It’s almost a cliche that great ideas tend to come to us when we’re least ready for them. Whether it’s in the middle of the night or the middle of a meeting at work, writers frequently find themselves dashing for pen and paper at the most inconvenient of times.
This tendency goes back in human history for hundreds of years, and it has given us one of the most valuable tools still used to educate writers today. The commonplace book, which has been in frequent use since the Early Modern era, started out as a memory aid for students, scholars, merchants, writers, and other lettered people. These volumes were used to record recipes, proverbs, passages from great authors, and other ideas that might come in handy. They became more organized as their use became more widely adopted; John Locke’s essay Concerning Human Understanding advocates a particularly rigid system of organizing one’s commonplace book.
Although some avid fans of Locke might find it interesting to adhere to his method, the best way to organize your commonplace book is the one that makes the most sense to you. This is not a diary, but rather a tool that you’ll use over the course of years to record the thoughts and impressions that matter most to you and your work. A romance author may have a section devoted to things they notice about cute couples walking in the park, while an aspiring sports journalist might keep different sections for personal play-by-plays of basketball and hockey games. You might even find (like I have) that your commonplace book is better organized by project than by subject.
However you choose to organize your commonplace book, you should make an effort to use it frequently. Soon enough, this will become a habit, and you’ll find yourself reaching for this tool whenever you’ve got an idea that you want to set down on paper. The process of writing your thoughts down doesn’t just help you remember them – it helps you give them a logical structure that you can communicate clearly to others. Getting into the habit of writing what you think will help you get your ideas across clearly, both on paper and in person.
Numerous accomplished writers throughout history, from John Milton to H.P. Lovecraft, were well-known for keeping commonplace books. Modern writers should keep them as well; they offer an unparalleled opportunity to unpack your thoughts, develop your ideas, and record the ideas that occur to you throughout the day.