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Writing

How to Keep a Commonplace Book: 4 Benefits of Commonplacing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 5 min read

Organizing your musings, ideas, and experiences by writing them down or recording them in some way is a helpful practice to maintain in life, especially if you are a writer. You might already have a healthy journaling habit—like morning pages, dream journaling, or journaling with the goal of improving your creative writing—but there’s a complementary practice that many authors and thinkers throughout history have also turned to.

This method is called commonplacing or creating a commonplace book, and it’s an effective way to catalog for future reference the kind of informational and inspirational nuggets you stumble across in your day to day.

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What Is a Commonplace Book?

A commonplace book is a system for writing down and sorting all manner of tidbits: quotes, anecdotes, observations, and information gleaned from books, conversations, movies, song lyrics, social posts, podcasts, life experiences, or anything else that you might want to return to later.

It’s called a commonplace book because you collect all of this in one common place—a central resource that makes it easy to find, re-read, and utilize each piece of wisdom you have obtained. Some prefer a commonplace notebook system, while others use an intricate series of index cards, and others still create a digital commonplace book using various apps.

Who Uses Commonplacing?

The idea of a commonplace book goes at least as far back as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations—a vital text in Stoic philosophy—began as a private collection of notes, thoughts, and quotations. The form picked up popularity in the Middle Ages thanks to Erasmus’s instructive De Copia. It grew across the Renaissance (Francis Bacon made over 1,600 entries in his commonplace book) and the Enlightenment when John Locke penned A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books.

Commonplacing was adopted by all sorts of intellectuals by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continues to be to this day. Thomas Jefferson was known to keep one commonplace book for legal references and another for literary ones. Authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf used the technique, while modern proponents include Ronald Reagan and Bill Gates. Though essentially a written form of scrapbooking, commonplacing has been valuable to countless big thinkers over the years.

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4 Benefits of Keeping a Commonplace Book

  1. To remember what inspired you. Living in the Information Age, it’s easy to come across interesting figures of speech, inspirational passages, and new favorite quotes—and just as easy to forget them once you’ve moved on to something else. Having your own commonplace book allows you to return to these tidbits and rediscover the feeling they originally gave you.
  2. To save hours on research. If you’ve got a writing project—whether it’s an article, a speech, a novel, or a memoir—having a commonplace book can save you tons of time. You can skip scouring your memory, searching the Internet, or combing through the marginalia of your book collection when you have a personalized encyclopedia of quotations, references, and ideas.
  3. To find unexpected connections. Commonplacing is a unique form of note-taking in that you are basically bookmarking anything that you find interesting. Depending on your system of cataloging, this means a quote from a Greek philosopher might end up next to a lyric from a pop song or a story a friend told you. In writing, such connections can lead to inspiration.
  4. To focus your future reading. As your own commonplace book evolves, you may find that you have a new lens by which to approach and examine media you consume. Reading books, listening to podcasts, or even having conversations can become didactic pursuits as you seek out perspectives and information that add to or differ from what you’ve already gathered.

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3 Ways to Keep a Commonplace Book

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There is no one right way to keep and use a commonplace book. It is critical to find a style and system that feels comfortable to you so that keeping up with commonplacing doesn’t become a chore. After all, the purpose of the book is to save time and provide inspiration.

  1. Notecards. One popular method utilizes notecards filed in a small box using dividers that can be labeled according to topic. You’ll write your recently gleaned nugget of wisdom on a single card, and then file it under an appropriate topic, which can be virtually anything (“Creativity,” “Finances,” “Humor”). Rather than force a range of topics on your commonplace book at the beginning, let your categories of interest emerge organically as you come across new bits you want to add. Furthermore, buying index cards in different colors can allow for another level of organization, such as the type of information stored on the card. For instance, you may decide to use pink cards for literary passages, white cards for overheard quotes, and green cards for ideas.
  2. Notebooks. Another method involves filling notebooks with commonplace entries. While this fosters less flexibility, you can still create a system for sorting your chosen tidbits. Leave space at the beginning of each notebook for a table of contents, within which you are free to enter anything (a title, a source, a brief summary) that quickly evokes the specific quote, idea, or anecdote that you’ve written down in the book. Also leave space at the end of each notebook for an index. Here you can list topics or themes that appear within the entries of your commonplace book (“Leadership,” “Nature,” “Writing”), as well as the type or source of information gathered (“quote,” “story,” “idea”) if you wish. The notebook approach makes it a bit easier to cross-reference when an entry touches on more than one topic or theme.
  3. Digital. You can use various apps and word-processing programs for digital commonplacing. Depending upon the program, you may be able to tag individual entries with relevant topics, themes, info types, and sources, and then later sort your entries using the tag of your choice.

Whatever method you use for commonplacing, the most important thing is to keep adding to your book. This is a lifelong process, and its value increases the more that you put into it.

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