Scrivener as a commonplace book


Not posted here before but have just started using Scrivener seriously after trialling it. This past year, especially, I’ve found myself doing more and more note-taking to organise my reading and writing, now we have such a variety of sources available (pdfs and ebooks, articles, hard copy books and articles, etc). I’ve found it very useful to copy important passages into notebooks to be able to refer back to them later on, the act of which I’m convinced is also very beneficial to learning and language processing.

Reading a blog post yesterday, I discovered that this was fairly common activity amongst thinkers and writers in the past, and was called commonplacing or a ‘commonplace book’. I thought you might all enjoy reading this blog post which I read yesterday, which talks about the future of text and technology but also mentions quite a bit about the idea of the commonplace book: … -book.html

Interesting article. I wonder at the logic of comparing a Google search to creating one’s own commonplace book. The latter takes thought and care, the former not so much.

Also, the author seems to feel that text not clippable is not worth re-typing. Hmmm.


I had the same thoughts as you, Steve, and someone in the comments section mentions the re-typing thing, too. I would have thought at least half of the point was to actually write out or type the thing yourself!!

Sitting here on the terrace one night this summer, though, I did wonder if typing the words onto a screen had the same learning effect as scribbling them out long hand in a notebook in terms of learning and processing the information.

I would be inclined to say, for myself at least, that the process of transcribing something with a keyboard involves a different set of brain functions than writing it out long-hand. There is something about touch-typing from given material that allows the process to completely bypass conscious awareness, much in the same way that driving a well-known route can be accomplished without even realising it. Transcription for me can be an entirely automatic process after about the second or third line, and I look up startled after 500 words, and realise that I don’t have the foggiest clue what it is I’m writing down, but look and spot check and see the whole thing looks completely accurate. Meanwhile I’ve been off daydreaming or designing some idea that has nothing to do with the source text at all.

So, the real question in all of that is: does that mean the mind is still not made better aware of the information in the transcription, even though “I” as a conscious being am no better familiarised with it? It could be said that many of the techniques for learning material are in effect methods of taming the consciousness into working with the broader aspects of the mind so that material does pipe down into the rest of the brain—or to put it another way—methods to keep you from getting distracted and stop piping in material. So if the material is being piped in anyway even if you are distracted, does that count? And of course, we can’t assume that material is getting piped in the first place. It might very well not be—we might just be making ourselves better mechanical typewriters. A useful ability for a writer, but that has nothing to do with fastening down knowledge we wish to retain.

It might also be that since I type so much, my handwriting skills are weaker and so require a modicum of conscious awareness to the process itself. If I wrote in longhand as much as I typed, perhaps it would be just as “fully automatic”. I am hard-pressed to come up with a reason why moving one’s fingers around and pressing buttons is mentally different from moving one’s fingers around while holding a stick against a sheet of paper.

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My handwriting, described by those who’ve endured it, is highly decorative and – even for myself at times – nearly incomprehensible. Sixty years ago or so I faced up to the truth: I had to learn to write legibly, or learn to type. I learned to type. Now, I reserve handwriting for those few instances where it’s essential – love poems, sympathy notes, sudden flashes of inspiration while walking along the river, entries in a commonplace book.

And so I also type quickly and accurately and, if it’s simply to duplicate existing material, automatically. But if I am writing something out by hand, I have to pay attention to word after word into phrase into sentence. It is not just a sequence of individually-meaningless symbols. (The exception, of course, if when I am entering into the computer a legible copy of my own handwritten notes.)

To give an example: if I’m trying to learn my lines for a play, I can type (copy) out the whole damn script and not learn a thing; if I write it out longhand, I begin to learn it. (And of course if I read it aloud I really begin to learn it.)

Back to the original point. I’ve kept commonplace books over the years, and always wrote out in longhand – as carefully and legibly as I was able – the piece I wanted to save. Digital transcription (fingers, not pixels) helped plant the essential idea, and sometimes the whole text, in my increasingly-fragile brain.

As for the clippable: I use Shovebox or Evernote to collect material I may use later – a web page, an essay, a news article. The final product is nothing like a commonplace book, nor is it meant to be.

It’s the difference between a raggle-taggle encyclopedia and a carefully-chosen prayer book.


I read the Johnson article some time ago, and immediately adopted it for Evernote. I simply created a notebook named Commonplace, creating a new note for each new content. I also adopted a naming convention for these notes, in the format type: topic; e.g., book (sample): Man the Hunted, Film: Tron, Lyrics: We Carry On, etc.

While this is a repository for quotations, it’s mostly a place where I note what I learned from some particular content; what new ideas it generated; how I can use it in the future.

As to Johnson’s point about applications not making themselves available for copying and pasting, I agree. However, even inadvertently forcing readers to hand transcribe text may not be such a bad idea. My experience is I save a lot of text when it can be copied and pasted via the clipboard, but am much more selective when I must hand transcribe it. I then tend to save only those passages which are really important; which have significance, and can be transformative.

