How I Use My Commonplace Journal

Last week Sarah Mackenzie did a webinar with Andrew Kern where Kern explained his careful reading strategy. I was in the chatbox during the talk and it was a lively conversation!

We Scholé Sisters did an impulsive thing afterwards: We decided to have an after-party and each show off our own commonplace journals and how we keep them. It was a lot of fun! Brandy even explained how she’s taught her oldest son to commonplace – something I’ll be imitating next year.

Our after-party chat is part of the bundle with the webinar recording, and you can find that all here:

So yesterday Brandy wrote about her favorite sparkly gel pens (shudder) and favorite notebooks she uses, and today it is my turn!

commonplace

commonplace journals

It appears I am the cheapskate of the group. I use college-ruled spiral notebooks that are about a dime each in August. I stock up on purple ones for me each year and other colors for the kids to use. Using a cheap notebook was the secret to overcoming paralyzing perfectionism.

When my journal was pretty, I didn’t want to write in it unless I was using my very best handwriting and copying down only the very best and most impressive quotes – it felt like creating a keepsake. And, in practice, that meant that I never used it, because, as C.S. Lewis has noted, “favorable conditions never come.” The right pen was never at hand, I was too tired, I was reading on the couch and couldn’t really make it my best handwriting.

commonplace quotes

~from Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung~

With a cheap notebook, it is more about the process than the product. It is about the act of copying, of jotting down ideas so I can think them through more clearly. I can turn the page any which way, organize quotes for one book differently from notes for another book, and it doesn’t bother me like it did when I was trying to keep a pretty notebook.

commonplace keeping

~from The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs~

So scaling back the expectations has freed me from self-imposed pressure to perform and shifted the focus to where it should be: interacting with the authors and ideas I am reading.

Here’s what I use:

Rather than having a running list of quotes I write as I read them, I keep a section for each book. I put the title up at the top and make sure to leave 5-8 sheets free before I start the section for another book. Because the notebook is cheap, I don’t mind if I waste some space here and there.

commonplace

~from Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical and Restless World by Michael Horton~

When I’m done with a book (or, more like 2 times a year) I’ll scan and save the notes into Evernote rather than save the notebook, which is usually a beat up, marked up, used up thing when I’m done with it – not something worth saving for posterity. But that’s ok. The process of copying down quotes and jotting down notes was the primary point – encouraging deep reading and thinking as I went along. If I can then find quotes or thoughts afterwards, that’s a bonus. And it’s more likely to happen if that information is saved digitally.

EN-OCR-search

Because Evernote does OCR, a search pulls up words I search for, even if those words are in my scanned handwriting. It can be very fascinating to search for a word like “teaching” in my Evernote commonplace notebook and see all the quotes I wrote with that word from a myriad of sometimes quite unrelated sources. The connections that can be made this way make it worth the effort.

commonplacing journal

~from The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs~

Another reason the cheap notebook is a good option for me is that I’m not always the only one who writes in it. Sigh.

So, when I start a new book, I try to follow this process, but I don’t stress about doing it “right” because then I’d never start:

  • Write the title and author at the top, along with the month and year I began reading
  • Copy out the table of contents in an outline form – supposedly to make a short summary of each chapter as I go, but most of my book notes only have a summary for the first two chapters.
  • Quotes I like as I go. I also always try to copy out the sentence that sounds like the best thesis statement and put a star next to it.
  • My own notes in the margins or written out with an arrow pointing at them or on a separate page.
  • A running bibliographic trail, as George Grant calls it, of books the author mentions along the way

commonplacing

~from Making Kingdom Disciples by Charles Dunahoo~

After finishing Consider This late one evening and not having a fullness of head and heart and no one to talk to, I turned the page in my commonplace journal and wrote out a paragraph “reader response” that felt like a spilling out of my mind onto the paper. I suppose it was sort of like a written narration with some added commentary, and ever since then I’ve also wanted to do that with each book I’ve finished, but I haven’t made it a habit yet.
acommonplace notebook

~from Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass~

The bottom line is that my commonplace journal is a place for me to become a keeper, to become a more thorough thinker, to allow the ideas I encounter to seep in more deeply. Whatever practices you can find along the way that encourage you to continue that process rather than achieve some ideal end product are the practices you should cultivate.

