Thought Catalog

Everyone Should Keep A Commonplace Book: Great Tips From People Who Do

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Well, the idea of keeping a commonplace book has clearly struck a nerve. Not only did the article make the front page of Reddit and blow up on Facebook and Twitter, but many people emailed in their own methods for keeping a commonplace book.

I understand my method is a little unique — it was taught to me by a rather unique person. But I am very encouraged to see that other people have their own unique way of recording the wisdom they come across in their own lives, in their own reading and during the course of the work. It was also exciting to hear how useful a commonplace book could be for as diverse of occupations as soldier to cook to artist. Whether you use notebooks or notecards or Evernote, a commonplace book is a fantastic idea that I promise will improve your life.

Below are some of the best comments, methods and tricks that I recorded while reading everyone’s responses to my piece. I’m happy to include yours if you want to send it in.

Tips from Readers

Sup909 on Reddit:

I know this may go against the “analog manly nature” of this idea, but this is the sort of thing that Evernote was made for. You can book mark, forward emails, take photos, record audio, add attachments to just about anything and it gets thrown into a “notebook” inside evernote that is accessible from any device. What is even better is that you can easily tag things for multiple projects or ideas and link different notes together with associations. oh yeah, you can take photos of pages or text and it is all OCR’d.

– Samantha writes in with a link to her commonplace book on Tumblr.

Emkay99 on Reddit:

I read very heavily and I write a fair amount, so I’ve been doing this for several decades — though my adherence to recording people’s thoughts and ideas kind of comes and goes. I use a bound lined ledger/record book from the office supply store. I have several lengthy topical files of quotes and such, too, but those mostly come from online sources, so they’re just copied & pasted to text files on my computer. Interesting tidbits from my real reading, though, get copied by hand onto paper.

Krfree on Reddit:

As a cook I have one. It is always in my bag. It not only has recipes, but ideas for flavour combinations, composed dishes, websites, restaurant addresses, quotes from chefs I admire and some prep lists for future events. I think every cook should have one and value it more then their favourite cookbook.

mongoOnlyPawn on Reddit:

I used 4×6 note cards and did this for about 5 years or so in my early 20’s. I had about 500 cards or so.

Then I got really busy with a family, a business, school, homework, kids practices for what seemed like a billion activities, and it just stopped getting updated and used. I think I discarded the box one day long ago. It was a worth while thing to do. I am going to start this up again. Especially since my now 60 year old brain leaks like a…what’s the word?

Note cards worked (for me) because it was;

  • one card, one note
  • automatically limited what could be put on the card, keeping the notes succinct.
  • they were organized into categories, but could be re-sort easily
  • new categories could be made quickly
  • instant on; instant off totally portable and easy to add to, just have a few blank note cards with you

I wonder if a wiki or some electronic solution would be better or worse.

– Maria Popova adds some good context in a post for Explore:

Pair with Virginia Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary and Joan Didion on keeping a notebook.

Of course, one could argue that a thoughtfully curated Tumblr is a “commonplace book” in its own right – after all, isn’t Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, the ultimate commonplace book, essentially a primitive Tumblr?

Redlentils on Reddit:

I have something like that. It is now a 90+ paged document entitled “Empowerment.” It’s about a decade of collecting quotes and helpful information from hundreds of books, magazine articles, and online articles about how to improve oneself.

Zain writes in the comments:

I personally use Evernote for this purpose. As I’m reading a book, I record my notes on Evernote and take snaps directly on Evernote for diagrams. The interesting thing about Evernote is that once I start writing it shows relevant documents and research I did prior in the window below. I’m just sharing the method that has been working for me. I just like the ability to access my material wherever I am without having to carry notebooks and cue cards everywhere I go. I like to do writing outdoors, while travelling or in coffee shops so Evernote is just really convenient for me.

Cratuki on Reddit:

I think the coolest little-black-notebook around at the moment is the Daycraft Signature. I recommend the brown with the orange spine, and write on it using a uniball signo. The pen and paper grade go well together.

Mac/unix geeks might like to try a tool I wrote that gives you a computer version of a common book. Essentially, it gives you a fast way of creating a directory with a fingerprint in the directory name, TrogRD Within that, if I just have one file I call it S. But if I want to add more files, I can. And it avoids creating a messy tree of directories.

For me, chronological ordering is key to keeping track of data. I can usually remember about when you were looking at something. A friend of mine asked, “What does this do that evernote doesn’t do?” I was a bit put out – I wrote this first :)

Tricksterie writes in the comments

I have a good-sized notebook cover which holds my planner (yes, I do paper – ADHD means I have to write everything down at an instant with all relevant info and be able to see it easily, so smartphones are not for me), sketchbook, and a notebook as a commonplace book. Except I number the pages of the commonplace book and create an index on the front page so I can find crap later. It’s a nice habit to get into, particularly since it keeps me from forgetting about all the cool stuff I wanna see/do/eat/watch/read/etc etc.

