Writing Tips: Carry a Notebook

carry a notebook

Do you carry a notebook in your pocket, or have you gone digital?

It’s one of those writing tips that pops up everywhere — on lists of writing advice, in quotes bequeathed to us by the masters of writing, and even from the mouths of our teachers and professors: carry a notebook at all times.

After all, you never know when a great idea will strike. It would be awful to lose an idea just because you couldn’t write it down. As long as you carry a notebook and a pen, you’ll never forget a brilliant idea. You might write the last line of your novel while standing in line at the grocery store!

But let’s be clear: the notebook isn’t actually necessary. Most of us have smart phones and other mobile devices that are in many ways better than pens and paper notebooks.

Let’s examine this much-loved writing tip a little closer. Just how critical is it that we tote notebooks and pens everywhere we go?

Don’t Leave Home Without It

Experience has taught me that keeping a notebook handy, like so many other writing tips, is more of a guideline than a rule. When I go for walks, I don’t bring a notebook but I do carry my iPhone, which is loaded with apps that I can use for writing and taking notes. In fact, I find that my iPhone is a far more versatile writing tool than any paper notebook.

Paper Notebooks and Pens

In my work as a writer, I must have access to notebooks and pens, and lots of them. I keep notebooks in my car, purse, nightstand, and on my desk. There are pens to accompany all of them. When I’m working through an idea, I have to brainstorm, make lists, and draw sketches. And I find that if I jot something down in a notebook or on a piece of scrap paper, I can set it on my desk or pin it to my bulletin board so I don’t forget to execute that idea later or file it in the appropriate folder for future use. For example, if I’m reading the news and come across a name that would be perfect for one of my characters, I jot it down on an index card or sticky note and then I add it to my manuscript later that night during my writing session.

Although the apps on my mobile device are handy, sometimes I prefer the tactile experience of pen and paper, especially when I’m brainstorming and need to scrawl ideas all over the place before I can streamline them into an outline or prose.

On the other hand, paper and pens are not always the best or most reliable way to record thoughts and ideas. I’ve been stuck with a pen that ran out of ink on more than one occasion, and I’ve found that they are of no use whatsoever when I’m hit with inspiration while driving. And it’s not always convenient to carry a notebook and pen around.

Apps and Gadgets

Admittedly, the more technology improves, the less I use paper notebooks and journals. On many occasions, I’ve typed notes into my iPhone instead of writing them on paper. In fact, my iPhone contains a host of apps that make writing and note-taking a breeze. Here are a few examples:

  • Evernote is one of the greatest apps ever invented. I have it installed on my computer, phone, and iPad. If I’m running errands and get a writing idea, I can make a note in the app and it will automatically sync across all my devices, which means later that night, when I’m working on my project, the note is already on my computer and ready to be copied and pasted into my manuscript.
  • I’m a visual person. I may not be much of an artist, but I like to collect images that inspire me, especially images I can use to represent my characters. If I’m away from my desk and I see something that I want to use in my writing, I can snap a picture of it with my phone instead of trying to describe it so that I can remember it later.
  • The voice recorder on my phone has been an enormous convenience. A few years ago, I used voicemail to capture ideas while I was driving. Now, I can just click on the voice recorder. Coupled with voice-to-text software, this practically allows me to write while I’m driving, which is pretty amazing.

Technology has come a long way, but I think it’s only scratched the surface in terms of what it can do for writers. Scrivener, my favorite program for writing book-length projects, recently launched an app for the iPad, which I think will be a game changer, especially since it syncs across devices (using Dropbox). And although tablets make sketching and brainstorming a lot easier than say, a traditional computer, they still haven’t reached the nuance of working with pen and paper (at least not the mainstream tablets and accessories). I’m looking forward to new technology for writers that is surely coming down the pipeline.

Relying on Memory

I want to say a few words about relying on memory, because there are many writers who don’t carry notebooks and who don’t rush to make a record of every single idea they have. Admittedly, a few years ago, I thought those writers were crazy because they were willing to risk losing some of their best ideas, but lately I’ve found some benefits to forgoing a notebook or writing down every idea that strikes. Last year I filled dozens of pages in a notebook with ideas for a novel, and I ended up scrapping all of them. Those ideas were the seeds for future ideas that I did use, but in retrospect, I didn’t really need to write it all down. Now I work through scenes and ideas in my mind before committing them to the page.

