The Why Behind the Words: Using a Commonplace Book to Share Uncommon Content

Have you ever heard of a “commonplace book”? 

It’s something we’ve been practicing for some time now, and one of the most valuable assets we have when it comes to creating consistently inspired and well-aligned content that gut checks with our vision. 

A commonplace book is a well-stocked creative well used by artists, writers, musicians and other creative folk. It’s the original bookmarking tool, a way of taking in ideas, scrapbooking them, and identifying a story worth telling when you're ready to revisit it. Think of it as a depository for 'eureka!' ideas, inspiring visuals, or thought-provoking quotes you’ve stumbled on and wanted to slip in your back pocket.

The beauty of a commonplace book is this: every fragment you rip out of a magazine, every paragraph you highlight, and every phrase you jot down onto a Post-It have pulled you in some emotional way that has the potential to contribute to your content. 

It’s a storage bin for magnetic content. And in order to create emotional content, you must immerse yourself in emotional content. Thus, the content you create from it will be emotional for the sheer fact that you were drawn to it, and the relevance it has to your life or your story.  

A commonplace book fuels the cycle of magnetic storytelling, allowing you to tell a story spawned from the story of another's. Storytelling, then, becomes about rebirth – making it your own – rather than regurgitation. 

So how do you start keeping your own? 

First, let it be known that there’s no right or wrong way to create a commonplace book. You can keep yours in a tattered shoebox, in an Evernote notebook, or in a lock-and-key journal. Ryan Holiday, avid reader and writer, explains his process for organizing his commonplace book on Thought Catalog. He begins by reading a range of work – from literature to business, memoir to poetry – and attracting the words and phrases that captivate him. Once he has accumulated the work worth keeping, he’ll organize it all by folder, divider, or tab and categorize each topic by section.

If you’re keeping a commonplace book to fuel your content engine, you might wish to organize your own in this way, too. Branding, design content, storytelling, emotion, and practical how-to's are just a few of the categorize we use when filing away the snippets we love and wish to share. 

A few tips for your own commonplace book: 

Make it an active, not passive, exercise.

This is an exercise that would make your high school English teacher proud. Don’t just copy/paste a link to your commonplace book, as it’s easy to forget why you were excited about saving it. Instead, highlight a passage or underline words that call you and place the snippet there with the link for reference. Remember, this is about the why behind the words, not the act of simply accumulating them. Write your gut reactions, action items, or why you were pulled to save the piece. Express your emotions on the page so you can recall them in your own content later on. 

Include every spectrum of the story. 

One of the best ways to generate content ideas is to listen to your customers praise, as well as their complaints. Recognizing the good, the bad, and the ugly can spur you to think about better ways of solving day-to-day friction in your customers' experience. And by using meaningful feedback to identify real-world questions about your work, you’re also generating content that answers questions for your entire audience.

You might use your commonplace book as a channel for getting creative when it comes to sharing more about your process, products, or purpose through the prism of your customers and clients. 

Experiment with content that speaks different languages.

This is a sandbox for your brand to play in, and a living document that you can contribute to at any time. If you're a natural number cruncher, try going visual. If you're a designer, see what literature can do to stir the other side of your brain. Clip out images, start a collage, or create a mood board that feels on-brand.

When it comes time to launch (or re-brand), debut a new product, or retool your website, you’ll be glad you have inspiration to revisit and a story about your brand's identity already living within the page. 

Give it wings to fly.

If you’ll be attending a conference, traveling for work (and pleasure!), or meeting new people, take your commonplace book with you. Experiment with stream of consciousness style writing, collect the business cards of interesting people you meet, or practice your hand at sketch notes. All of these ideas, people, and places will set your memory — and storytelling sense — ablaze next time you sit down at your keyboard. 

A commonplace book is designed to evoke your natural curiosity, which translates directly to the quality, quantity, and frequency of your content, not to mention its depth. And going deep with your story, exposing the emotions, feelings, vulnerabilities, and strength that make you you, and your brand yours, are what keep you connected to your core audience in emotionally resonant ways.

Keeping a living document like a commonplace book also gives you a compelling reason to search for, dig for, and question ideas that align with your brand, keeping it immersed in its purpose. It's a way to work on your business in the idle moments where you need to “restock the well” rather than exert more energy, and it offers a place of refuge where you can store ideas for safe keeping, letting them marinate in ways that can empower your content. 

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