Writer’s Toolbox: Observation Notebook

When it comes to great ideas, many of us fall in to the, “this is so great, how can I forget it?” problem. Then we forget before we can apply the idea to our project, or jot it down somewhere. Sometimes we do jot it down, but then lose the piece of paper in the piles of other paper lying around. Or worse, we can’t understand what we meant when we come back to read it again later.

Without a place to collect these ideas we run into problems whenever it’s time to write something new, or create a new character. Then, we must resort to building something from nothing. Sometimes we can come up with something that works, sometimes we fail. Wouldn’t it be great if we already had a collection of ideas and characters that we could turn to? Oh yea…

This is where carrying a small notebook comes in handy. Some use their phones for this and email themselves the ideas. Do whatever floats your boat. Then, when you see or feel something that sparks the imagination you can jot down your impressions. So, what do you write? This is the tricky part. If you go out in the world actively looking for things to write, you will end up frustrated. Seeking out a perfect description or character idea for a current project narrows the vision and you will be blind to other ideas. Creativity can’t be forced. It can, however, be coerced to cooperate. The more you open yourself to noticing the world around you, the more you will see, and more ideas will come.

Now, if you already have an idea or concept that you are working on expanding that’s different, that’s research. The observation notebook is meant for gathering new ideas. Both are important.

To find new ideas, I recommend going about normal activities and wait and see what your brain catches hold of. Perhaps in the checkout line you see a tabloid headline that makes you laugh, or an interesting person walks by, or you overhear a comment that makes you want to hear the rest of the conversation. Whatever it is, jot down what triggered your interest, and then what you found so interesting about it. You might know right away that this is something you can use in a current project, or as a new short story, or as a new character; make sure you jot down these thoughts as well. Later on you’ll be grateful, because, trust me, later you might be reading through your notebook and have no idea why you wrote down, “New Zealand Man Eats His Weight in Pennies.”

Stack of Documents

Let’s pretend you have a few dozen of these observations, now it’s time to organize them. This is where you decide what kinds of categories of your observations fall into and then sort them. There really are no rules on how you do this. Some might choose to keep a main observation folder in the computer with a different subfolder for each category and word files within those folders. I think this causes more work than it’s worth, and you run the risk of losing everything should the computer freak out. I prefer using a paper system, there’s something very liberating about having the freedom to write and doodle however you want on the page. This way I can write my observations on whatever I have handy, napkins, school papers, you name it, and then cut, paste, or copy those into the master binder. My categories include: characters, concept ideas, story ideas, descriptions, and miscellaneous for anything that refuses to be categorized.

Armed with a binder filled with great ideas makes the writing process more fun. There’s less agonizing over finding the right detail and more knowing that you have something great at your fingertips that with a tweak or two would be just right.

And that, my friends, makes Happy Writing!


About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
This entry was posted in Art of Writing, Character Development, Concept Creation, Organizational Skills, World Building and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Writer’s Toolbox: Observation Notebook

  1. I love the binder idea. I have dozens of notebooks full of scribbles but I have no idea what any of them mean and I can’t imagine using them in my WIPs. I thought about typing them into Word docs but you can’t flick through digital files. A giant scrap book file is a brillant solution (I could even just have plastic wallets for the categories you suggest and stuff the notes in – better than nothing). Brilliant, thanks!

  2. gpattridge says:

    That sounds very organized. For me I’m usually walking the dog, out at a restaurant, or some other non-writing pursuit when an idea pops into my head. I just have to stop and record the thought into my phone, much to the amazement of anyone next to me. When I’m out of town, I’ll often email my comments to myself and place them in a file I call “Words not used yet.”

    • Jodi says:

      Phones are awesome and it’s getting easier and easier to use them for everything. My phone is my fallback when I can’t find a pen. Now if I could just remember to take a moment and jot down or record the ideas when they come!

  3. Cat Lemonade says:

    I like organization, but for me, just jotting down some notes on paper and then expanding them in a single word doc underneath each novel header does the trick. Then I back it up onto a flash drive, and occasionally I’ll back everything up onto a web drive. I’m terrified that one day my computer will get stolen or an EMP will hit Los Angeles or San Diego and everything I’ve worked on for years and years will be lost forever. I’ve even had nightmares about that happening (not the EMP so much as losing all my work).

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