Search Results for: commonplace book

Using a Commonplace Book to Incubate Ideas—The Power of “Zero Drafts”

Of the many benefits of keeping a commonplace book, the one I find most powerful is allowing ideas to simmer, develop, and build  over time.


In a masterful post, Tony Schwartz describes this as incubation—a crucial stage in creative thinking:

The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can’t seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions. After writing for 90 minutes, for example, the best thing I can do to jog my brain, is take a run.

I recommend that you do more than take an exercise break. When you set up your commonplace book, create a section for zero drafts that you incubate over time.

How to create a zero draft

I got the term zero draft from Christian Tietze, coauthor of a wonderful blog about commonplacing. “This draft isn’t meant for reading,” he notes. It’s even worse than the shitty first draft we all need to embrace. This is Frankenstein’s monster turned into text.”

A zero draft is midway between a collection of random notes and the first draft of an article or book on a specific topic. More precisely, it is a growing collection of notes about a single topic grouped into a flat outline.

By flat, I mean just two levels of content:

  • The title of an article, blog post, presentation, or book chapter that you might create
  • Subheadings—one for each major point you could make or story that you could tell to flesh out the title

To create a zero draft, simply “dump” (copy and paste) any relevant notes (facts, anecdotes, quotes, examples, and other information) under the most appropriate subheading. (To get ideas for subheadings, consider some common frameworks for nonfiction writers.)

Note: This process of dumping notes is much harder when you have a “deep” outline with two or more levels of headings: Each level adds another layer of decisions to make about where to place an individual note. By keeping your outline flat, you eliminate all those extra decisions.

Always be researching, always be writing 

Always have several zero drafts in process. Each one might start simply as a note with a working title for something you’d like to publish or present in the future. Add subheadings as they occur to you. When you run across a relevant fact or quote, paste it under the appropriate subheading.

To get the most benefit from this process:

  • Allow plenty of time for adding notes to your zero draft.
  • Review your zero drafts weekly, revising them as you see fit.
  • Remember that zero drafts are not even “shitty first drafts.” They’re simply collections of notes without introductions, transitions, or conclusions. Zero drafts acquired their name because they come before any draft, even the first one.
  • Allow your evolving creations to slowly shape themselves. Some zero drafts naturally fall away and fade into your archives. Others will flourish and expand into projects that you commit to finish. In either case, your zero drafts will speak to you and tell you how they want to be developed. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own.

Two benefits of zero drafts

This approach allows for incubation, as Tiago Forte explains:

Too often, we force ourselves to take an idea from blue sky ideation to practical execution in 48 hours flat. We call it a “rapid prototyping sprint,” and pride ourselves on how little time was spent, as if a new idea is something to be excreted and moved on from as quickly as possible.

But again, this is not how our mind works. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about how the brain continues working on problems through the night, or as you do household chores, or take a shower, or do grocery shopping.

The post from which I took the above quote offers an example of incubation. Tiago describes it as the product of a “slow burn”—a process of collecting notes from more than 25 sources over the period of a year.

In addition, zero drafts help you separate the tasks of researching and writing. Every time I try to combine those tasks during one sitting, I end up frustrated and ready to quit. The mental effort required to switch tasks between gathering notes and crafting notes into a first draft is just too great.

Above all, approach zero drafts with a sense of play. See them as mini-experiments and works in progress. Create them to have fun and guide your learning—independent of any deadline. Allow the slow burn to sizzle and then explode into your next big creation.

For more on this topic, see:

Link Feast: Commonplace Books and PIM

My posts about keeping a commonplace book for personal information management (PIM) have led me to other people who are publishing valuable information on these topics.


Tiago Forte is currently my “go-to” source on note-taking as a tool for thinking and workflows for productivity. Tiago is steeped in the relevant research and distills it into useful instructions. His posts offer the most sophisticated treatment of these topics that I’ve seen. Check out his blog, starting with:

Ryan Holiday advocates commonplacing and has published several pieces about his process:

Christian Tietze and Sascha Fast blog about The Zettelkasten Method. Zettelkasten is German for “slip box,” a commonplace book consisting of notes on index cards. In addition, Christian and Sascha published a new book in German on this topic. I’m waiting for an English translation.

