Keeping a Commonplace Book

How he obtained so many beauties of speech it were desirable to know Dr Samuel Johnson, on Alexander Pope

In this post, I’m going to try to persuade you to keep a commonplace book, and to fill it by hand.

To begin, I should probably tell you what a commonplace book actually is. So here goes:

a selection of sentences
a manual for meaning-makers
a volume of verbal beauties
a word-hoard
a file of fine phrases
(etc etc).

For literally hundreds of years, anybody with even the slightest use for the written word would keep a commonplace book, for self-improvement and for entertainment. In the quote at the top of this post, Dr Johnson speculates about Pope’s commonplace book.

By looking out for excellent bits of writing, and by copying them into a book, you will inevitably become better at writing and speaking. You’ll find your own unique ways to express yourself.

Typically, commonplace books were filled with two types of material:

  1. figures of speech, categorised by type for easy reference: simile, metaphor, analogy (see above, from my own book), hyperbole, and many other wonders with regrettably off-putting Greek names
  2. stories, facts, rumours, legends, data (anything!) about your own particular area of interest

While writing my book about public speaking, I spent a lot of time in the British library. I found lots and lots of examples of great writers who kept commonplace books. I even managed to peek at some of those books.

One such writer was the great novelist George Eliot (sketch by me):

I found it deeply reassuring to know that great writers became great by making a note of the phrases and sentences they liked. And to see how they went on to adapt them – creating brilliant phrases of their own.

To be clear: keeping a commonplace book is not merely a copying job. It has a profoundly creative effect on the user.

I hope this conveys a reasonable sense of what a commonplace book is, and what it’s for.

Here are two more sample pages from my own commonplace book. These are both from the second category listed above – they’re about one of my particular interests, public speaking.

This one is a list of techniques for memorising content:

And here’s a visual display of some rhetorical ideas, which I found online here and somewhere round about here :

More here.