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At its most simple form, a commonplace book is a collection of quotes and favorite paragraphs from a book you’ve read.
I learned about the commonplace book from Pinterest. When I dived in to know more, I came across Ryan Holiday’s post on the subject where he shares the method he learned from Robert Greene.
Instead of keeping all the gathered information in a notebook, they used index cards.
The important thing is to do it in a way that makes it compelling to go back and use what you put down in writing from your reading.
I remember Marie Kondo, the declutter mentor, sharing that she tried to minimize her book collection by writing down her favorite passages and then getting rid of the book. She stopped this method altogether because she never went back to reread what she wrote. I think a commonplace book could be the solution because, with the right content and index setup, you will have a never-ending source of inspiration from all your reading (though I would never get rid of my books).
In a way, I have always kept some form of a commonplace book. The notes have, however, been scattered across notebooks, journals, and snippets of paper. And this has left them more or less useless. I love the idea that I can keep it all in one place using index cards.
My Commonplace Book on Writing
This year I decided to read a book about the practice of creative writing each other week and I started filling out a notebook with the highlighted prompts from my reading, not knowing that this could be my first step towards compiling a commonplace book about writing.
But there are so many layers to writing, and to learn more about the craft of writing, I need more than prompts ( though they are the fastest way to make sure that I do some writing instead of only reading about it). I love to learn about all the elements of writing like setting, character, and plot although my favorite subject is the routines of writers and authors.
So my first try with the index cards for my commonplace book is going to revolve around creative writing and the things I learn from all the great books and other resources on this subject.
I find it a bit difficult to commit to a specific system when it comes to indexing. It is going to be a matter of trial and error while I compile more and more entries. But this is where I am at with my commonplace book at this point.
I first came up with the topics. If you can’t come up with any, go through the table of contents of books on the subject matter you have chosen and go with the ones that speak to you.
Mine is at the moment| Setting, character, plot, story, routines/habits, and nonfiction.
Then I make some form of separation system that shows the different topics in a quick overview
I used envelopes by writing the topic on each flap. In that way, I can also put the index cards in the envelope if I need to take them with me instead of the whole box
In the top left corner of each index card, I draw the icon I have assigned to show whether it is a quote, a writing prompt, a paragraph from the book, or some form of practice I want to adopt.
This compile can also become part of a much larger collection where I keep notes on my other interests. Then the topics become subtopics to the overarching theme of writing. Other themes can be philosophy, blogging, and adventures.
But the most important part is to go back and use the index cards. This is where the magic happens.
This is not my last and only attempt to keep a commonplace book. I want to go through my old study notes and transfer them to this system so I can get rid of a lot of papers. I also want to hone in on the craft of writing a memoir using this method and then there is all the different interest I have in life like philosophy, theology, gardening, astrology, and creativity.
Action step | Start a commonplace book using index cards. Let the entries be from the book you are reading right now. Start with five quotes and write each of them on a separate index card. And then follow the steps above
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