Evernote, the note-taking app, has inspired many posts about commonplacing. See the Evernote blog, especially posts by Taylor Pipes. Also sample Michael Hyatt’s posts about Evernote. Note that most of the core principles in these posts apply to any note-taking system, including paper-based tools and other note-taking apps such as OneNote (my favorite).

Taking note—A blog on the nature of note-taking is also worthwhile. There’s lots here about the history of commonplacing, along with some deliciously nerdy cognitive psychology. Enjoy.


How a Commonplace Book Differs From a Journal

A friend asked me about the difference between keeping a journal and keeping a commonplace book: “Aren’t they two words for the same thing?”


At the moment I didn’t have a good answer. Then I stumbled on to a website from the University of Chicago about the history of books. There I found a page about Commonplace Thinking with this passage:

A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading. Commonplacing was a system of using books in which readers digested the books they read by extracting, ordering and recording particular phrases or passages in notebooks of their own. This process encouraged readers to atomize books by isolating units that might later be useful in one or another discursive context….

This gets to the heart of the distinction between a journal and a commonplace book. I see three activities that a commonplace book emphasizes more.

A commonplace book preserves the best of your reading

Think back to the times when books were not widely available, and when libraries were few. When people did manage to get their hands on a book, it was truly an event.

To aid their memory, people copied out—by hand—their favorite passages from an author into a blank, bound set of papers. This served as a portable mini-library to savor at any moment.

This is how commonplace books began. And it’s still a powerful application of the concept. When filled with quotations—the “greatest hits” from the your favorite authors—a commonplace book distills all your reading into a single, personally-curated collection.

A commonplace book promotes creative thinking

The beautiful thing about a collection of quotations is that you can read them in any order and move them around.

Each individual quotation is an “atom” of thought. When you collect quotations from several books by different authors on the same topic, you see these atoms in a broader context. Your individual way of combining them can lead to new insights.

In his book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler referred this way of thinking as bisociation. For him, it was the essence of creativity.

A commonplace book is a step toward making ideas public

Commonplace books are more output-oriented and outward-facing than journals. They’re used to create things that go out into the world, such as:

  • Articles, blog posts, books, and other publications (literally, ideas made public)
  • Services based on the exchange of information, such as training, consulting, and coaching
  • Businesses and other organizations that are closely tied to a mission

Each of these starts as an idea in someone’s head. A commonplace book is the perfect system for capturing such ideas, developing them, refining them, and making plans to implement them.

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Commonplace Book

363017310_9d8bf3ac1f_mThere’s a cool word in German for commonplace book — zettelkasten, which means “card index” or “slip box.”

Christian Tietze wrote a book about using a zettelkasten, which he defines as “a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.”

Today zettelkasten refers to any system—digital or paper-based—used for this purpose. Check out the following posts from Christian for more details.

  • Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing: “Notes can and should stimulate new associations and foster your creativity just like a good talk does.”
  • Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten: “Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes.”
  • Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten: “In short, you and your note archive can communicate with one another if the results your archive produces are sufficiently surprising and thought-inspiring.”
  • You Only Find What You Have Identified: “The objective of a Zettelkasten note archive is to store notes and allow connections. Both are necessary to extend our mind and memory.”
  • The Need to Craft: “Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.”
  • Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing: “A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through.”

P.S. Index cards are great for capturing ideas on the run, as Hipster PDA fanatics will remind you.

Photo credit: hawkexpress via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Journey Notes—More Lists to Enrich Your Commonplace Book

7012412-MAfter posting that lists of many kinds can become vital elements of your commonplace book, I remembered one of my favorite books—JourneyNotes: Writing for Recovery and Spiritual Growth by Richard Solly and Roseann Lloyd. Though out of print, it’s a shining gem. Maybe your local library or used book store has a copy.

