How and Why to Create a Commonplace

15 minute read

Commonplacing is an ancient technique for recording passages and ideas you run across while studying or living your life. The technique was developed when books were rarer and more difficult to request at a moment’s notice; the commonplace book allowed scholars to carry the most valuable passages around with them. But it’s still useful in the Google age: you can collect the bits that are most useful and meaningful to you in a concise format and in one central location.

Commonplacing with a traditional commonplace book is somewhat laborious, as it involves copying passages into a notebook by hand and then indexing them in some way. But with the advent of copying and pasting and lightning-fast full-text search of computer documents, it has become almost trivially easy. In fact, the amount of effort involved is now so minimal that there’s practically no reason not to maintain one. You can include quotes, anecdotes, ideas, links, lists, or almost anything else, and there are no rules about what you insert or how often you do it.

Commonplacing, as I practice it, is an anti-notes system: there is (almost) no system, no order, and little reflection, but it works anyway.

Why should I bother?

As mentioned up top, commonplacing with the aid of a computer requires practically no effort. Yet it noticeably improves both your internal and external memory – writing in and occasionally rereading the commonplace provides repetitions that refresh your memory, and you can rapidly look up any items you don’t fully remember. The frequency with which you can supply a pithy quote will increase markedly. And it’s just plain fun.

Commonplaces are a particularly great way to get started with personal record-keeping if you have limited experience or you’ve always failed to keep diaries or reference materials. A commonplace book never walks backwards, and because there are no rules on what you insert and when you do it, you don’t have to feel bad about “not keeping up.” The only thing to regret is not getting started sooner.

One year of regularly using a commonplace and you’ll be happy with what you’ve gathered. Three years and you’ll find your memory improving. Ten years and you’ll wonder how you ever got on without one. Maintaining something for even a year sounds like it would be hard, but unlike most personal improvement tips, commonplacing isn’t something you have to do every day, and you don’t have to get discouraged if you leave it aside for a while; you just have to have the document and remember to use it occasionally when you want to save something.

Dedicated tools exist to allow “highlighting” in texts you read online or in eBooks, a technique which would seem similar to commonplacing. However, these tools are less flexible: they are often restricted to certain types of content, they may make it difficult to add your own commentary, and they don’t help at all if you have an original thought or one that came from conversation or another unreferenceable source. Plus, they may not offer an easy means to export the content, leaving your highlights at the mercy of the operator of the service. A quick copy-paste is almost as easy and allows you to control all of your snippets forever and maintain them in one place using the tools that work best for you.

What does it look like in real life?

Check out the public portions of my commonplace, which I call Random Thoughts, formatted as a single giant page. As of today, I have 11,852 entries made over twelve years and just shy of half a million words. I would recommend scrolling at least halfway to three-quarters of the way through before you start exploring, as the way I use the system has changed somewhat over time. (I was 14 years old when I started this file!)

Read Random Thoughts.

How do I get started?

Sound like an experiment worth trying? Good! Open your favorite text editor or word processor, write the word Commonplace (or whatever you want to call it) at the top, and save the file in a convenient location. Bam, you’re done. Now you just type or paste in content when you encounter it.

Before you add too much content, it’s a good idea to decide how to format your entries; once you have a lot of them, it will be a pain to change. Read on for details.

Basic formatting

I find three pieces of metadata on each entry indispensable:

  • ID numbers: Once you get a lot of entries, you’ll appreciate being able to refer back to them from other entries or from notes you take outside of your commonplace. Thus, I highly recommend sequentially numbering every entry you make (e.g., #8250). Sequential numbers are concise and easy to create; if you want to, you can even create a macro that automatically inserts the next one. (I didn’t use numbers for my first 4 years or so, and I wound up having to go through and manually number thousands of entries. Don’t be me.)

  • Sources: If it’s not your idea, say who you learned it from, or paste in a URL or a title and page number, if available. You’ll thank yourself when you want to quote it 5 years later. (If you forget, try googling a few unusual words from the quote to find the source.) I write sources at the end of a quote after the closing quotation mark, or at the start of a new line, followed by -- – this way, it is easy to search for all entries from a particular source using a standard full-text search where the query begins with --.

  • Shareability: If you end up gathering thousands of entries, you might like to share some of them with others. If you mark which ones you’re comfortable making public, you’ll be able to quickly filter out any overly personal ones later. I use a # before ID numbers of private entries and a @ for public entries.

    I find it easier to make every entry private by default and not worry about deciding at the time I add it. Whenever I want to publish updates or realize it’s been a while, I search back to the last one that I marked as public and decide which of the remainder of the entries to reclassify as public.

Advanced techniques

  • You can include the date somewhere, either on each entry or periodically. I don’t actually find the date of entries to be all that valuable in most cases, but it’s so easy to add that it seems worth a few seconds now and then. I’m happy with a rough idea of when entries were added, so I write the current date on a line of its own whenever I remember, maybe every couple of days.

  • You can connect items to each other. If you find yourself realizing your new entry is related to a previous one, go find it and mention its number in your new entry. Ideally, insert a backlink from the previous entry to the new entry as well.

    Similarly, if you mention a commonplace entry in some of your other notes, or in the margins of a book – or vice versa – record the connection between those ideas.

  • You can add hashtags (or tags in some other format) to categorize entries, if you find yourself collecting a large number of similar entries. You can hop through all the items on that topic just by searching for the tag and picking “find next” after each. I list out all my hashtags at the top of the file, so I can remember which I’ve used without having to search for them.