We can begin by mimicking someone else’s methods, but it is best if we develop our own idiosyncratic ways over years of keeping.

24 Responses

  1. Bethany
    |

    Thank you!!!! I am loving these “how to’s” that you lovely ladies are putting out for us to enjoy. I am finally getting a mental picture of how I would like my own book to look. Sort of a combination of all of yours!

  2. Brandy Vencel
    |

    I love that you included so many pictures, Mystie! ♥

  3. Cassandra Dorman
    |

    Thanks for sharing. We were discussing the Commonplace book at our local Charlotte Mason meeting… I’ve always wanted to compile all my thoughts in ONE place… it seems I have my prayer journal, gratitude journal… nature notebook… but I seem to jot things in each, depending on what is close at hand! Thanks for sharing! Cass @Theunpluggedfamily.com

  4. Catharina
    |

    Love this post, Mystie!

  5. Pam
    |

    OK, so after our little conversation of the other night I decided that I was adopting your commonplace model. You are right — much less stress for getting things perfect with a cheap spiral notebook. It also allowed me to start right away since I just grabbed one off the shelf. I also LOVE the idea of scanning the pages and being able to search on keywords later. So helpful.

  6. Karen @ The Simply Blog
    |

    This is a great post Mystie! I need to add this to the recommended posts to read on keeping a commonplace book that I listed in my blog post today. :) You are right that there is great importance in the process. The process of writing it out can help solidify it in our minds. And I can definitely see the benefit of using Evernotes for the ability to be able to search notes easily. That would certainly save a lot of time from flipping through page after page looking for a quote. :) I also like the post-it note idea.

  7. […] How I Use My Commonplace Journal – In this post, Mystie shares how she keeps a commonplace book. One of the things she talks about is how she uses an actual notebook and then transfers her notes to digital format. […]

  8. Christy
    |

    Thank you for sharing. I’m so grateful for this (impromptu) schole sisters’ series on commonplace books and how it has led me to so many great blogs and articles about keeping. I’m tweaked my method for note-taking and keeping a bit thanks to all the insights and varying styles of commonplace keeping. All this reading is spilling into ideas for my children and homeschool as well.

    We had a week of leisure (yes, I’m stealing that, I will no longer call them weeks off : )) last week. I spent the first half setting up Evernote and organizing my homeschool files and saved “stuff” from all over the my computer and binders. Then, I tweaked my commonplace book keeping and started a “family nature lists” notebook. Ah, I feel so refreshed and inspired. Thank you!!!

  9. Heather
    |

    I had to laugh reading this post, because at certain points it seemed like you must have snuck into my house and found my notebooks. I have always used spiral notebooks as well, but I prefer wide ruled and I think I have kept many of mine. I haven’t scanned mine, but it is interesting that you can find your own handwritten words so easily about anything. I skip pages too and enjoy just writing without needing to make it pretty. I wish I was more talented in the art of spontaneous pretty, but I’m just a “solid walking-shoe” kind of person in many areas. :)

  10. stephanie
    |

    Thanks so much for sharing – it so easy for me to be paralyzed by what everyone else is doing when the important thing to do is just start! A while back I went and bought a lovely bound book because it seemed like that was what I had to have to work out of … when I soon realized that I always gravitate to spirals because I’m a lefty. : ) I’m a fan of cheap notebooks as well and have a shelf of them in my school closet that I’ve hung on to over the years – mine are more a mishmash of commonplace book sprinkled in with random event planning and lots of lists. (Apparently I organize mine more like Sarah!)