JourneyNotes includes a whole chapter about the power of lists. The authors note that even a humble shopping list is a “symbol of a world greater than itself”:

… a summary of what you need, want, or have, or see at a particular moment in time. It’s an overview, a summary of the crucial facts of the state of one aspect of your life. It’s a kind of blueprint that can be a guide to the future.

Richard and Roseann suggest several types of lists as paths to insight and value-driven behavior.

Lists as warm-ups for writing

Dealing with writer’s block? Then make a list of:

  • What you would write about if you weren’t feeling blocked
  • Your favorite words and phrases
  • Images that you find mysterious
  • What you’re thinking and feeling at the present moment
  • Sensory details—what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting right now
  • Quotes from a conversation that you’re overhearing (or overheard recently) that could become dialogue between characters in a story

Emergency lists

Emergency lists are created to keep you sane during bouts of confusion, fear, anger, or sadness. I describe them as “lifesavers.”

For instance, people who feel lonely can list ways to recognize their isolation. They can also list friends and relatives who are open to calls and visits.

Richard and Roseann remind us that the simple, straightforward nature of a list becomes a lifeline during moments of despair:

When we are in a downward spiral, we forget what we know. We panic, go blank, split, numb out. If we have a list—in a familiar place, like the first page of a journal, or taped by the wall by the phone—we are more likely to catch ourselves before we fall.

Lists for self-discovery

One of my favorite self-discovery lists comes from a wonderful podcast by meditation teacher Jonathan Foust. He offers a list of questions for moving from personal insight to intentional action:

  • What are you not willing to pay attention to right now?
  • What are you feeling right now?
  • What are you not willing to feel?
  • Are you willing to be with this?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What could be great about this?
  • What’s not perfect about your life yet?
  • What are you willing to do about this?
  • What are you no longer willing to do about this?
  • How can you resolve this and have a great time doing it?

Lists that work over time

Lists of this kind are spiritual practices. For example, people in recovery from addiction make lists of resentments to release and amends to make. They also write gratitude lists.

In Japan, people in treatment for addiction sometimes do Naikan practice. This is based on listing answers to three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

Yoshimoto Ishin, creator of Naikan, emphasized the third question. This one helps us overcome our natural self-centeredness and open our heart to other people.

For instance, make a list of the people who were affected when you procrastinated on a task or failed to meet a deadline. Seeing the names in front of you is an inducement to change your behavior in the future.


Enrich your commonplace book with a list of slogans, sayings, and quotations to review on a regular basis.

I’ll end this post with a quotation collected in JourneyNotes, originally circulated among members of a Twelve Step recovery group:


Tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience.

An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.

Loss of interest in judging other people.

Loss of interest in judging self.

Loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.

Loss of ability to worry. (This is a very serious symptom.)

Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.

Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature.

Frequent attacks of smiling through the eyes from the heart.

Increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen.

Increased susceptibility to love extended by others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it.

Warning: If you have all or even most of the above symptoms, please be advised that your condition of PEACE may be so far advanced as not to be curable


10 Useful Lists to Keep in Your Commonplace Book

Lists can be liberating. Umberto Eco, novelist and philosopher, boldly described lists as “the origin of culture.” I learned this from Maria Popova, creator of the immensely popular Brain Pickings and a herself a great lover of lists.

One timeless use of a commonplace book is to curate the lists that you find most useful. The possibilities are limitless. Following is a list of lists for you to consider.

  1. Current projects

What’s “on your plate” right now? It’s hard to answer that question unless you have a list of the projects that you’re committed to finish in the near future.

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, defines a project as any outcome that will take you more than one action to achieve. One of the core activities in his Getting Things Done (GTD) method is keeping an updated list of your current projects.

When you do this, be prepared for surprise. You might have more projects underway than you can possibly complete this year. To save your sanity, delete or defer some of them.

