John-Paul Flintoff

Keeping a Commonplace Book

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

(Note: I am being explicit about my intentions, and in just one sentence!)

In order to persuade you, I probably ought to 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.

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

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 them.

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.

(As this indicates, 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.

So: how do you start?

I’ve got an idea. If you would like me to get you started, I’ll send you a 16 page sampler from my own collection, with space for you to add more of your own. (This offer is only for people on this course.)

If this appeals to you, just let me know. Send me an email now.