How to make the most of your notebooks

There’s something immensely satisfying about finishing a notebook, reaching the very last page, writing to the very last page, and knowing that you’ve filled the whole thing up with ideas: little gems of ideas, idle musings, lists of words that you just like the sound of. There’s something so open about staring at the blank pages of an as yet untouched notebook. There’s so much possibility there; nothing solid or formed yet. Today I wrote my first sentences in a brand new notebook, and I felt full of anticipation. I’ll admit, it didn’t always used to be this way. I’ve always loved notebooks and stationary, I’ve always bought a lot of them. But for a very long time I would use a criminally small number of pages before abandoning them – I’ve written about this before, how I used to reject anything less than perfection. Writing on the computer seems like the perfect solution for a control-freak perfectionist like me. Editing is easy and simple. I can save multiple versions easily, I can erase mistakes, sentences that will later make me cringe with a simple click. I can create the illusion of perfection (or you know, at least as close as any writer feels they get to perfection). But insisting on first time perfection is (for me at least) is pretty much the enemy of writing of actually writing. Using the excuse “if it’s not perfect then there’s no point doing it” is an avoidance tactic.  First drafts are meant messy, complicated, and imperfect. Writing, rewriting, revising and editing are all related but different skills. Using a notebook consistently has revolutionized writing for me. My ideas are more fluid when I write by hand, I don’t tend to get as blocked mid draft. I generate much more in the way of material, random scenes and snippets of dialogue, when I’m using my notebook. It also improves my editing process because I’m much more aware of every word when I’m transcribing from page to screen than when I try to revise on screen. As a side note: this also works backwards for me – if I’m struggling with a sentence I’ve written on my laptop I go back and try and write it out by hand. Something about moving between mediums seems to really jolt my brain. It’s been a slow process for me – learning to make writing by hand, regularly took a long time to become a habit. That first notebook on the bottom took me over a year and a half to fill. But that second one, in the middle? Six months. At some point, writing regularly in my notebook became the way I made writing a part of my life. So in honour of new notebook day, here are some of my observations and suggestions on how to make the most of your notebook:

  1. Get messy If you have tendencies towards perfectionism fight them. I deliberately doodle in my notebook. I don’t just cross things out, I scratch them. I stick odds and ends in my notebook. I trail off mid-sentence. Start challenging the idea that your writing has to be off the cuff perfect – allow yourself to write more without judgment or over-thinking it too much.
  2. Value this space  I also to think that writing in your notebook is one of the better ways to connect to your writing. This is a book that is just for your writing. You don’t use it for work, you don’t email from it, or check facebook. It is a book that is just for you, and your creativity: distraction free, ready for you to build worlds within it. Let yourself feel the power and possibility of that.
  3. Write every day (that you can) Writers much more successful and smarter than me will tell you about how important forming a writing habit is. And that’s really really true. I have a goal to write every day, even if it’s only for a snatched ten minutes. But here’s another thing along the way: when you can’t do something, that has to be ok too. I used to get very upset and angry at myself if I missed a day, chalk it up as a failure, berate myself. And yet this was a goal I had set myself. The only person I am accountable to is me. Is it disappointing? Sure. Is it useful to get cross at myself? No. Be kind to yourself. Recognize that maybe you needed that 10 minutes that day, or that week for something else in your life. Then come back when you’re ready.
  4. Notebooks are never done I know, I know. I wrote RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING of this very blog that I had just finished a notebook. I wasn’t exactly being accurate though. Because sure, I can’t write anything else in that notebook but it is far from being “done.” Start thinking of your notebooks as “working notebooks.” I frequently dig back into older notebooks for ideas, turns of phrase that I remember being nifty at the time. If you’re working on a longer thing (like a novel) this is especially useful – you can chart what you were thinking earlier in the process, find gems that you didn’t know how to work into the plot back then but now suddenly fit with new development X! But even if you’re writing short stories then your old notebooks are a treasure trove – there will be sentences that you edited out of final drafts, unfinished scenes that didn’t seem to work at the time but suddenly seem to have the faintest pulse of something. Your own notebooks are your own prompt book and archive in one.

So there it is: nothing revolutionary, nothing too difficult, and yet for me learning to love my notebooks has been one of the major leap forwards in my writing. I’d love to hear how others use their notebooks – or not as the case may be!

2 thoughts on “How to make the most of your notebooks

  1. Arina

    I also used to be an abandoner of notebooks. Hilariously enough, I’m so obsessed with finding the perfect, perfect one, otherwise I would say my thoughts just wouldn’t come. I still have a collection of unused books, but I now know what brands to get that will make me comfortable writing everything out – the line spacing is EVERYTHING. And now that I’ve started using it as less of a journal and more as a chronicle of my writing, OOF how things have changed (for the better).

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