  1. Next actions

This is another list from David. (Actually, the first 5 items in this post are all GTD ideas.) A next action is something you can do immediately to move one of your current projects to completion.

Next actions are physical, visible behaviors—something that distinguishes them from the undefined stuff on most to-do lists. Learn more about next actions here.

  1. “Waiting for” items

Do you delegate tasks to coworkers and family members? If so, don’t let those items slip through the cracks. Keep a list of what you’re waiting for people to do. Add names and due dates.

  1. “Someday/maybe” items

This is a “bucket list” of fun things you might like to do in the future. Your someday/maybe list is a sacred place to hold projects that you’re not committed to yet but don’t want to forget. Get more details from this post by Andre Kibbe.

  1. Checklists

These can range from shopping lists and lists of stuff to pack when you travel to lists of core values and long-range goals.

Atul Gawande, physician and author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, describes the power of checklists to save lives. (Shane Parrish wrote a nice summary of the book.)

  1. People who matter

Bronnie Ware, a nurse who worked in hospice care, wrote Regrets of the Dying. One thing that many patients told her was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Keep a list of family members and friends that you want to contact regularly. On your death bed, you’ll be glad you did.

  1. Mistakes made, lessons learned

I’ve learned more from my mistakes than from anything I’ve ever read or heard. My commonplace book includes a running list of my mistakes and the life-changing insights they produced. This is a fairly long section.

My goal is to avoid repeating past mistakes—and to make only interesting and instructive mistakes in the future.

I also take comfort in this list of people who persisted through failure to success.

  1. Favorite quotations

Many of mine are from a favorite book—The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas. Tad reminds me that “We are always in the company of our equals” and to “Love as much as you can from wherever you are.” These lines have saved me from self-induced misery on several occasions.

To rise above the herd, verify the sources of your quotations. Sadly, many of the quotations embedded in articles and books are misattributed and inaccurate. Get the straight poop fromGarson O’Toole’s masterful Quote Investigator.

  1. Things to read, watch, hear, and learn

See Dan Coleman’s lists of free audiobooks, ebook, films, and courses at Open Culture. They can keep you busy for the rest of your life.

  1. Text playlist

I got this idea from a wonderful post by Leo Babauta. He defines a text playlist as “a series of articles I come back to and read on a regular basis, for inspiration or as a reminder.”

See Leo’s list here. Also check out examples from Liz Danzico and Frank Chimero.

Bonus: The Daily Practice List

James Altucher is an author and entrepreneur who turns list-making into a daily practice. His goal is to be an “idea machine.” So, he writes down 10 ideas every day, by hand, using a pen and waiter’s pad.

This practice, he says, enables him to create the stream of products and services that make him a multi-millionaire:

IDEAS ARE  THE CURRENCY OF LIFE. Not money. Money gets depleted until you go broke.  But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you  better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth  is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

The bottom line: Don’t lead a “list-less” life.

For more options, see:

David’s Cool/Convenient Lists to Have

The Best Lists To Keep (That Might Seem Obsessive But Are Actually Super Useful)

Thirteen Things to Do with a Moleskine Notebook

12 Tips to Keep Your To-do List Short, as Well as Useful

9 Lists To Keep Updated, and Keep Handy

Practicing Simplified GTD (Gina Trapani just keeps 3 lists)


Ryan Holiday on the Pleasures of Reading and Keeping a Commonplace Book

picture-238129Ryan Holiday is a media strategist and author. His books include Ego is the Enemy, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, and Growth Hacker Marketing.

Besides being a voracious reader, Ryan writes a lot. And he attributes his productivity to keeping a commonplace book. To learn more, check out the following links.

How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book

“A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Everyone Should Keep A Commonplace Book: Great Tips From People Who Do

“I understand my method [of keeping a commonplace book] is a little unique — it was taught to me by a rather unique person. But I am very encouraged to see that other people have their own unique way of recording the wisdom they come across in their own lives, in their own reading and during the course of the work…. Whether you use notebooks or notecards or Evernote, a commonplace book is a fantastic idea that I promise will improve your life.”

