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setting up a writer’s notebook

You may have noticed by now that I’m planner and that I love to keep things neat and tidy, even in my writing world. While total structure is out of the question when it comes to creative writing, I’ve been able to keep a sliver of organization by using writing notebooks.

Like most writers, I’ve always kept a notebook handy to log thoughts and inspiration, conversations and revisions (and by notebook, I mean anything to write on — slips of paper, notecards, paper napkins, the back of your hand). I’m of the notion that notetaking and freewriting, writing without the pressure of the craft, are essential to healthy creativity, and notebooks are perfect for those processes. In the past, however, I’ve struggled to make a notebook work for me as a useful writing tool. Whenever I tried to find a note I had jotted months ago or a paragraph of overheard dialogue I had written in a restaurant, I would spend most of my writing hour trying to find those ideas among the freewriting chaos. A few months later, I stumbled upon the bullet journal method, and while I’ve never fully implemented those principles to my notetaking, I realized my writing notebook was suffering because I used it as a landing pad for my brain vomit — jumbled, stream-of-consciouness messes that, upon later reflection, meant nothing to me. It wasn’t necessarily the content either, rather that I didn’t know how or where in my stories to apply what I had written, what I intended for those words and descriptions and phrases filling the pages.

So I’m a big fan of using notebooks, as having that space to write without intention and to set your ideas is important, but in order for your notebook to be usable and useful to you in the future, when you’re looking for that outline tying two characters’ fates or for your antagonist’s family tree, your notebook needs some structure. Of course, a organization is not necessary for success, and a lot of great and famous writers reject this kind of orderliness as stifling to the creative process. But in my opinion organization and practical-mindedness get a raw deal in the creative writing world when they absolutely have their place. Rejecting them completely as incompatible with the creative writer way can discourage those of us who need to plan and spreadsheet and outline and organize in order to get onto paper what we hold in our heads. If you’re like me then and want to organize your own writing notebook to make it a more functional tool, here are some ideas.

Notebook Types

As I mentioned, you can use anything as a notebook, but some types will help your notebook remain a productive tool even when your writing life falls to disarray. If you’re into bullet journaling, a plain notebook with numbered pages and a ledger or index at the beginning using different symbols (*!•◊) to apply to different types of thoughts is a great way to set up a writing notebook. If you don’t plan on using this kind of system or one similar, however, I would avoid using a plain journal with no dividers or tabs to differentiate between raging thoughts on your how your story isn’t coming together and a character profile on your protagonist’s best friend.

In the past I’ve used a three-ringed and tabbed binder, so I could categorize my freewriting and notetaking, and if I ran out of room under any category, I could always pad a tab with more paper. I realize this is a pretty bulky option, and isn’t great for lugging around in case of an inspiration strike or a strange encounter with a spritely person you think would fit wonderfully into your short story. This is when loose paper, notecards, or a notetaking app on your phone come in handy, but if you’re not in the habit of rewriting your notes into your official writing notebook, those loose pages can quickly become a scattered wreck. A lined notebook with dividers is also a great option for keeping things neat while also reducing bulk.

If you favor a smaller, lighter option, say, notecards, since a lot of writers use them, using different colors to indicate the different categories your freewriting can help you locate specific ideas quickly and with ease when you need them most. You could also use a binder ring and tabs, as well as symbols or different headers, to organizing notecards, but color-coding seems simpler (and more fun!). Carry a few of each color with you when you’re out (Anne Lamott keeps always keeps a notecard in her pocket) and you’ll be ready for anything.


In order to be able to use all those thoughts you jot down in a split moment of genius, you want to have some loose categories in place so you can return to those ideas three months later when you suddenly remember them in the middle of the night, how useful they will be in filling this hole or bridging that gap. For categorizing a notebook, I try to keep things basic, and while I’m not into telling anyone how to do their thing, I consider these five categories the bare essentials of what you need to make your writing notebook work:

1) characters, for profiles, descriptions, histories, and trajectories for all of my major players;

2) plot, for outlines, scene organization, and teasing out twists;

3) dialogue, because dialogue is my weakness and I’m always listening for snippets of conversations or unusual words to slip into my writing for more authentic exchanges;

4) world-building/research, for rules and laws of invented worlds, maps, locations, travel routes, those details about the world that make a story come alive;

and 5) revisions, for all those ideas I have to improve my story as I’m thinking about it during more morning commute or at the grocery store, as I’m washing my hair or falling asleep.

I try to keep my categories fairly broad because if I get to detailed, I can become more invested in making sure my notebook stays organized than actually working on my writing. I should also note that sometimes, a piece of free-writing fits under more than one category, and I’ll have to choose which category I want to file it under. If the idea is really important and I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, I’ll jot it under every category it belongs to (along with asterisks and exclamation marks!!!) to ensure I find it again when I need it.

In order to create your own categories, think about how you typically divide your writing and what would be most helpful for your story uniquely. Can you combine characters and dialogue, but need to divide your world into its various parts? Do you need a category for outlines alone in order to tie together all of your characters plotlines, or maybe one for your protagonist’s complicated family history? Depending on how you work as a writer and how your story works, your categorization may look very different than mine, and that’s okay! Find out what works best for you and what is most helpful to meeting your writing goals.

Separate Notebooks

It may seem obvious to use a different notebook for each project, but in order to maximize my notebooks’ space and keep clutter to a minimum, I used to try to fit all of my current projects into one notebook, just clinging to the hope I wouldn’t mix up notes or shovel ideas from one project to another. As you can imagine, this was a total disaster, as I usually have several works in progress (as well as future ideas) to juggle, all with their own unique parts and unique thoughts I want to remember about them. This whole mess was one of the reasons I looked into an organization system for writing notebooks in the first place, and while I had to give up a little tidiness in my life, I now keep a separate notebook for each of my projects (yep, even short stories! I have a lot of notebooks now).

When I start a notebook for a new project, I’ll use the categories described above, but I have found that even stories from the same author have different needs and may require different or deeper categorization. Sometimes, this is something you know right away and other times it’s something you have to feel out. If your categories aren’t working for you, try expanding or changing them to meet your story’s demands. Knowing how your story is panning out through these overarching categories is not just helpful for organizing your thoughts and ideas, but also for getting to know your story better and where it might lead, even if you haven’t reached the end yet.

I hope these tips help you and happy writing!

/// E.S.T.

NOW TELL ME // Do you use a writer’s notebook? How do you make it work for you? Share your thoughts in a comment!

photo by: Jimena

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