Picture of Manila folder with the words, Writing Notes, Or How not to end up with a fire hazard

The Palest Ink: How not to end up with a fire hazard

When it comes to writing notes, there is a great Chinese saying, that ‘the palest ink is greater than the strongest memory‘ (广记不如淡墨 — lit. strongest memory not as well as lightest ink’) — which basically means, you might have the best memory in the world, but it is not infallible; to write something down at the time is still more reliable.

However, can you hit a point when you are writing down too many notes?


Sometimes it may seem that many thoughts that flit through your head are worth committing to a bit of paper.

But if you write down one choice thought every day, for a full year, that’s 365 bits of paper. Now, this you might put into a box, close the lid, and never transcribe onto your computer. Do this for twenty years, and you will have become a hoarder with a terrible fire hazard on your hands.

Pile of notes, or fire hazard?Pile of notes, or future fire hazard?

All writers will have different working habits. They might be juggling different projects in their head, 3 or 4 stories at once, and so they will keep a notebook for each project.

But you can easily hit a point, where you become a slave to trying to capture everything; instead of working just on the one story, without getting sidelined by other ideas.

This I believe requires a great deal of discipline, and is a hard thing to learn.

If you have a room full of unfinished projects, half-full notebooks, manila folders full of ideas; on a good day, it might make you feel proud that you are an ‘ideas factory’ — however, on a bad day, it will leave you feeling depressed with the amount of projects you haven’t finished, and the amount of work you have ahead of you. This is what was called in bygone days as ‘making a rod for your back.’ It’s the worst kind of masochism that creative people can get trapped in.

I don’t always want to defer to people greater or more successful than myself, but I do often think about writers that I like, including Stephen King, who has often said in interviews that he never writes notes.

However, I also know that when he starts working on a project, he will sometimes shelve it, if it doesn’t go anywhere, or goes on for too long (three months of working on the same thing is when his boredom sets in), or if he notices it is too similar to something else out there. Many of his stories he started working on at a young age, only to come back to twenty years later. Under the Dome was one of these stories, that started out as something called ‘The Cannibals’ that he was writing in 1982, while on the set of the movie Creepshow!

Anyway, at this stage in my life, I am beginning to think that it is better not to write down too many notes; but hope that your ideas stay in your head, and will come out the way you want them to do, when you sit down to write your story.

Sometimes you HAVE to write down an idea because you might have a beautiful phrasing of something that comes into your head as part of your stream of consciousness thinking (that voice in your head), that you cannot possibly recapture later on. Also, while you are travelling, or doing something special, it is also important to keep a notebook.

But seriously, trust me on this one: do not write down multiple different ideas, on the one piece of free-floating paper, and then collect them together in a box. This will drive you mad, and make you feel depressed, in a futile attempt to transcribe it all.

Ripped up notes in the binTranscribed notes ripped up in the bin!

The thing to do is try and write down your ideas in a notebook, relating to a single topic, and maybe write it at the top of the page. i.e. ‘How Cats Behave at Night’, and circle and colour it in with a highlighter. And maybe dedicate a section of your notebook to this. So in the end, you will have a single notebook with maybe 5-10 topical sections; then on the front of your notebook, write these topics down neatly, so you know what is in the notebook later on, when you end up with hundreds of them (worst case scenario, of course!)

I am not saying this will completely solve your problems, but it will help. And as you go along, you develop a unique system of organising your thoughts and ideas, so that you can come back to them as you need them.

By the way, you cannot beat manila folders: but the golden rule is one story, one folder.

Going back to Stephen King, he says that starting work on a new story while still working on an old one is like cheating on a girlfriend with someone new. I guess he is saying stick to one project at a time, as difficult as that might be. And so maybe try and concentrate your notes on the one project; don’t get ahead of yourself, as you also take away energy from your current project.

Still, as the Chinese saying goes, the palest ink . . .












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