The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read

“This isn’t the perfect system. It might not work for you. All I can say is that since learning it about 7 years ago, it has totally transformed my process and drastically increased my creative output. It’s responsible for helping me publish three books in three years, (along with other books I’ve had the privilege of contributing to), write countless articles published in newspapers and websites, send out my reading recommendations every month, and make all sorts of other work and personal successes possible.”

How I Did Research For 3 New York Times Bestselling Authors (In My Spare Time)

“If you want to be able to make compelling case for something — whether it’s in a book, on a blog, or in a multi-million dollar VC pitch — you need stories that frame your arguments, rich anecdotes to compliment tangible examples, and impressive data so you can empirically crush counter arguments…. But good research doesn’t just magically appear. Stories, anecdotes and data have to be found before you can use them.”

How I Wrote Three Books in Three Years

“Because I am always researching, I have somewhere close to 10,000 cards on various themes. Each potential book, once it gets enough cards, gets its own box. And I just bought a box for my next book … before the paint is even dry on this new one.”

How To Read More — A Lot More

“Even though I read hundreds of books every single year, I actually read quite slow. In fact, I read deliberately slow, so that I can take notes (and then whenever I finish a book, I go back through and transcribe these notes for my version of a commonplace book.”

Marginalia, The Anti-Library, And Other Ways To Master The Lost Art Of Reading

“Even if you are not a writer, having stories and quotes ready at hand will always come in useful, whether it is in conversations, presentations, memos, pitches, etc. Always strive to return back to the purpose of it. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, we need to read so that ‘words become works.’”

What Matters: Information Vs. Knowledge Vs. Experience

“…there is a dark side to this glut of free information. It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people—people who genuinely want to improve their lives—into thinking they can get something for nothing…. knowledge requires more than just books and instruction. It requires experience. It needs the interplay–the back and forth feedback loop–between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action.”

Print Out Good Advice And Put It Where You Work (You Won’t Be Able To Run Away From It)

“Today, I have three quotes printed and framed above my desk…. One reminds me about how to live, one reminds me what to think about as a businessman and entrepreneur, the other reminds me what to think as a writer. At different times they have meant different things to me but they are reminders I need always.”

Write Quickly by Mining Your Commonplace Book

I am fascinated by this article about Andrew Offutt, who wrote at least 400 books before he died in 2013. The majority of these were sexually-explicit pulp fiction, written under 17 pseudonyms.


I’m not advocating for this genre. But I do invite you to play along with me for a moment: Can we distill some lessons from Offutt’s prodigious output that will benefit our own work?

Offutt’s son, Chris, recalls his dad’s writing process:

His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.

Do those paragraphs describe a literary hack — or a master of productivity? The answer is not so simple.

Consider that Andrew Offutt’s notebooks of “raw material” were a commonplace book — a centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained collection of information. And, one use of a commonplace book is to store material that’s later shaped into original creative works.

But could Offutt’s process actually apply to “real” art — something other than pulp fiction?

Well, consider the painter Chuck Close, who works by deconstructing his huge images into small grids that he completes one at a time:

I push little pieces of paint up against each another. And I work essentially from the top down, left to right. And I slowly build these paintings—construct them the way that somebody might make a quilt or crochet or knit.

The parallels between this respected artist and Offutt are clear.

What we can take from them is the process of dividing large projects into smaller parts that can be created independently.

  1. Look for the fundamental units of your published work

Fiction writers often structure their manuscripts as a series of individual scenes that are connected by transitions. Let’s apply this notion to nonfiction books and think of chapters as a series of “articles” that are connected by transitions.

By article I mean a single, coherent section within a chapter. In nonfiction books, these are often marked by a heading that appears in bold or italic type. Each article develops a single point about the topic of the chapter as a whole.

