For the last 15 years I'm keeping some kind of writer's notebook. Everything I come across, and is seemingly important, goes into the notebook:

  1. Ideas
  2. Conversations
  3. Writings (primarily on the road)
  4. Journal entries
  5. Todo list
  6. Calendar and Appointments
  7. Facts
  9. Lists for everything. Books to read, books to buy, movies to watch, gift ideas.
  10. Scribbles
  11. Letter/Email drafts

Since I'm also a software developer my notebooks contain further:

  1. Class/Object/Sequence diagrams
  2. Mathematical equations and formulas
  3. etc., etc.

Over the years I've collected about 15 notebooks. Full of information. I guess some of you will also have that many (or even more) notebooks. So my question is how can I stay on top of this information?

Assuming that I'm writing a story today. How do I know that a conversation I preserved in 2002 can be important for my current writing? Because there are currently only 15 notebooks in my desk drawer, I can flip through them and eventually find something that is useful for me now. But this will have a limit. I think 25 or 30 notebooks will be already too many to flip through. Besides that it is not really research, rather stumbling across.

How can I handle the various bits and pieces that I record? Can I digitize these notebooks, either through typing or scanning? Or should I maintainin some kind of index?

Although I'm a pen and paper-Lover and I would really like to hear about some paper-based systems, I'm open to hearing about digital workflows as well.

  • Hello, and welcome to Writers. I've lightly edited your question to remove aspects that were polling the community (a type of question that's hard to answer canonically). Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 17:49
  • Have you thought about creating some kind of Table of Contents?
    – SF.
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 22:15
  • @SF. Actually, yes. I'm thinking about one giant index for all current and future notebooks, maintained in separate notebook. I'm highly interested if somebody has tried this. Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 7:41
  • I cannot find the corresponding English word, but look at this image and you get the idea: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7e/… Why don't you write in a "notebook" that holds together loose sheets of paper with a ring or that are perforated, and that you can then take out and file away into boxes or cabinets, according to topic etc.? Many past writers and scholars used such a system, a famous one are the "Zettelkästen" of sociologist Niklas Luhmann (google it). You only have to make sure to not mix stuff on one leaf.
    – user5645
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:16
  • Instead of a table of contents, you can also create an index. One snippet of text may contain multiple topics. That index must be flexible (digital file or the kind of cards in the image in my preceding comment) to allow you to add new index words yet keep the alphabetical order.
    – user5645
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:19

3 Answers 3


I never have maintained these sort of notebooks but have done plenty of sorting with my study notes. I suggest you use colored Post-It's and colored bookmarks. Color-code your work. Stick one on each page and write the topic on it. Identifying colors is easier than reading a huge index. And when you start with a new notebook, divide the book into sections and as far as possible write into that particular section only. This way when you need to refer to it later, you will have to search only a small portion. You could even buy 6-in-1 (or similar) notebooks that are already sectioned into different colors.

Hope this helps!


Well, this is a non-answer, actually, but I'll post it anyway.

I use my notebooks to collect my thoughts. This has two purposes: to help me not forget something; and, thereby, to free my mind. The second purpose is important. When you have a notebook with you and ideas pop into your mind, noting down an idea allows your mind to let that idea go and come up with a new idea. Because you can no longer forget that thought, you can let it go and think of something else. Thus, noting down ideas results in a continous flow of ideas. If, on the other hand, you have no notebook with you and try not to forget an idea, you are stuck on that idea and your flow of ideas is blocked. This makes my head ache and makes me unhappy.

Now, what do I do when I finally sit down at my table and actually want to continue (or start) writing? Do I take all these notes and type them into my computer and expand and refine them?

Sometimes. But usually not.

When I come to my table with the ideas busily flowing, I just put my notebook back in my pocket and write down those new ideas. They are usually equally good, or even better, or simply the same, as the ideas I had before. Because, the truth is that when my mind is not stuck on one idea I try not to forget, then I don't forget that idea. I may forget the exact form or some details, but while my ideas flow I'm usually in the world of my story (or scientific journal article) and can easily juggle a myriad of information without forgetting it. I may not be able to actively remember an idea I had, but when I come to the place in my writing where I need it, it invariably pops into my head again, without me having to consult my notebook. It come again, because my mind is not stuck.

Only when I sit at my desk and the ideas stop (or don't start) to flow, because I'm not in the mood and not in my story world, do I use my notebook to prompt me. This happens when I don't walk to my desk but take the bus, because ideas flow best when I walk, so the notebook is like conserved walks that I can open and inhale to get my ideas flowing, when I have been not walking for too long.

In short, notebooks help me to let go.

I should maybe note that I use my notebooks solely for ideas. I keep the ideas and the to-do apart. I put shopping lists, appointments and email drafts on snippets of paper that I throw away after the task is done.

  • Wow. Unfortunately I'm different. If I don't write down my ideas immediately, they're gone forever. I usually can't recall what I've written. Even when it happened the same day. But thank you anyway that you took the time and wrote what's woking for you. Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:02

To address these issues, I have had to become less pen and paper. I use a stylus to write on a tablet with handwriting recognition. This is the best in between solution to the problems. From your past writings, scanning and doing OCR can be probably the only way to salvage the important information. Because trying to remember or scan it all is going to be hard. Making a library out of it is a science and art. And OCR is not going to be perfect. From the digitized version you can search and sort.

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