Notebooks are for me the place where characters get their voice, where plots are outlined, and where the story begins.
That’s why I’ve a duffel bag crammed with used notebooks, and a second duffel bag crammed with unused notebooks patiently waiting to be filled with my sloppy handwriting.
I’m not a writing expert, and I certainly don’t claim to be, but I want to share with you why these notebooks are so important to me. I started using them two years ago, and since then I have noticed that my writing has considerably improved, and I think that the habit of keeping a writer’s notebook is to blame.
Learning from drafts
In this image you see a manuscript of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ or ‘Daffodils’ as it is sometimes known.
Wordsworth revised his poem in 1815 and made a number of changes. For example ‘A host of dancing daffodils’ became ‘a host of golden daffodils,’ and he also added a stanza between the first and second.
Writing is a craft, and every craft needs a tutor. I’m merely an apprentice, and the best tutors out there are other writers. That’s why I find it interesting to take a closer look at how other writers handle the creative process. Why did Wordsworth make those changes? And how did it enhance his poem?
What’s equally fascinating is looking at the changes that we make in our own work. A flash story which I had written some time ago will soon be published as a poem. It’s interesting here to look at the reasons why.
I’ve learned a lot about my own writing style by looking at the numerous changes that I’ve made. And it’s easier to keep track of these changes by using a notebook. When I work digitally the delete button is too close at hand, and discarding a first draft after it has been edited happens too often. More than once I have caught myself cutting out a passage, only to realise that it might fit somewhere else in my work.
That’s where notebooks can help, there’s no delete button.
One of things I love most about notebooks is how messy they can be. Mine is a junkyard, a cemetery of ideas that will -fortunately- never see the light of day. But between all of that rubbish, some very precious stones are to be found.
I use my notebooks to write character descriptions, plot outlines, first drafts, book reviews, research, writing prompts, free writing, Morning Pages, sometimes even a grocery list or a long-winded rant that no-one wishes to hear.
Forget about the groceries, and I’m gathering an abundance of information and creative ideas which I can use later on. One of my characters was a puzzle. No matter how much I brainstormed, I just couldn’t get him right. That’s when I skimmed through my notes, and found a description of a man that I had scribbled down wile I was waiting on a plane at the airport. The puzzle was solved. Nothing gets lost.
I write in my notebook when I’m on the train, when I’m in the doctor’s waiting room, or even when I’m in a pub or café.
I write about the lady sitting next to me, about the sounds that I otherwise would fail to notice, about the mud dirtying the cobblestones, and the feeling of enclosing your hands around a hot cup of apple tea while it’s freezing outside.
Sure, when I have suddenly an idea I could use my phone to make a short note, but I would not write about the things that are happening at that moment.
Whether you write fantasy or contemporary fiction, we’re all building a world. One of the most important things is to make that world believable, and there’s no better way to do that than to use specific detail and the senses. When one of my characters is on a lengthy train journey, I go back to my notebooks, and look if my own experiences could provide value to the text.
Another thing which I have noticed is that writing in a space that doesn’t look like my desk stimulates my creativity and imagination. You see, hear, and sense things that you otherwise would have missed.
Advantages of writing by hand
My handwriting isn’t as neat as that of Jane Austen depicted above. In fact, it’s somewhat unreadable, even I must sometimes work very hard to figure out what that word is that I have written down.
Despite that, there are many benefits of writing by hand. One of those is that there are far less distractions. There are no notifications popping up, and the urge to Google ‘how are clouds formed’ or ‘when did the Roman Empire fell’ isn’t really there. So, I would argue that writing by hand increases the ability to concentrate longer on one and the same thing.
I also believe that writing by hand encourages you to think deeper. I have had some ideas and come to conclusions that I would not have had if it wasn’t for free writing. In free writing you disregard all spelling rules, and write down the first thing that come to mind. It’s a great exercise to come up with ideas.
Research has also shown that using pen and paper, instead of a keyboard reduces stress, activates more area’s of the brain and helps you to retain your memory.
Of course, everyone has their own preferences, and what works for me, might not work for you.
So, whether you’re using notebooks or smartphones, the most important thing is that you find what works for you, and that we get our work done, right?
If you have any thoughts on using a writer’s notebook, or if there are any tricks that have helped you to improve you’re writing, drop me a comment. I would love to hear from you!
Notes: The man being so absorbed in his own thoughts in the first painting is Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov painted by Ivan Kulikov in 1904.
The second painting of the lady sitting at the writing desk was painted by an artists, or group of artist of who have been lost to us. Their works are attributed under the notname: Master of the Female Half-Lengths.