In addition to articles, your work might include interactive elements, such as exercises for readers to do. These are also fundamental units of your work.

  1. Collect those units into a commonplace book

Now review your published work—blog posts, white papers, books, and so on. Do you have final drafts of those in Microsoft Word or another text editor? If so, great. Do the following:

  • Make copies of those drafts.
  • Divide them into individual units.
  • Save each unit as a separate document with a descriptive title—key words that you’ll be sure to remember.

Throw all those documents into a single folder, searchable database, notes app, or some other iteration of a commonplace book.

  1. Add new units

After collecting your existing units, you’ll probably have ideas for new units. Start writing those now. Tackle them in any order that appeals to you. Then add add them to your collection.

  1. Create new work by combining and revising units

Whenever you want to create a new project (presentation, blog post, article, or book), you never have to start from scratch. Instead, go to your collection of units and look for what you can use. Assemble the first draft of your new projects by copying units, pasting them in a logical sequence, and adding transitions.

I am not saying that this process will lead to a finished draft of your next project. However, it will lead to a rough draft that you can revise into something that really sings.

Using Your Commonplace Book for Creative Thinking

A major reason for keeping a commonplace book is to promote creative thinking. The strategies for this include:

  • Random access—finding and using any piece of information from any source at any time.
  • De-structuring—gathering information from many sources regardless of the way that information was originally organized.
  • Re-structuring—discovering new ways to organize information.

Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values) used these strategies to write Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

Pirsig was on a grand philosophical quest to create new metaphysics. Yet his method applies to taking notes and creating ideas on any topic — no matter how lofty or mundane.

Pirsig recorded pieces of information on separate slips of paper. Then he gathered all the slips into a large box and looked for ways to organize them:

Periods started to appear when he just sat there for hours and no slips came in—and this, he saw, was at last the time for organizing. He was pleased to discover that the slips themselves made this organizing much easier. Instead of asking “Where does this metaphysics of the universe begin?”—which was  a virtually impossible question—all he had to do was just hold up two slips and ask, “Which comes first?” This was easy and he always seemed to get an answer. Then he would take a third slip, compare it with the first one, and ask again, “Which one comes first” If the new slip came after the first one he compared it with the second. Then he had a three-slip organization. He kept repeating the process with slip after slip.

Eventually Pirsig sorted the slips — 11,000 of them — into several hundred categories, which became the outline for Lila. (Several of his categories may be useful in organizing your own commonplace book.)

The process that Pirsig describes above has been well documented. In fact, there are several names for it. People interested in quality control call it affinity diagramming. William Jones, author of  Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, calls it “bottom-up” organization. I’ll explore both in future posts.

Using a Commonplace Book to Remember What You Read

“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember,” said Cicero. Indeed. One key reason to keep a commonplace book is to store notes on your reading. Those notes become a personally-curated reference collection—and a continuing source of inspiration.


Beyond that, taking notes on your reading changes you from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of ideas. This is especially true when you write responses to what you read and make plans to act on an author’s suggestions.

The question is how to begin. What kind of notes on reading are most useful? Ultimately you’ll answer that question for yourself. Following are some options.

Annotate and marinate

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street reads over 150 books each year and blogs about many of them. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Mark up the book—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s taking these steps to “engage in a conversation with the author.”

Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

For more on this topic from Shane, see How to Retain More of What You Read.

Index key ideas

I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two or three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

I suggest copying these indexes into your commonplace book. This brings the contents of many books into a single place, allowing you to compare, contrast, and make connections.

Highlight, copy, paste

When reading ebooks, you can mark them up by underlining, highlighting, and adding notes. I like to copy and paste my highlighted passages into my commonplace book, along with the author’s name and book title.

Copying and pasting sounds simple. But consider what you’re actually doing—distilling thousands of words down to a manageable and useful core of key passages. That’s no mean intellectual feat.

Forget technique and just write

People like Shane Parrish favor a structured system for taking notes on reading. If that’s not your style, however, take a cue from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power—Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.