Note: This post is one of a bunch I’ll be writing on the writing process itself. These posts will feature systems I’ve picked up or developed myself to research, structure, and edit my writing.
I found out about this system from Ryan Holiday, but it’s a practice that has been used for centuries by famous figures throughout history. It’s called the “commonplace book,” and it is extremely useful for studying and research.
So what is a commonplace book? A commonplace book is a cache that is filled with references, quotes, anecdotes, ideas, and thoughts that you find interesting in your studies or readings. It’s basically a literary scrapbook of all the stuff you like, enjoy, or find inspiring or interesting or useful.
A lot of famous artists, scientists, writers, and thinkers – from Montaigne to John Locke to Ralph Waldo Emerson – have kept and maintained commonplace books.
The idea behind the commonplace book is to use it as a resource for things you might use later – like a book or a speech or a screenplay or a business. It keeps useful, interesting information at hand so that you don’t have to go scrounging around trying to remember who said that quote you really like or which interview revealed that strange anecdote about your favorite filmmaker.
There are many ways to make and maintain a commonplace book. One way, recommended by Ryan Holiday, is to create index cards for each quote, anecdote, idea that you encounter. You then categorize each card into a theme (like “courage” or “character development” or “programming”) and group cards with the same theme together. You then store the note cards into some kind of depository (a shoe box, a folder, a container) for easy access.
You can also adapt this idea for the digital realm, which is what I do. Whenever I come across a reference or quote or idea, I just create a note in Evernote and I store that note into a certain notebook, usually revolving around a theme or a project I’m working on.
Another method you can use is to create a Word or Google Doc that you continually update over time. This page can be a theme that features many quotes, ideas, thoughts, or references. You can then save the pages in a folder on your desktop or in Google Drive.
Regardless of the way in which you can create and maintain a commonplace book, commonplace books are excellent resources for not only storing cool stuff that you love, but for organizing your own thoughts and, hopefully, creating something cool yourself.
And who knows? Maybe someone will put something of yours in their commonplace book.