Keep On Top Of Your Material | WTCTW 6

In an age where you can find almost anything on the internet, how are you supposed to edit it down – impose a bit of order?

Oak tree, Somerset. Pic by me.

Hi, this is the sixth and last in a series about Writing To Change The World (WTCTW).1

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Contents / Index

As I have written elsewhere, I keep physical notebooks. I have two different kinds: one is full of things that simply interest me, and might be useful to my work at some point, even immediately – or else just because I like it. Either way, it’s essentially a curated selection of other people’s content.

The second kind of notebook is more like a planner, for my own work, with to do lists, calendars, etc. It’s useful, I love it, but as you can imagine the first kind of book is generally more interesting to dip into long afterwards.

I call it a commonplace book, because that’s how the idea was first introduced to me by the then-Bishop of London, when I interviewed him years ago. I remember that I said something that interested him – no idea, at this point, what it was – and he said he was going to write it down in his commonplace book.

And I watched him do it.

Just to be clear, this was not intended as an insult. The term commonplace is used these days, if at all, to mean something banal. But a commonplace book isn’t supposed to be banal. It takes its name from the Greek for “place”, topos, from which we get our word topic. So a commonplace book might better be called a “common-topic” book, to be filled with whatever topics happen to interest you most.

Naturally, everybody’s common topics are different. Me, I find myself drawn constantly to writing, rhetoric, art, illustration, design, performance, improvisation – and a few other things. You will have your own favourites.

I write everything out by hand, because it helps me understand and remember it, but I combine the analogue approach with the best digital assistance I can find.


As you know, to venture online at all is to risk being distracted, particularly on social media. To avoid this, I use an RSS reader2 to gather material from a relatively small number of sources, and deliver it to me directly.

I get posts from writers I like, whenever they publish to their website. I follow newspaper and magazine feeds. And (because I have the paid version) I even get content when certain people tweet (so I don’t have to go on Twitter, where I might anyway miss it).

Here’s an example, showing a feed of tweets by by the journalist Sam Leith, whose writing I enjoy.

Last week, he tweeted a link to an entertaining book review3 he wrote for a magazine that I don’t (yet) follow on Feedly.

Specifically, the review was of a history of book indexes, and indexing generally, which makes it doubly interesting to me as I write this essay because I’m always curious about how to stay on top of material.

As you see in this next photo, Feedly shows me the original tweet, plus the article on UnHerd, with a box for me to type in insights of my own. (That’s right: I can annotate articles I find interesting, and save them.)

The next picture shows how I have highlighted some of the text in Sam Leith’s review.

The highlights in green are generated automatically by Feedly, because I searched my Feedly archive for this particular story, using the word “index”.

The ones in yellow are my own.

The first bit I highlighted was because I was simply delighted by the idea of “index wars”, and wanted to investigate further.

The second highlight – the single word “herbivorous” – was because it struck me as a delightful, non-obvious choice of word to convey mildness. It made me smile.

The third I highlighted because it struck me as a funny story, about a man (Mailer) with a huge ego.

I highlighted much else in the article. At some point soon, after letting it settle for a few days, maybe weeks, I’ll sit down for an hour or so to look back through my recent Feedly “highlights” (in this article and others), and copy the best of them into my commonplace book.

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Interactive Assent

Naturally, I do also copy things from physical books and other printed matter. If I were not the author, I might have gone through How To Change The World, when it was first published, for the bits I found most entertaining and useful to note down in a commonplace book.

I might look back on them today, ten years after it was written, as a refresher.

In fact… why not?4

Rather than attempt to offer a value judgement about the book, let me just point out a few rhetorical devices in it. Here are the opening words:

If you had the chance, would you change the world? Of course you would…

This is an example of what I described in the previous post in this series – a rhetorical question to which the answer is immediately supplied.

It’s the kind of utterance I would use in a public talk on this topic, with a pause for the audience to answer. Usually, audiences didn’t answer, which allowed me to say, “Oh, dear…!” And ask again. The second time around, lots of people would shout “Yes!”

Speakers use this approach because it’s helpful to get an audience saying “yes” as soon as possible.

In the book, I was trying to create as much as possible the same atmosphere of interactive assent. I was “breaking the fourth wall” (as they say in theatre) by talking directly to my reader (audience). I could have adopted a more detached, academic approach, but felt that it would be less engaging and inspiring. Like this:

Most people don’t realise they have the opportunity to change the world, and wouldn’t believe it if you told them so…

What do you think?



(I can’t hear you!)


Later, on the same first page, I attempted to confirm and acknowledge the reader’s “assent” by starting a paragraph like this:

If you have read even this far, you are already interested in changing the world. You may also be confident that you can do something…

Obviously, I didn’t invent this method of talking directly to readers. It’s been used for centuries, and it’s favoured by marketing and sales people, because it works.

Perhaps for that reason, I can quickly become sick of it. As a reader, I can find it coercive when it’s overdone, even when the assertions about “you” (ie, me) are spot-on.

The same goes for what I call “the coercive we”5, which I confess I also used on that first page:

…sometimes we lie awake at night… we allow ourselves to dream… we conclude that to change the world would be hard work, if not impossible…

It’s not a crime to use this approach. Far from it. I will continue to use it.

But I like variety, and value enormously the inspiration that can be derived from somebody sharing their own story, seemingly oblivious to the fourth wall, and to the audience behind it. It can be fascinating to watch and listen to somebody who doesn’t seem to know you’re we’re I’m there.

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Thank You

That’s all, for now anyway, about Writing To Change The World. I’ve enjoyed writing this series. If it’s also been interesting and useful to you, I’m delighted.

By way of thanks for sticking with it, and for overlooking the typos and other manifest flaws, please accept this drawing, another I did in Somerset last month.

Ladies Walk, Stoke Abbott.

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1 ↩︎ There may be more, depending on what I do with Tom, Roman and Philippa, who wrote other books in that first series for The School of Life.

2 ↩︎ The one I use is called Feedly. There are others. I wrote this about using RSS.

3 ↩︎ The book review, written for UnHerd, can be read in full here.

4 ↩︎ This paragraph contains one of my favourite rhetorical devices, in which the writer appears to be making his/her mind up before the reader. But of course I finished writing this long before you are reading it. I could have written something more deliberate, considered – but instead I’ve chosen to give you this facsimile of spontaneity.

5 ↩︎ The “coercive we” can be spotted particularly easily (but not only) when people make generalisations about themselves and presume that they apply to the listener. I’m thinking in particular of somebody who worked in a newspaper where I once worked, and frequently observed that such and such was “not for the likes of us”. Terrible phrase! To be fair, this kind of appeal to shared experience can be a winner, drawing speaker/writer closer to audience/reader. And any particular example can work tremendously or badly, depending on how well the speaker/writer knows the audience/speaker. The examples I gave, above, taken from the first page of How To Change The World could easily provoke rolling eyes and tutting from readers who felt that I was describing something alien to them. The lesson, I suppose, is that I can’t get it right all the time (could have written “we”, here, but thought better of it). And not to let it stop me writing altogether.