Why you NEED to take notes as a writer


[Feature photo: eric wittman]

I was recently at an Amsterdam bar when, out the window, I saw a man blowing fireballs in the middle of a busy street. Amused, I pointed it out to a girl standing near me and then pulled out my notebook and jotted down the scene. 

When I was finished, the girl said, “Are you a writer?” I told her I was, and she said, “I don’t think I could ever do that—I’d be too afraid.”

“Of what?” 

“Of running out of things to write about.” 

This is, I think, a fear every writer feels from time to time, especially nonfiction writers who use real life events to construct stories. But as a traveler, the problem I often have isn’t running out of things to write about, but rather, narrowing down which story I want to write. 

The trick to having an unlimited supply of story material is to pay attention, and have the awareness to take notes as things are happening (or not happening, as the case may be). 

I may never write an actual story about this fire breather I saw that day, but I will most likely take some detail from this experience and transplant it into another story. Perhaps some detail will hold the key to a shortcoming in another story. 

To give an example, let’s say I’m writing about an old woman and I want to add some humor in the scene. Drawing upon the previous incident, I might apply some unexpected or contrasting detail to add an element of surprise: “The old woman needed a Tic-Tac. She had breath like an Amsterdam fire breather.” (Come to think of it, I rather like this as an opening.)

Because I continuously write down what’s happening around me, I have a lot of raw material to use to manufacture stories. Even the idea for this piece started as a line in my notebook. And even though I may never write a ‘real’ story about the fire breather, the notes I took did manage to find their way into a published piece. 

Once you develop the habit of taking notes, you’ll become more perceptive and your skills as a writer will improve significantly. That means not just more stories, but more inspired stories. 

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