Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Why Writers Should NEVER Carry a Notebook

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: The right tool for the job applies to writers, too. And sometimes, the right tool can make all the difference in our productivity. Laurence MacNaughton takes his monthly place at the podium today to share one of his go-to tools for keeping track of his notes and story ideas. For all you NaNoWriMo'ers...this would be very handy come October when you're planning your November novels (and pair well with a certain plotting book, too!).  

Before I became a published author, I used to carry around a writing notebook in my back pocket. You know the kind I'm talking about: the little black book that tells the world you’re a Serious Writer. But that little notebook is a big mistake, I eventually learned. Here are three reasons why you should ditch it, and what you need to keep in your pocket instead.

Problem #1: A notebook locks your notes in rigid sequential order.

Creativity is fickle. New ideas come to us at random, unpredictable times. And they arrive in our brains completely out of order.

Raise your hand if you always think through all of your ideas from beginning to end, perfectly, right off the top of your head.

Anybody? No? Me either.

The problem with a traditional notebook is that you can only write things down in the order you think of them, not the order they need to be in. That necessitates spending a lot of time flipping back and forth through your pages to find something later.

Problem #2: With a notebook, you can't sort your ideas by topic.

I highly doubt that there are any writers out there who only work on one single story idea, ever. We have plenty of ideas inside us. Some good, some bad. When you jot them all down in the same notebook, everything gets jumbled together.

Everything becomes confusing. Being a writer is confusing enough.

You don't want to have to face the unpleasant choice of either leaving everything jumbled, or laboriously transcribing your notes from your notebook into other projects notebooks or folders. Or carrying around a pile of different notebooks for different projects.

There has to be a better way. And there is, but hold that thought for one more moment.

(Here's more on Why OneNote is One-Derful for Writers)

Problem #3: Those little notebooks fill up fast.

Let's face it: any notebook that’s small enough to fit in your pocket can't hold all that many pages. You'll need another one soon, and another one after that. You’re constantly leaving good ideas behind in your old notebooks.

Pretty soon, you'll have a desk drawer packed full of forgotten ideas that you never seem to get around to using, because they're too hard to find.

That's just plain depressing. But don't worry. There's a better way.

Allow me to introduce you to the un-notebook.

Don't get me wrong: jotting down your ideas is crucial for every writer. Just don't use a bound notebook for the job.

You can completely maximize your note-taking skills for less than a dollar. The solution is as close as the nearest office supply store.

Index cards.

I'm dead serious. They may seem useless, but these things are little 3 x 5 rectangles of pure creative opportunity.

An index card is about the same size as a page in one of those little black notebooks. Just big enough for a complete thought, but small enough to focus your ideas to a fine point. The difference is, these “pages” aren't bound together.

That means you can lay them out on the table, so that you can see all of your ideas at once. You can rearrange them at will. Sort them by topic, importance, chronological order, or assemble them in any way that makes sense to you.

Move them around. Throw some out. Add more in the middle. Shuffle up the order and see if any new ideas occur to you.

You can do practically anything with index cards. Prop them up in front of your keyboard as you write. Stick them on the fridge to muse over them at night. Pin them upon a corkboard. Clip them to your manuscript pages. Put them in a box for later. Whatever works for you.

And perhaps best of all, the "un-notebook" never runs out. It never fills up. Grab a few more cards every so often, and there will always be another blank page waiting for your next big idea.

What's the best way to keep index cards close at hand?

You could simply jam a stack of index cards in your pocket. That's fine. Messy, but fine.

You can also rubber-band them together. Or use a binder clip. Punch a hole in the corner and use a binder ring. All of those are good options.

My personal favorite is the “pocket briefcase” from Levenger. It’s a beautifully crafted leather wallet made just for 3 x 5 index cards. I've carried mine around for five years now, and it still looks nearly brand-new.

It has two outside pockets and a center pocket, all lined with cloth. The stitching is impeccable. But the finest feature on the whole thing is the clipboard. Instead of using a metal clip, it uses tiny leather pockets to grab onto the ends of the card and hold it in place. Ingenious.