I don’t know if the following story is true or not, but consider it:

Ludovico Buonarrati, Michelangelo’s father. He was a wealthy man. He had no understanding of the divinity in his son, so he beat him. No child of his was going to use his hands for a living. So, Michelangelo learned not to use his hands. Years later a visiting prince came into Michelangelo’s studio and found the master staring at a single 18 foot block of marble. Then he knew that the rumors were true — that Michelangelo had come in everyday for the last four months, stared at the marble, and gone home for his supper. So the prince asked the obvious — what are you doing? And Michelangelo turned around and looked at him, and whispered, “sto lavorando,” (I’m working). Three years later that block of marble was the statue of David. (source)

A Writer’s Work is Never Done

Do you carry a notebook? Do you use a smart phone or other device to record your ideas when you’re on the go? How do you keep track of all your ideas? Leave a comment!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


17 Responses to “Writing Tips: Carry a Notebook”

  1. Kelvin Kao says:

    I’ve been using this app called Clear on my iPhone. It’s a simple app that just let you make lists. I have a list for blog articles ideas and another list for video ideas. Some of these actually turned into something I posted on my blog. There have also been times that I was talking to friends about creative ideas and I ended up going down the list with them (and man, they are wacky!).

  2. Deborah Christensen says:

    This is a great post. It reminds me to do this more.

    I carry my iPod Touch, which has the same apps as the iPhone. I also use Livescribe pen and the special paper that comes with it. It’s great for writing down ideas and uploading them to my computer.


    • I just went to the Livescribe website to see what this gadget is all about. I want one! I just can’t justify the cost since I can do almost the same thing with my iPad and stylus. But I’ll keep my eye on Livescribe and similar devices because I would definitely like to digitize all my notes and save paper!

  3. This is a great post. It reminds me to do this more.

    I carry my iPod Touch, which has the same apps as the iPhone. I also use Livescribe pen and the special paper that comes with it. It’s great for writing down ideas and uploading them to my computer.


    P.S. The link above leads to the wrong place. 🙂

    • I know the link leads to an unexpected website but it is the correct one. The quote is from the TV show LOST and the link goes to the dialogue for that scene. If you scroll down once or twice, you’ll see the quoted dialogue.

  4. Tom Gunn says:

    I’ve found it’s more useful to record, not “ideas” but scenes, bits of dialog, titles, names, etc. Recording ideas can be perilous for me because it tends to lead me to being off my focus. Plus ideas are sexy–you get a creative rush without having to actually accomplish anything. Recording observations helps me to just be more aware and I think that sense of awareness finds its way into my fictional scenes.

    • This bears repeating: “Plus ideas are sexy–you get a creative rush without having to actually accomplish anything.”

      Ideas ARE sexy. Having an idea is an accomplishment of sorts. Executing an idea is even better.

  5. Jennifer says:

    -I carry a small composition book and a Ticonderoga #1 pencil when I go out. At home, it’s a full-sized composition book and a Ticonderoga #1 pencil. I prefer low-tech. Paper, pen and pencil have worked for thousands of years and will work for thousands more.
    -I have nothing against high-tech (I love my computer), but when it comes to writing, I’ll take paper and pencil any day.

    • Sally says:

      I agree! I love using my computer but when it comes down to it….I prefer carrying a notebook and a nice pen to write with. It just excites me more when I’m carrying a notebook. I feel a little more inspired to write down my story ideas. Ideas strike any moment and a pencil and paper is the fastest and most convenient way to jot them down.

    • Throughout the years, I’ve preferred pen and paper too, but as I move more toward publishing what I write (especially blog posts), I’ve opted to use technology so I don’t have to type what I’ve already written (a task I find rather tedious). I do feel more creative with pen and paper, which is what I use to to hash out ideas. Thanks for telling us about your notebooks and writing instruments!

  6. Wendy Higham says:

    I love carrying my notebook around and make all sorts of notes in it. Also I run a children’s writing group and encourage the kids to do the same. It’s encouraging to hear what they’ve popped in their note books and seeing them so enthusiastic is amazing. x

    • My niece is four years old. She knows her letters, but she can’t read yet (she’s just learning to sound out words). She LOVES her journals (I supply them). She doesn’t carry them around everywhere, but she “writes books and stories” in them. Kids are so creative!

  7. Phillip T. Stephens says:

    I used to carry my Moleskine with me everywhere, and then type the most important stuff into my laptop. But then Apple introduced the iPad, and I gave up the Moleskine for my iPad. I used iA Writer as my standard notepad app for years on the iPad because it would sync with my Mac, but Ulysses and Scrivners finally caught up with iPad versions and now I’m in writer’s heaven. Between those two apps and my iPad I have replaced any need for a notebook.

    Good thing, because my wife threw out my backpack with my Moleskines, thinking they were junk. All those unentered notes gone forever.

    This is why I prefer digital. You can back up endlessly.


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