Keeping a Commonplace Book

Not enough is said, I think, about the importance of regular reading and its practical effect on our writing. The connection between the two comes as a surprise to many of my students: isn’t reading what we do after we’ve written something? In fact, reading is what we should be doing before we write.

Because every word is so important in communicating one’s thoughts clearly and persuasively, accomplished writers understand the necessity of establishing a daily routine of private reading. It is not possible to improve one’s writing without reading––reading slowly and reflectively, with an eye on the structure and an ear to the sound of other good writers’ language. The art of writing depends, as do all arts, on both knowing the principles and seeing those principles demonstrated in the work of other serious practitioners.

A commonplace book is a record of your private reading (unlike a journal, which is a record of your own thoughts and writing). It need be nothing more elaborate than a simple notebook where you transcribe
a sentence or short passage that has caught your attention for some reason, either for its ideas or for its structure. An author you’re reading, for example, might have written a particularly clear explanation of the complicated world of health care or an unusually vivid description of a garden in full summer bloom. Whatever the subject, some one phrase or sentence or paragraph arrested your attention; by transcribing it attentively to your commonplace book (and ideally speaking it aloud as you write it down), you put yourself in the company of good writing, allowing yourself to be affected by the grammatical structure, vocabulary, and rhythm of the passage. We learn by watching closely.

There’s only one thing you can’t forget in keeping a commonplace book: every passage you transcribe, from the merest phrase to the substantial paragraph, must be put in quotation marks and must be followed by the author’s name, the title of the work, and the page number. This is just right and simple courtesy to others and their work, and it may just save you years later from facing the difficult but perhaps quite probable question: did I write that?


If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

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