This is a Guest Post by Jenna VanLeeuwen.
As freelance writers, we make our living on our ability to effectively communicate ideas. In order to make a good living, we need to write well — and fast.
Enter the commonplace book.
A commonplace book is a central resource for the ideas, quotes, and stories you encounter in your daily life. It’s a system to help you capture ideas and create new ones.
The idea of gathering one’s thoughts in writing isn’t new. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius collected wisdom in a collection of writings now called the Meditations from 161 to 180 CE. Many important creatives such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Virginia Woolf have done the same.
We even have our own commonplace books for the digital age. We use Pinterest to collect visual ideas. Many Tumblr bloggers re-publish, or “tumble” others’ work as a way to capture interesting content. Technology like Evernote makes it easy for us to create personal knowledge systems.
A commonplace book is a time-honored system for creating great work. If the number of influential thinkers using commonplace books didn’t convince you to start one right now, let me share with you a few additional reasons why a commonplace book is an essential tool for writers.
Why Use a Commonplace Book?
It Helps You Capture Your Best Ideas
As writers, we have little bits of creative genius that come to us throughout the day that we furiously try to catch before they slip away. A commonplace book is one way to get those scraps of writing off your desk and into a system that will help you make the most of them.
A Wealth of Thought-Provoking Quotes, Stories, and Data
There’s nothing like the perfect quote or story to make a solid argument compelling. An easily accessible database like a commonplace book makes it much easier to find the right evidence to strengthen your writing.
Oodles of Idea Inspiration
We’ve all had that time when we’re facing down a deadline and we’re not quite sure what to say. What better place to go for idea inspiration than a collection of your best ideas?
Easily Organize Ideas
A commonplace book helps capture ideas. But where it really shines is in helping writers organize and create new ideas. By pulling together ideas from a variety of sources, you can organize information in innovative
As Steven Johnson discussed in his TED talk Where Ideas Come From, most ideas aren’t truly new. They come from making connections between two previously unrelated ideas. The structure of a commonplace book encourages these connections.
How To Get Started
Commonplace books can take many forms. When you go to create your own, make sure your system incorporates these three things to facilitate your creative process:
Separate the interesting bits from the rest of the reference material
When you read a book, take notes and then transfer them to your commonplace book. You can keep the reference material on hand for later use, but keep only the best stuff in your commonplace book. When it comes time to create, you don’t have to mentally eliminate the pieces you know are already irrelevant. Instead, you can focus on combining and modifying the interesting bits.
By creating categories, you’re once again eliminating irrelevant information when you sit down to work. Instead of sorting through your entire database, pre-select and organize ideas. It makes it easier for you to see the meaningful connections.
I do this by creating digital folders for each theme with one master document for the best stuff in each folder. (Also, I keep an unsorted folder and a document named “Random Thoughts” to capture ideas if I’m not ready to sort them. This way I can be lazy and my system still works.)
Make the ideas easy to rearrange into new patterns
In order to really get a feel for new connections and organization, it’s essential that you are able to scramble and rearrange your ideas. For instance, you could use physical notecards that can be shuffled, spread out, and sorted in a million ways. I personally use Google Docs where I can cut and paste to my heart’s content. If I get really stuck, I’ll print my collection out and cut up my ideas to organize them in a meaningful way.
It’s better to create a simple system you use rather than a sophisticated system that’s annoying to maintain. And like any system, to get the most out of it, you’ll have to use it. You’ll have to take good notes as you read and then consistently put them in the right place.
For more ideas about how to create a commonplace book that works for you, check out these resources:
- An awesome post by Ryan Holiday on creating a commonplace book.
- Thought Catalog’s readers weigh in on their commonplace books.
- Tim Ferriss interviews Maria Popova of Brain Pickings on her creative process. Maria reads and writes a crazy amount of material every week.
There’s no better tool than a commonplace book to help you perfect your craft as a well-paid writer. As Seneca said, “We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application …and learn them so well that words become works.” [Tweet “A commonplace book might do more than make you a great writer. It might make you wise.”]
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