I’d never thought of using Scrivener in place of Evernote, but it would be quite easy to do. “Draft” would be renamed “Commonplace,” and each note would be a document. Rather than indicate medium in the title as I do with Evernote, create folders for “book,” “article,” and so forth, or add this metadata as keywords (tags).

The advantage Evernote might have over Scrivener is that I can make notes with Evernote on either my iPhone or iPad, and they appear more or less instantly in Evernote for my iMac. No manual syncing is required. In truth, I usually don’t make extensive notes from my iPhone, but do with my iPad. However, syncing with Dropbox and Scrivener works really well, plus there is a lot of freedom to choose the non-Scrivener application: e.g., Simplenote, PlainText, Writings, Elements, Notebooks – anything that synchs with Dropbox.

This is an interesting and timely topic as I was just setting up a new writing project – a book on genetics – and started it in viJournal, then quickly changed it to Evernote, then – especially after reading and writing this response – to Scrivener.

Scrivener turns out to be a great general purpose research as well as writing tool that I imagine could be purposed to virtually any project.

I should also add that Scrivener is a very robust and reliable application. Just as I was setting up Evernote this morning, the most current edit was suddenly removed from view and inserted in a new entry with the same title, in a new notebook titled “Conflicting Changes (2010-12-30 04:37:25 -800)”. This unexpected behavior caused me to begin considering Scrivener right away!

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I have to say, I’m having a hard time believing that the original keepers of commonplace books called what they did “commonplacing”? Would love to look that up in the OED.

I kept a commonplace book before I ever heard of such a thing, jotting down passages that hit home for me in my reading. More recently, I’ve been underlining things in the books themselves, but I think that’s almost useless, and want to switch back. I agree with those of you who say that the physical act of writing the words impresses them on your mind - more than underlining, typing or copying/pasting ever will. At least, that’s how it is with me.

Thanks for bringing up this subject. (I should have checked to see how old this thread is before posting!)

It does actually go a long way back! At least 14th century as the English phrase we recognise; but probably quite a bit further. Cicero describes a book of common places (locus communes) when explaining the Greek, κοινὸς τόπος, from Aristotle. I’m sure you are right though, as you demonstrated individually, humans have been capturing striking phrases and curious facts into personal collections for as long as it has been possible to do so.

My commonplace book is DevonNote.
I use it to write and store RTF files, text clippings, web links.
I arrange them in folders and sub-folders, and often split/merge the items as ideas grow.
Then I export stuff as needed, often to Scrivener as early draft material.
DevonNote is fast, robust, and sturdy. $25, and less to students/educators.
With its new Sync feature, it’s easy to upload all or some folders to an iPad app
Known as DevonThink to Go. Change any files on the iPad, then sync to the main machine.

The “common places” that scholars referred to back then were standard headings such as “Charity,” “Virtue,” “Sin,” “Faith,” and so on. These headings symbolized established ideas that the educated elite recognized as universal. As the student read the required texts, they would capture any striking passages – either for or against the idea – under these commonly used headings (hence, “commonplace” referred to the agreed-upon, established headings that everyone recognized as held in common, rather than commonplace=“mundane”). The goal of the commonplace book was that the student, having assembled their book of passages, could then refer to the headings when they needed to write a paper or argue a position. All the arguments for and against “Love,” for example, would have been copied to that page in their commonplace book, and so assembling the argument would be easier.

The commonplace book was not a place where the student was encouraged to insert their own thoughts or commentary – what the hell good would that have been? :confused: No one wanted to know the student’s mingy opinions on these Great Thoughts. They wanted the student to know what Aristotle, Cicero, etc said about those topics and how fully they could rote-memorize the references.

Over time, the commonplace book changed, and John Locke’s essay on how he kept a customized commonplace book was quite the revelation, where he created a sort of on-the-fly alphabetical index of subjects and also where the books were located in his personal library. (And he moved the index to the front of the book, creating the table of contents on the fly too.) Though even by that time, the commonplace book was on its way out as a scholarly tool. As time passed, the commonplace book became more of a scrapbook with personal annotations, which is how we think of it today.

Sorry for the brain dump! Always had a long-time interest in the topic and learned more about it for a speech in one of my classes. So glad to know the learning was not in vain :slight_smile:

References of note: … chtype=CNO (JPG of the index page for Locke’s commonplace book)

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brownstudy: thanks for a very interesting account, and especially for the information on J. Locke. By the 19th century, writers put their private scribbles into a variety of containers. R. W. Emerson divided his journals by topics, while H. D. Thoreau wrote his journal entries in calendar order and created topical indexes on the inside back papers. N. Hawthorne dated his entries but called the volumes notebooks. Do you know as much about the history of diaries, journals, and notebooks?

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