Writing tip: Take notes on ev-er-y-thing

Sunday, September 13th, 2009 | No Comments »
| Categories: Writing |

This is a piece of advice that writers get quite often, from books, teachers, other writers. It’s nothing new. But sometimes, I’ve found, we tend to forget this very fundamental tool at our disposal.

To me, one of the great things about being a writer is that you notice things others don’t. As a writer, mundane details such as the coffee stain on a desk or the beauty mark underneath someone’s eye become richer, fuller, bursting with potential. And that’s always been the beauty of writing. It opens up the world.

So I see the coffee stain and imagine the trigger than must have caused such carelessness, or I think to myself that this person with this beauty mark would make a great side character. And then, as everyday life gets in the way and pushes more and more details in my direction, each more distracting than the one before it, I forget about the coffee stain and the beauty mark, and that story, those characters, are lost forever.

If only I had written it down.

These days I carry a composition notebook with me everywhere and jot down quick impressions as I ride on the bus or sit down at a table for lunch. The world is a treasure trove of ideas. No lie.

“But what do I take notes of? When will I ever use these notes?” you may ask. There’s no way of telling, for either of those questions. But I would suggest taking notes on absolutely everything that you find interesting. The professor whose mouth froths at the corner with spit as he lectures energetically in front of a class, the rows and rows of old photos on a restaurant’s wall, the cat who hops onto your balcony every night at 8 like clockwork. You may not have any use for it now, but maybe one day, when you’re in need of ideas, you can flip through your pages of notes and find interesting characters, settings, and situations in them.

I found no less than ten snippets of notes from my 2006 notebook that I’ll be turning into story bits for NaNoWriMo.

Remember: the more detailed your notes are, the more vivid and real you’ll be able to make your writing. So don’t skimp on the details. I find that labeling your notes with a header (CHARACTER, or SETTING, or IDEA) helps when trying to find things to fill one’s story. Another thing to keep in mind is that your notes don’t have to be accurate. Many people get caught up in finding just the right word to describe something they see faithfully, instead of writing down what the situation could be about. Use your imagination in your note-taking. A woman is crying on the bus. Is that all you write? No. You should write why she’s crying. You should write what happens when she gets off the bus.

Challenge: Next time you’re in a public place, take notes on everything that interests you, gathering as much detail as possible. Then go home and try to compose a short story or snippet using your notes. (I’d also love it if you shared what you came up with!)

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