A writer’s notebook is something that I wondered about for a while but never bothered to investigate further until recently. I somehow managed to convince myself that I had, not one, but many, and that I was successfully writing in all of them. To some extent this was true; I had a lot of notebooks and habitually wrote in them. The journals I had were scrawled across with anything from title ideas, to first drafts of little poems, to rewritten poems, and more rewritten poems. As far as I was concerned, I had successfully ticked the box on my ‘how to be a writer’ checklist.

A lot of writers have similar ideas about what a writer’s notebook is; it’s a notebook that writers write in. Duh.  Writers often keep a journal or a diary, a place to vent; they have their laptop or phone with a notepad function, they have it covered. To a certain degree, yes you have a writer’s notebook, congratulations. You’ve successfully entered the world of stationary hoarding, but are you using this valuable tool correctly? Do you know how to use your journal as an effective story bank? Do you ever open up your notebooks and use one of the thousands of concepts scrawled across the pages? Too many writers end up ‘practising’ and then put aside their work as just that, practice, not something useable or salvageable, but often the ideas we jot down in our notebooks are just underdeveloped first drafts. It’s what you build it into that counts. Think of painting a masterpiece, you start with your basic shapes, you define what the object looks like, where it is, what it is doing and then you build in the detail. The notebook of a writer should hold a plethora of information to pull at any given moment to help combat writers block, plotholes, lack of inspiration or the inability to describe an item or person. Chances are your notebook contains specific detail of that flower you examined during your morning coffee, great now you have the enchanted flower that you needed to further your plot.

You don’t have to make up everything out of thin air, painters take inspiration from real life, and in order to make writing believable (at least to a certain extent), you must be able to insert small amounts of great detail. Taking the time to practise examining objects or people in detail enables you not only to create a character or object but also allows you to implement some of the writing you did in your free time. This saves you time, energy and effort and from a massive headache later on. Writing, like painting, is a craft, and if you don’t practise still life, the lives you write about may not be as effective in your story as they have the potential to be..

What I didn’t know, when I first started writing in notebooks is how useful it can be for dedicated practice. It shouldn’t be used to splurge emotion and thought ‘whenever inspiration strikes’. Writing is something that, if you want to make a career out of it, you must practise. Too many people roll out of bed and start their first novel. Problem is they have no idea where to begin and by the end of their endeavour there either isn’t a book at all; or something that has brought the literary community to shame. Once in a blue moon, a natural talent occurs, but even if you are a natural talent, I still don’t see an argument for not learning your craft. Writing gets better with practice; a fact is a fact.

Many authors have a dedicated notebook for their WIP. In these notebooks, they have everything from outlines and plot devices to little things that might never enter the book. Some have collections of images that inspire their world, or a collection of faces that they associate their characters with. In this way, a writer’s notebook can be useful for keeping the facts straight. This, however, isn’t the only way to create a notebook that is useful to a writer. I believe that it is integral to learn how to use your writer’s notebook to build up a writing bank that you can rely on for your writing, not just a place to store information.

I would like to introduce writers who don’t implement journals into the world of collection. Your notebook can contain newspaper articles for your latest dystopian novel, or adverts from the ‘Lonely Hearts’ section to inspire your next greatest romance. It can contain collections of people and thought and descriptions that otherwise wouldn’t have found a place in your thoughts.

I like to image that writers are a bit like hoarders; when I think of my writer’s notebook I like to imagine that I am Smaug, surrounded by my piles of pages that contain little nuggets of writing gold. I realise this might sound a bit sad but it makes me feel more confident about my ability to write. I know that at any given moment I can open up my notebook and look at everything I have successfully written, draw inspiration from it, and continue with my work in progress (WIP).

My mother is a painter, and I was always envious of how she could translate an image onto a page, I realise now that in my writing I am more than capable of doing that; I just use a different kind of paint. When I started my notebook, it was solely for freewrites. I would take a different topic every day and describe it in the most detail I could, or in the most obscure way that I could. I would think of a theme and tie it together with an irrelevant object. It was a fun and interesting way to explore the way that my mind works. A writer’s notebook encourages mental exercise and warms up the writing muscles. I enjoy bringing my notebook out into the garden with my morning coffee, observing and practising and expanding on my ability to write what I can see.