– Kathy writes in via email:

I just read your article on Thought Catalog – it was fun to learn that my quote books had an actual name. One trick I have to keep things from backing up is due to the fact I can’t afford to buy all the books I want to read. So, I am a huge patron of our local library. When I find a passage I like, I fold down a lower corner like you. But then I have to record it before I return the book to the library, so I have a built-in deadline. I signed up for your reading list, and I am looking forward to getting your recommendations.

Rochilla on Reddit:

I have two, I have my rough copy which includes rough sketches (I’m an artist so most of my notes revolve around drawing ideas) and also use notes on my phone, this is really good for drunken gems. Most of which, in the harsh light of day need to be deleted immediately. I keep my “real” version at home which I transfer all the decent stuff to all pretty like.

Rachel writes in the comments:

Mine have always been in the form of journals with quotes/ideas/inspirations – with no organization. About a year ago, I started using Google Docs instead, because I have horrible handwriting and I thought it would be easier to filter through. It really hasn’t felt the same though. Your article inspired me to go back to my old methods, with some refinements. I am definitely going to try the 3×5 cards. Thanks again for this trove of information and ideas!

Jamiefromhighlands on Reddit:

I like the idea of using notecards, especially for being easily resortable. I used to always just use plain ol’ text documents on the computer but those never lasted more than a couple of years. Computers crash, you don’t log in to a site for awhile and forget your passwords, etc, etc — at least with notecards you could shove ’em in a closet for a few years and you’ll have no issues digging them back out again.

Point-man on Reddit:

I highlight books as I read, and mark each page that I make highlights on with sticky tabs. After I finish reading, I go back through each of the sticky tabbed pages and copy my notes into a new Google Doc document. Occasionally, I review my book summaries and select the best passages for inclusion in a bound notebook which I keep.

Laira writes in the comments:

Handwriting things is just 100x more romantic than typing to me. I also have a thing for buying nice journals, writing in them one time and neglecting them forever. I think I have found a way to reappropriate them. I also keep a hand written planner/calendar. Can’t deal with iPhone calendars. eff that.

bryanlee1981 on Reddit:

I use evernote for a lot of things but I also use these things these things. They smaller ones fit in your pocket and they will last forever or at least until you fill them up. Being in the military I took a lot of notes on various things and having a phone isn’t an option if you work in classified spaces. These things are great and I have a pretty good size box of them that I can always go back to if i need something. I put the date on the back so i know when i started and finished using a particular notebook.

Argh_argh_argh on Reddit:

An index of topics is nice, but there’s so much more you can do. Something like Evernote will index the data and the metadata. So you can search for notes that you took while on vacation or something you wrote down between 5am and 7am for example. Often the metadata can be as useful as the data. In addition, a notebook can’t contain audio or video. Nor can it be hooked up to something like IFTTT for truly pain-free collection.

– Joe H writes in via email:

One of the best engineers I ever worked with got me started with a similar idea for cataloging engineering resources and project notes. Pre-internet, I had a very strict system for cataloging all of my information. Left hand metric thread screws, I probably had a file at one time with several sources, local and nationwide. The internet made me complacent and lazy. I need to get back to my old system. As for books, I’ve started with the Kindle notes and highlights feature. But as you mention, that’s too easy. I need to dig through those on my Kindle and convert them to note cards.

Again, thanks for reminding me of the importance of keeping good notes.

Ludicious on Reddit:

I actually recently started doing something similar using a combination of Evernote and an actual folder/binder. I got the idea from an interview that Mandy Patinkin did on Q with Jian Ghomeshi. The whole idea was that thing that are important or meaningful to you, you should keep close to you – like the way devout Christians might keep a prayer book and memorize prayers. By keeping things like that on hand, and re-acquainting yourself with such things often, even to the point of memorization, you make them a part of you and let them guide your actions.

Pushbuttonopenmind on Reddit

I keep a diary of some sorts through a thing called OhLife (@ www.ohlife.com). It’s a diary service that sends old entries to your email, and you add new entries by replying to those emails. I use it to note down shortly what I did on that day for the sole purpose of helping my future self to make sense of the time, AND force myself to end every entry with 5 quotations that I heard/read that day that made me smile.

I currently have an enormous database of quotes lying around –so much in fact that I [and Google] can track my taste in humour along with my personal well-being (whenever pun threads come up, I’m having a baaaaaaad time). Anyway, those 5 quotes from older entries tend to be the only thing I read later on. They’re like little glimpses of forgotten wisdoms, jokes and time. Doesn’t take a lot of time each day. And though sometimes it’s a bit of an effort to actually get 5 special things down, that keeps me on guard during the day: keep observing!

Ann writes in the comments:

I always make notes in books, flag pages & love going back to them years later. Also love collecting magazine pages, and other sources of images. I’ve started various diaries, journals and sketchbooks on various topics, but inevitably they cross-pollinate & overlap & it’s hard to decide what to out where. This is such a good system. I have a bag of little bits of paper (prior to iPhone invention) with songs, ideas, quote…I’m doing this immediately – organizing & rereading is half the fun!


If anyone else has ideas for keeping a commonplace book, email me or post it in the comments below. TC mark

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