You wouldn’t think so, but the “pocket briefcase” makes a perfect writing surface. It’s rigid enough to act as a clipboard, while the leather surface gives you the feel of writing on a luxurious leather desk blotter.

In other words, it’s absolutely the perfect tool (and the perfect gift, hint hint) for any writer.

And if you need something to write with, I highly recommend the practically bulletproof Fisher Space Pen. It has a lifetime guarantee. Clip one to your keychain, so that it's always handy. That alone will change your life.

Are you up to the index card challenge?

It sounds like such a tiny thing, capturing your ideas on index cards. But the payoff is real. After I ditched my notebooks and switched to index cards, my creativity and productivity soared.

True story: while I was writing one of my first books, I kept struggling with the story structure, and I just couldn't seem to make it work. Then one day, I wrote all of the scenes on index cards, shuffled them up, and started laying them out in a completely new order. Suddenly, everything made so much more sense. The light bulb went on over my head. That book went on to become became one of my first published novels, and earned a blurb from a New York Times best-selling author.

So here's my challenge to you. Get a short stack of index cards, carry them around in your pocket for a week, and write down all of the ideas that occur to you. Take them out and play with them. Lay them out. Move them around. Think about them. I'm willing to bet that after a few days, you will find yourself having more ideas, better ideas, and bigger ideas than ever before.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. Great idea! Thank, I'm going to try it.

    1. Go for it, Carrie! See what it does for you, and let me know what you think.

  2. I love index cards! I am old enough to remember being taught how to use them to write a research paper. Have never given them up. I too carry them around to jot plot ideas and character traits. In addition, I use them to note down writing tips such as Janice's revision steps. Flipping through them as I revise is way faster than logging onto the computer and pulling up the files. Great post. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Zara! Glad you enjoyed the article. Those same techniques for organizing a research paper can work for organizing a novel, too. Happy writing!

  3. I prefer dot grid notebooks myself, but a lot of people find the index card approach very useful. If you look up "hipster PDA" you can find many potentially useful resources -- quick reference cards, etc.

    1. Oh, yeah! I remember that article. Yes. You can really go gonzo with the index card method, if you want. (I'm sure somebody out there has combined the hipster PDA with bullet journaling and Getting Things Done.) Personally, I like to keep things simple, but everyone's different. Try different things out and see what works best for you personally!

  4. Laurence, I think I might have a better idea, one that takes your idea to the next level. [How many times have you heard that phrase?] Actually, it isn't a new idea at all. I'm quite certain other writers are doing this. Instead of having physical index cards, use Evernote on your phone. I reorganize and purge my Evernote app every so often without any problems.

    1. Sure, Evernote is neat and all . . . just not for me. There's no right or wrong answer here. Go with whatever method helps you be most creative. : )

  5. I handwrite my novels before typing them up, so I'm just going to stick with carrying around a little notebook for my ideas. LOL

  6. Love index cards! I use them to do my research, then put them in a little index card box like it's a filing cabinet.
    For story ideas, I tend to toss them around in my head for a long time before I write anything down about them. Daydream, then create on paper.

    1. I dream that someday I'll find an old library card catalog cabinet at an antique store and put it in my office. : )

  7. I bristled as I read your headline! I knew you were dead wrong! Notebooks are perfect! Except, I was using index cards... And that's what you were suggesting. My suggestion may be strange, and may not work for other people. My wife uses lined cards... I find I'm more productive using ones with a grid on them instead. Very useful for sketching, and somehow my brain shifts to be more creative with graph paper, either sheets, steno pads or idex cards of it. -tc

    1. There are so very many handy varieties of index cards out there, sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store. Just the other day, I discovered self-stick cards. Real possibilities there!

  8. I have a few pretty little journals but I started using colored notecards after I read one of your previous posts. Now I'm going to get a pack of white ones for random ideas. This morning while walking the beach, I came up with some lines that don't fit in my current WIP, but I don't want to lose it. A notecard is perfect to save for future use. Or not.

    1. No harm in jotting them down. You never know what will come out just right later.