6 Ways Writers Can Make the Best Use of Blank Notebooks
That shiny new notebook is an investment in your writing career
I love a brand new notebook. The look of it, the feel of it, the endless possibilities within its crisp, white pages. But how many notebooks does a writer actually need? Can I justify buying one more when several sit half-finished around my house?
Yes, I can.
Writers work with words, and all of those words need a home. The next time a shiny new notebook is calling your name, consider these six ways you can use it to become a better writer.
1. Keep a personal lexicon
Become a collector of the finest specimen of words. I’m not suggesting you dutifully copy a word of the day with its definition. Rather, anytime a word strikes your fancy, write it in your lexicon notebook. When you come across a new word, write it down and look it up later.
Write down words that are fun to say, that are unusual, that speak to you in some way. Keep a list of words, like words for red: scarlet, ruby, crimson, sanguine, rusty, vermillion. Or types of trees: Butternut, White Ash, Slippery Elm, Honey-Locust, Scarlet Oak.
“Do nothing more. Do not try to force the words into your writing. Just work on the lexicon on a regular basis as a form of play. It is remarkable how the words you put in your own lexicon have a way of creeping into your writing.”
— Priscilla Long, “The Writer’s Portable Mentor”
Keeping a lexicon will naturally enrich your writing with more precise word choice. The next time your character goes to sit down, maybe he’ll sit down on the divan instead of the couch.
2. Capture dialogue
One of the trickiest parts of writing is to capture dialogue. It can so easily feel stilted and stale, a he-said-she-said back and forth that bears little resemblance to how people talk in real life.
One of the ways to practice is to take your dialogue notebook into the world and play the spy. Park yourself at a coffee shop or at a playground or on a bench at the mall. Eavesdrop on the conversations around you and write down what people are saying, word for word. Include “ums” and “yeahs” and pauses.
Be sure to make a note of mannerisms people have as they talk:
“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.”
— Jerome Stern
3. Generate ideas
Writers are always on the prowl for good ideas, interesting thoughts, and meaningful connections. Keep an idea notebook and challenge yourself to write one idea per day. Collect ideas for an article, interesting plot points, intriguing premises. If you get stuck, start a sentence with “What if,” or think of something that happened to you today or an idea you came across that you want to explore.
If you can cultivate the self-discipline to make this a daily habit, you’ll never feel stuck as you sit down to your computer to write.
“Learning to write about ideas is largely a matter of learning to have ideas.”
— Bill Roorbach
Keep this idea notebook on your bedside table and don’t let yourself fall asleep without jotting down one idea!
4. Professional development
Keep a notebook for jotting down what you’re learning about, so you can keep your notes organized in one place. Part of being a good writer is seeking out ways to improve your craft, whether that’s the artistic and creative side of writing or the business side of it.
Wherever you are on your writing journey, there’s always more to learn! From Ted Talks to online courses, to nonfiction trade books, to podcasts about writing, there are many places to turn for professional development.
Not sure where to start learning? Some of my favorite podcasts about writing are: Write Minded, Create If Writing, Ann Kroeker Writing Coach, and Write Now. Some great books to help you improve the craft of your writing are: “Writing Life Stories” by Bill Roorbach, “The Memoir Project” by Marion Roach Smith, “Story Genius” by Lisa Cron, and “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” by Jessica Brody. Or consider investing in an online writing course. Creative Nonfiction puts out some great ones!
However, you choose to deepen your knowledge, make sure you keep a notebook handy to help you retain and use what you’re learning!
5. Writing practice
Keep a notebook that’s just for writing practice. Use it for morning pages or challenge yourself with a ten-minute timer and a list of creative writing prompts. Don’t worry about polished sentences or perfectly formed thoughts; this notebook is not meant to publish and share. Instead, focus on flexing your creative muscles.
For those of us who are used to doing all of our writing on a computer, putting pen to paper is a delightful change of pace. You might find that your internal editor quiets down without a “delete” key. You might find that the very physicality of it helps you get into a good flow. And who knows? If you stick with this habit, you might be able to go digging for gold within these pages and find a shiny line or two that would make for a great essay or scene in your next novel!
6. Keep an epigraph journal
An epigraph is a quote that speaks to the theme of the piece. It is a stand-alone sentence in an article or a book that speaks of a universal truth that is independent of the context around it.
Keep a notebook just for epigraphs with you as you read and write down the quotes that speak to you, inspire you, or move you. (Don’t forget to credit the author and the source!)
Later, when you’re looking for inspiration for what to write about, you can thumb through this notebook and see what kind of connections or stories it sparks.
Or you can directly add a quote to the piece you’re working on as a way to validate the authority of your idea. For more guidance on epigraph journals, I’ve written more about my experience here.
The next time you come across a new notebook you want to add to your collection, don’t hesitate! Use one (or all!) of these six ideas to help you become a better writer. This is one kind of addiction that pays off!