My Commonplace Book – Words and Phrases

When I come across a new word in a print book I'm reading, and I want to remember it, I write it down in my commonplace book. (Here's the history of commonplace books.) I do the same with cool phrases or sentence constructions.

Here's the link to my commonplace wiki. You can't edit it, but you can view recent words and phrases. In the phrases section, I will sometimes note how it can be used in writing. E.g.:

"fashion a narrative" (fashion = to create)

Splendid, but I part company at the last sentence. (to set up disagreement)

My challenge is I have bits and pieces in various places. For example, my favorite Updike or Wallace lines are not on this wiki.


Colin Marshall: "I've come to find myself asking only two qualities of a writer: honesty and clarity. The rest is window dressing."


Justine Musk's latest gem on writing. She echoes other advice I've heard: go out and experience the world, then write about it. Or as Thoreau put it: one ought to "stand up and live before you sit down and write." She hits on other themes and arrives here:

Writing fiction is serious business. It demands nothing less than everything you’ve got to give: your blood, sweat, heart and soul; your time; your ego. You expose yourself in your work and again when you show your work. It deserves to be taken seriously, and yet somehow we have to find a way to treat it lightly, hold it lightly, so it doesn’t slip away from us.

6 comments on “My Commonplace Book – Words and Phrases
  • Ben: On fiction, you may like this piece by Lionel Shriver in characteristic honesty:

    The most admirable thing I find in reading your blog is the wonderful organisation and discipline you have in your writing and organising everything related to it. Worth saying even though you know it already. 🙂

  • Hey Ben,

    I just had a similar idea a couple weeks ago, although I had no idea that there was a term for it – commonplace book.

    By the way, thanks for sharing the Justine Musk post. I read the whole thing yesterday and it’s really fantastic + inspiring to read someone write about reading with such passion.

  • This is great, Ben, thanks for sharing. I also have multiple lists (Google docs, stuff I write down on little scraps of paper, things I try to keep in my mind). I’m thinking of getting a digital recorder to keep with me at all times so I never lose track of anything I want to remember.

  • Resourceful post Ben, thanks! I too use a commonplace book, though I love the idea of a dedicated “good sentence” section. I’ve started a new Evernote notebook just for this.

    Have you heard of Artful Sentences by Virginia Tufte? It’s masterful and essential for anyone interesting in the craft of writing.

    Until yesterday, I had never been to Justine’s site but like the commenter above, I read the whole thing in a sitting or two. Terrific.

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