  11. Katrina
    |

    “When my journal was pretty, I didn’t want to write in it unless I was using my very best handwriting and copying down only the very best and most impressive quotes …”

    YES!!! This was my problem exactly. I wanted it to be perfect, which hampered me from starting. When I finally decided to just do it anyway, of COURSE there are things I wish I had done differently… but I had to start somewhere. Thanks so much for sharing the images and how you use yours.

  12. Julia
    |

    Excellent post, Mystie! I am so enjoying everyone’s show and tell of how they commonplace. This is giving me much to think about. I have commonplaced for a few years now but after reading everyone’s posts I am seeing that my journal is more of a quotes journal, it is more of an ‘ends’ rather than a ‘process.’ It doesn’t help me think things through and that is what I want. I love your table of contents summary and your list of books mentioned in the book. I have to take time to think this all out to see how I want my commonplace to look. Thanks for causing me to process this through.

  13. dawn
    |

    “And then share something you’ve read with dawn on Wednesdays with Words!” [grin]

  14. Jamie
    |

    I had to laugh at this post a little bit. I have looked at commonplace notebooking just a bit in the past, but thought that I could never do that. After reading your post, I realized that I have been keeping a commonplace notebook for years now. Just not a very structured version of it. I am new to evernote and love your idea about keeping everything organized there. I will add that to my unstructured version. Thanks for this.

  15. Celeste
    |

    Thank you so much for sharing all the examples, Mystie–I love seeing others Keeping in action!

    I Keep similarly to how you do, but I call my books different things. :) I have a notebook that is like what you describe–the ideas that come from my reading go in there and then get transferred over to Evernote, and then the notebook gets tossed when I’m finished with it. My commonplace is my permanent record of quotes, and I keep that separately (rather than combining them as you have). That’s my “nice” notebook. LOL

    I loved seeing how you’re using Evernote too. I love that workhorse of a program. :)

  16. Sharlene
    |

    I have made attempts at a Commonplace Book. I have felt guilty because I hadn’t written beautifully. Now I understand that it’s mainly a process, not a work of art. I will be writing more often now. I am impressed with Evernote. I like the search ability that it has. I will look into using it too.

  17. Kathy
    |

    I’ve started taking reading notes, and I love the idea of scanning them into Evernote to search later. I think I’m with Celeste, I want a quick place to jot things down and a “pretty” book for quotes. Partly because I have one that I started in high school and have fond memories of writing quotes on the whiteboard outside my freshman dorm room from my commonplace book.

  18. Sara
    |

    I love the idea of using cheap spiral notebooks for the commonplace book. My kids help me take notes as well. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  19. Melissa
    |

    I really appreciate your transparency Mystie! You make the commonplace book look very doable for everyone, no matter what level they’re at.

    I also love the idea of scanning the pages in when the notebook is filled. I have several commonplace books and when they are filled, I think, now what?! LOL

    I have OneNote on my computer. I wonder how this compares to EverNote? I should look into it…or maybe someone here knows.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Melissa

    • Mystie Winckler
      |

      I don’t know much about OneNote, but I know it is a similar program to Evernote, so it should work! Just check if it does OCR scanning to make handwriting searchable. :)

  20. Pam Cadd
    |

    I have just discovered that I can highlight in Kindle books and send the quotes to Evernote by choosing Share in the pop-up dialog box.It brings up a note with the highlighted text pasted in along with the book, author and link to it – it is all ready for you to add a note title. I did this with several quotes from your Joyful Repetition book, Mystie.Evernote makes a good commonplace companion this way.

    • Mystie Winckler
      |

      Thanks for that tip, Pam! I will have to see if my Kindle app on the iPod will do that, too. :)

  21. Pam Cadd
    |

    One thing I love about Evernote is that it automatically syncs on my phone, Kindle and computer. OneNote probably does the same, but I have not worked with it. I depend on Evernote for everything, and I love being able to look things up on whichever device is at hand.