’ve saved a whole article because it makes some interesting points, delete everything but the core ideas, or the one truly useful paragraph. If your notebook clipper also saves the original location of the data, leave that in place, too – you can always go back to the site (if it’s still there) to read the context information if you really need it.
You can also edit and delete your own ideas and thoughts. If, to you, they seem banal and dated, and you suspect you’ll never use them, then delete them. They’re taking up electrons and mental bandwidth that could be used elsewhere.
Sometime in the future, if that idea actually does have use, you’ll remember it anyway. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter.
Link everything to something else
When you’ve decided to keep a piece of information, ask yourself why you want it. What future use will it serve?
Then, link that information so that you come across it in the future, exactly when and where you think it will be useful.
For example, if I have an excerpt from a page on a site that I think will inform a blog post I plan to write, I will put a link to that excerpt on the page in my notebooks where I plan future posts.
I will do this with topics that I might write about, too. Especially if I seem to be collecting many bits of information about that topic.
The Steve Pavlina and Farnum Street quotes, above, were left in my post notes in exactly this way. I thought I would use them in an information-minimalism post, but as it turned out, they were more relevant to this post.
I could also have just moved the excerpts to the blog post section, if I thought it was one-use data.
I’m also collecting ideas for a new epic fantasy series I’m writing under a pen name. Images, settings, characters, plot ideas, weird and strange cultural oddities, and much more, are all being saved to a notebook dedicated to the series. This notebook will become a world building notebook, and eventually, the series bible for the series as it gets written.
I find information and ideas for the new series when I’m reviewing notebooks, and also as I’m out on the internet and moving about my day. They all get fed back to the series notebook.
This means that the concepts and ideas in the new series will be the best of everything I’ve come up with over years of notebook keeping – it won’t just be a forced brainstorming of ideas that I can generate in a three- or four-day session of “What can I think up right now?”
This is the really big pay-off of writing notebooks. They make your fiction richer, your stories deeper, and your concepts unique.
I also store newsletters I receive by email in my notebooks. (See the Email series for more on this.) I treat them the same way I deal with pages I’ve clipped from the web. I edit, discard, pare down, highlight, add my own comments, and leave links and breadcrumbs for myself to find later, when I think they’ll be useful.
When thinking about how to link data so it doesn’t just sit in your notebooks, inert and useless, ask yourself when you would be happiest to have the information to hand. When will it be the most needed?
Then leave breadcrumbs for yourself, so that you do, in fact, find the information when you could use it.
Make everything your own.
When you decide to keep a piece of information, add notes expanding on the information. Highlight and comment in the margins.
You can also go so far as to rewrite and re-interpret the information in your own words, so that you properly grasp and understand the concepts. This will also help you remember the points, too.
If I have a post or article from a newsletter that seems to be useful as a whole, or for which the main points being made will be indecipherable without the contextual material supporting it, I’ll keep the complete article. But I will deconstruct the whole article, and build an outline of relevant points, with sub-points, etc. I’ll paste this in “the margins” (to one side of the main post) in my notebook, up at the top where I’ll spot it when I open the page.
I will also highlight the points in the article, too. And maybe add my own comments, on the way through (this is one of the best advantages of electronic note keeping).
Tagging for Potential Use
Finally, I use tags. A lot.
OneNote, which I use for my notebooks, has an awful tagging system—it’s clunky to use and the interface for managing tags is terrible. So I don’t use the inbuilt tags.
If you’re using a different type of notebook, investigate how tagging works for your software. It’s worth learning how to use them properly. And if your software doesn’t provide a tagging feature, do what I do.
I use my own tagging system. At the front of each notebook is a page where I list tags that I’ve used in the notebook (or, multiple notebooks, if the data files get too big). Quite often, these tags are common to all notebooks, and they are unique and searchable. OneNote’s search function is actually very good – it even searches text in images, so PDFs, and scans of handwritten notes, and scans of printed pages will pop up, if the search term is in them.
I make all my tags unique by putting an “x” in front of them.
The point of using tags is to mark information for future potential use.
For example, if I have a paragraph that describes a fantastic character trait, that I don’t want to discard, but for which I can’t think of a single place where I can use it right now, I will tag it. (“xTrait”). I put the tag at the top of the page.
I may not be able to think of a place to link it with. I just have a feeling I might use it later. The tag will ensure that I will find this great trait when I search for possible traits for a character I’m trying to build, sometime in the future.
And the “x” in front of it will automatically eliminate from my search results every single use of the word “trait” in non-relevant pages and notes.
There are all sorts of tags you can use. I use xSFIdeas, xSettings, xPostIdeas, among others. My Recipe notebook has an xIWant tag and a xFavourites tag, along with whole categories of food, such as xChicken and xChocolate.
Your tags should be personal to you, and your writing interests. They should make the notes you do keep findable in some future time, so they don’t languish in the depths of your notebooks, never to be found again, or used.
If you’re not already keeping notebooks, start now. There are too many great benefits to keeping them, that accrue over the long term.