Notebooks for freewrites, in particular, are very important to build up a good writing habit. You can explore with words here, you will begin to notice patterns within your writing. You will start to notice a similar word count where your thoughts always seem to wane. When you notice these patterns begin to push yourself, you might think you’ve said all you can say about a topic but any artist knows that you capture the basic shapes and then keep adding details. I encourage you to attempt this within your writing, add fifty words to your word count, and keep pushing until it doubles.

When trying to build up a writing habit, it is important to practise the art of pushing through. While I believe that good writing occurs whenever you are inspired I also believe that being consistently inspired is something that a writer must work at. Some of my best writing has come from pushing against my lack of interest and finding new ways to entertain myself. A writer can actively throw themselves into the position to write if they are serious about their career. If you absolutely cannot continue working on your WIP, your writer’s notebook can become a haven to find your words again. Go through the relevant material; write a freewrite, loosen up, have some fun, use all of those adjectives and adverbs you were told not to. Highlight what is good and can be implemented and discard the rest. Score out what you hate, or better yet, highlight it a different colour and figure out why you hate it. What can be improved?

Building up your notebook is integral to your story bank, understanding your writing style and practising new ways of looking at things can develop your writing in unbelievable ways. A writer’s notebook can be used for practical purposes so when selecting your notebook think of what you want to contain within it, it can be a normal notebook. My notebook, in particular, is one with dividers built into it. It has sections for book review, freewrites, poetry, and idea dumps. Your notebook is for personal use so personalise it as much as you need. For me a simple notebook would’ve never worked as I flop around from section to section at a ridiculous pace, for me, the dividers work seamlessly. Everything has a place and it is easy to explore and understand. I can find things relatively easily.

So what goes into a notebook? Whatever you like is the honest answer. Your journal should contain anything that inspires you to write… and anything that you would like to practise writing about. Take your notebook out with you, give people stories, paint that flower with your words. Explore why the old man still wears his tatty hat while making his daily trip to the newspaper stand. Figure it out, explore, this is the place to use an infinite number of similes and metaphors. This is where you make the connections. This is where you can show and tell as much as you like. This is the freedom of writing; it is why we do what we do. This is the place to embarrass and inspire yourself.

Below I have inserted two pieces of writing I did in my free time, one from the beginning of my writer’s journal and one that is more recent. If my previous arguments for a writer’s notebook didn’t convince maybe the drastic improvement in my writing will. These pieces are freewrites and unedited for integrity’s sake, so they are in no way perfect. I frequently write about my dog, so I’ve chosen similar topics to make the comparison of these pieces a bit easier. You’ll be able to see common elements that I still enjoy playing with. In both, I play with repetition, one in concept and one in words. These rewrites inspire me to keep practising and keep playing; I had so much fun writing these words, and I hope to encourage you to play as well.

One

I went outside and it was freezing, my dog ran out after me collapsing the backs of my knees as he went. He was never very good at spatial awareness; he tends to forget that his desire to be close to you at a great speed can knock you over. He doesn’t realise how dangerous he is. I think a lot of us are like that. We don’t realise the impact we have on other people as we go about our daily lives with our individual priorities. We don’t realise that we’ve knocked someone on their back. We don’t even stop to turn around and see if they’ve fallen, we don’t even realise we’ve hurt someone.

Two:

The dog growls menacingly; eyes fixated on the street where across the way more dogs join in the percussion of home protection. The neighbour’s dog on our right side is called Jessie, she also joins in the band but she is facing the wrong way. She is turned towards us, the instigator of the jam session. Jessie’s favourite thing to do is make my dog bark, she is an attention starved lady so I cannot blame her, she only wanted attention like everyone else.

My dog runs down to the gate at full speed barking at an invisible intruder. The game is on and Jess gets to bark with Guthix. After a few minutes her need for attention is satisfied. The game is over. My dog plods back up towards the terrace at 1/16th the pace. Just on time to beg for the last few pieces of cereal my bowl possesses. He gets no reward for protecting the house, this time my cereal is chocolatey. No bribe to stop him from barking.

I lean back against my chair, sipping my coffee and listening to the symphony of dogs echoing up the street. Knowing there is no threat. I finish my coffee, whistle for my dog, walk inside, and begin my day.