Storing Your Story Ideas: A Commonplace Solution for Writers

How often have you gotten a great story idea while in the middle of something, but by the time you sit down to put the idea into action, POOF!–it’s disappeared–and you are left to instead curse yourself for losing it (whatever it was)?

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as just writing down your ideas! At least, not the way I did it: in a horrifyingly Byzantine combination of paper scraps, email, Google Photos, index cards, and a huge virtual cork board in Scrivener (once I had amassed dozens and dozens of saved thoughts, looking at it onscreen was a nightmare). And don’t even get me started on finding things when I needed them!

So, when I took David Sedaris’s Storytelling and Humor Masterclass a year ago, I came to appreciate his straightforward system. He takes a tiny notepad with him anywhere he goes, and then at the end of the day, he transcribes the “good stuff” into his diary. (Well, diaries…he’s had quite a few over his writing life.) However, even with his far simpler method, I’d need to have a pen and notepad with me at all times–not ideal for someone who sometimes forgets her keys! So instead, I leaned into my natural process: writing temporary thoughts on whatever is handy (or recording them on my phone)–but then, Sedaris-style, I transcribe the best of them…into this.

Commonplace Book example

I made this Commonplace Book out of a huge sketch pad. I had to both glue and packaging-tape the tabs in so they wouldn’t keep falling out, but I’m pretty happy with it now!

What goes in a Commonplace Book? Anything I might want to return to later: doodles, quotes, tidbits, poems, pictures and more. And because of the alphabetical tabs, I can both organize these bits easily but also easily cross-reference things.

This format makes it very easy for me to revisit thoughts: for research, find connections, and remember what originally inspired me. (I print out and paste in digital bits.) Otherwise, I write or draw it, in erasable pen, which makes it easy for me to erase and make room anywhere I need to. (I love these Pilot FriXion erasable pens.)

Now my Commonplace Book feels even more important and intimate than a journal. I guard it with my life!

Just like writing, there’s no set process that works best for everyone. But whatever system you use, make sure it’s working for you–ideally helping you not only do the bare minimum but actually making your writing life easier and more creative. For me, this is the best I’ve found so far.