Capturing Words of Wisdom – Creating a Commonplace Book

Developing your own commonplace book

There’s something I learned about a few years ago and it’s something I would have enjoyed knowing earlier. But better late than never.

People have created and maintained books or notes that serve to collect thoughts, quotes, moments of introspection, transcribed passages from reading — anything of purpose worth reviewing later.

These books and collected notes are called a commonplace book.

Why keep a commonplace book today? It’s easy to overlook the information that interests us when overwhelmed by the volume of information we are exposed to every day.

Fundamentally, a commonplace book is a collection of quotes we find interesting and relevant to what we believe or what’s contrary to what we believe.

It helps us understand and incorporate information into a story of how the world works. In this, we can find a greater understanding of how we view the world and how we understand our place in it.

Writers, enthusiastic readers, and public speakers often collect quotes that they can use to help illustrate their perspectives or points. I didn’t realize how common this was until I searched for commonplace books online and found an amazing amount of information on this topic.

I’ve been maintaining a commonplace book in the form of 3×5 index cards for the past year. I divided them into the following topics: thoughts & knowledge, morals & values, self, power, and time.

Collecting these ideas is really an interesting experience in learning about yourself and what you think is important. Here’s what I’ve learned about them and myself along the way.

It’s my hope that you can find a way to incorporate this into your reading routine.

A process of self-reflection through the thoughts of others

One of the reasons I started this site is to show people that a significant failure shouldn’t define you. Sometimes the site acts like a journal outlining practical ways for us to improve our lives.

The one issue with journaling and one of the reasons why I never started one, is that I think it can turn into an enabling way to fall into self-doubt.

I recently wrote about Impostor Syndrome and how it impacts on our self-perception. Having a commonplace book or index cards, in my opinion, can help us avoid this trap.

For one reason, we are using the words of others to explain how we feel. This means we have to be reading or hearing the words of others and not focused on ourselves.

This is in opposition to journaling where it’s always about ourselves (my opinion).

In my experience of developing a personal vision and goals around this vision, I found that I am more aware of my environment and the content of the books I read.

As a side note, having this site has also helped me view the world differently, more inquisitively.

With the mindset of self-improvement and positivity, we can keep focused on the vision and goals. Having a commonplace book can be a tool to help us keep focused.

We become focused when we review the collected quotes, as a reminder of the paths we want to take. This can serve as a constant motivation to keep going.

Contrary to what we believe

Having a commonplace book can help us discover things about ourselves we once thought were true or false.

I was filled with a lot of self-doubts after failing out of Pharmacy School. I made a goal to read all the books I thought I should have read and gained valuable quotes and wisdom.

In these readings, I found sayings that were contrary to what I was believing about myself. I collected these sayings into quotes and collected as a reminder of the meaning in my path and development.

When we read, we should keep in our personal vision and goals in mind so we can take advantage of the wisdom given to us.

Everything we think and feel was experienced before and we have a great opportunity to learn from them.

I don’t collect the quotes until I finish the book. It’s helpful to mark the pages and locations of each quote so you can get the full context of the meaning and by the end of the book, you have a nice collection of wisdom to keep.

Do what works for you

Using a commonplace book has helped me learn about myself. It focused my thoughts on information that I think is influential or important.

There’s an opportunity to make new connections between ideas that would have not connected in my mind without this focused exercise.

I write on index cards because I like the feeling of putting words on paper. On the card, I put: author, book title, page/location number, put a tag identifier on it, the quote, and a short statement about my thoughts on the quote.

You could use anything you like. When I was in Pharmacy School I used Evernote on an iPad to collect and edit my notes.

I’m not a fan of electronic note keeping but Evernote was very useful and recommend it if you’re into electronic notations (note: I receive no compensation for this recommendation).

With work comes rewards

This does take effort. It means being attentive to what you’re reading, marking everything you think is interesting, copying it and organizing it.

What would be the point of collecting this information if you had no way to get it? You might remember the quote or remember the context of it for a short while but it’ll fade.

It takes work to maintain this collection. It’s value to us comes from our ability to extract information when we need it so we don’t lose that connection we’re making at the moment.

I’ve been maintaining about 100 index cards and it’s been a lot of work.

Yet, the rewards from this work are worth it. It’s helped me make connections between similar and dissimilar thoughts. Connections between authors allowing me to think about my beliefs in more detail.

Final thoughts

The work of keeping a commonplace book has changed the way I read and write.

I read so I can grow. It’s an easy thing we can do to increase the scope of our knowledge and discover more about ourselves through the words and experiences of others.

Doing this can help us be mentally resilient in the face of self-doubt. In this way, it’s up to us to seek out contrary ideas or things we don’t know already know or understand.

Over time, what we collect begins to tell a rich story about how we view the world and how or why we understand things to which we agree or disagree.

When we think about it, the best of what we discover about the world can be a reflection of ourselves, isn’t that enough reason for us to have a commonplace book?


If you’re interested in free and other interesting things, check out my page with exciting items.


Spring board for aspiring fiction writers. Using free time to write sci-fi / drama.

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