New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Shirley Bell looks at Writers’ Notebooks

Circle Logo

Writers’ Notebooks – What are they for?

In every single writing course, book, blog, chat with writers, etc., you are told you must keep one, and fill it with some of the following…

  1. overheard snippets of conversation (i.e. vampire behavior. It is quite hard to filter out conversation, but it can be worthwhile, hence my poem Scabs, over heard in the waiting room at a hospital in Nottingham, where my husband had an appointment):


I’ve got to wait until the scabs drop
off then send them to

They’re not ready yet.
If I pull them off
they’ll leave a hole.


  1. A sound or a phrase running through your head…something to capture before it slips away
  2. a newspaper headline, graffiti on a wall – years ago I saw “PLAY DEAD” on a railway arch; something to use for its ambiguities
  3. an experience – I spent most of last Christmas Day in a nursing home, sitting with my dying mother. I wrote it down. She did not know, and it helped me.
  4. Snippets from newspapers, magazines, lines in books, lines from poems, quotations, anything that creates a spark.
  5. Go hunting. As part of my MA in Creative Writing at Lincoln University we did the Lincoln Drift, where we roamed around Lincoln, taking photographs, chatting, and finished up with cake and coffee in one of the posh little cafes on Steep Hill.

The point of the notebooks is that they preserve things that you would probably otherwise forget. But I want to look at this from the point of view of best practice rather than what really happens.In my case what I want is one small notebook that goes everywhere with me and is systematically filled in with the whats in the list above. Then I would go on to the next one and the one after that. What a treasure to go back to, all those forgotten ideas at my fingertips, in date order.


Or maybe a system of index cards which can be filed in those flip top boxes – you could sort them in all sorts of ways, date, theme, mood, weather… Move them around. Add to them. It is a brilliant idea, but I wish I had done it years ago.

Or I could store everything electronically…

But it is already getting complicated. Sticking to physical storage, perhaps I need a tiny little notebook to go in my handbag. Then a notebook at home. But maybe two as I would want one by the bed. What I actually have is a great heap of notebooks, scraps of paper (literally, yes, the backs of envelopes), bits torn out of newspapers and magazines. I use the first notebook that comes to hand, so books start and stop, jump from year to year even. I have those A4 folders with clear pockets and stuff is stuffed in those. And then there are the phone, laptops, tablets. I gave my son my old iPad and forgot to collect my notes and documents off it in time before he wiped it – and all my drawings were on there too…

If you are like me, you start to write a poem, and then you add bits, change bits, and write out a good copy and start to change that. My notebooks of whatever size are no good for that because I want A4 refill pads, so that I can tear out pages and start over and over again. And then I use the laptop, so I can see how it looks in type. Again, my notebooks are no good for that.

I’m not Blake or Whitman but it is good to see that they also had second and third thoughts…

So perhaps my system is not so bad after all – my lucky dip of ideas and memories which is also a kind of diary. I can pull out any book and I am transported to days that otherwise are sinking into the fogs of unreliable recollections.

Credits – the notebook pages are Julie-Jordan-Scott-the-birth-of-a-poem, Flickr; the Walt Whitman ms is from the Whitman Archive, other images are Creative Commons or Pixaby.

You might also like

And The Winners Are-

Spring Summer Chapbook Contest Winners. Our guest judge, Southlight editor, Vivien Jones announces her winners in CBC III as well as talking about the quality

Read More »

Share this post with your friends

You may also enjoy
Geraldine Ward is a writer and poet from Kent. She…