The Random Thoughts plaintext format has worked well for me. It looks something like this:

#1. Here’s my first entry.

If what I’m writing is multiple paragraphs, I might prefer to leave the number on its own line.

@3. By changing the # to an @, I mark this entry as public.

#4. Here’s an entry I can refer to later. BL stands for "backlink", indicating I’ve discussed the entry again later.
{BL #5}

#5. As I mentioned in #4, we can link entries together. We can also include direct quotes with sources, as you can see in #6.

@6. "The Random Thoughts plaintext format has worked well for me." --Soren Bjornstad, on Control-Alt-Backspace

#7. I can use a hashtag somewhere within the entry to classify it as belonging to a category. #tagging

There’s nothing magical about my format, so feel free to create your own. Just make sure you’re recording the information you want to have available in a consistent and readable way.

What goes in a commonplace?

You can put anything you like in your commonplace, and the system becomes more useful the more you add. Some ideas to start with:

  • Quotes you gather from your reading, people you live with, or strangers on the street: the beautiful, the thought-provoking, the absurd, the sad, the useful, the attractive turns of phrase, the inexplicable.
  • Stories and anecdotes: things that happened to you, your friends, your grandparents, people on the Internet.
  • Ideas you had in the shower and don’t know what to do with yet.
  • Summaries of things you read about or ideas the reading gave you.
  • Links to websites to check out, confirmation numbers, lists of things to buy, and the like. If you have better places to put these, by all means do, but if you don’t, in your commonplace is a world better than nowhere! I am a pretty well-organized person, and I still frequently find myself with information that doesn’t fit into any of my dedicated systems and I don’t know what to do with; I paste such information into my commonplace and know that if I can’t find something anywhere else, I should search there.

What do I do with my commonplace once I have it?

Read through part or all of it periodically, maybe when you’re bored or procrastinating. This serves several purposes:

  • It’s entertaining.
  • It keeps your mind eclectic.
  • It refreshes general memory traces related to all the items, so that you will be more likely to get an inkling of “hey, there was something in my commonplace about that” when you encounter related ideas in the near future.
  • It refreshes your passive memory of wording of specific items. Compared to other notes systems, a commonplace relies heavily on quotations, which often have distinctive ways of saying things. If you can remember even just a couple of distinct words from an item, chances are you can find it in seconds with Control-F, even in tens of thousands of entries. Even if you don’t feel like you can haul out those words, if you give it a shot, you’ll often do much better than chance.
  • You might notice ideas that you’d forgotten related to things you’re working on. These could get you unstuck or offer inspiration or avenues for exploration.
  • Regularly reading your commonplace will enable you to think of quotes and expressions when they’re relevant in everyday life. Even if you can’t remember them verbatim, finding them will be trivial.

If you’re catching up with a friend, use your commonplace to review notable things you’ve read or thought about recently. It can serve as a sort of automatic diary, too: you just can’t guarantee that any particular experience ended up in there.

Once you have a couple of hundred entries, anytime you can only vaguely remember something you read or thought about, try a quick search in your commonplace. A search of your commonplace is particularly handy if you have some words rolling around in your head and can’t remember where they came from. (Google works great until the words came from your life instead of a webpage.)

Do I have to use the tools you recommend?


I like the ultra-simple method involving a single text file or word-processor document because it minimizes the amount of time required to add a new entry, which ensures that I don’t ever skip recording something because it’s time-consuming. If an idea turns out to be particularly important, I can always import it into a knowledge system with more structure (like my Zettelkasten) later.

However, if you don’t like this approach, feel free to make up your own. I do suggest that whatever method you choose have the following three attributes:

  • It should be easy to add anything that seems like it might be valuable later. If it’s difficult, you’ll skip out on recording things. My median time to record an entry is about 15 seconds.
  • It should be easy and fast to do a full-text search. Full-text search is unusually helpful for commonplaces compared to other notes systems because they are based on quotations, and quotations are easy to find by searching for a couple of salient words. If you decide to work in a system without full-text search, you’ll have to maintain your own indexes to have any hope of finding things, which is a lot of extra trouble. I have over 11,000 entries in my commonplace with barely any indexing, and I almost never have difficulty finding things.
  • It should be possible to copy and paste substantial portions of what you read into your commonplace. No doubt copying it in by hand helps your memory, but you’ll record more and keep better sources if it’s almost instantaneous to enter items, and I think this makes up for any losses.

Start with whatever tools you already have and know how to use, and if you reach a point where they are inadequate, start building more scaffolding on top. Otherwise, you’ll end up overbuilding a bunch of structure that isn’t necessary and slows you down, if you even manage to get started in the first place.

While I like taking notes on paper and often consider it a good option, I don’t think paper-based systems are an effective way to commonplace in 2021. The amount of extra time and effort involved is difficult to defend when most of your content will consist of things you could otherwise copy and paste and full-text search can handle nearly all your searching needs.

Any other tips?

If your commonplace is in a format that’s not always with you, have another good way of “catching” quotes and ideas you’d like to get into your commonplace. I use a miniature pocket notebook; other people use a voice recorder or a phone app, or email notes to themselves. Find a system that’s easy and works for you. Unlike with other things you might use a “catch” system for, it doesn’t matter much if you don’t transfer the items into your commonplace for a week or even a month, so don’t worry too much about your process as long as you have a way to avoid losing the notes entirely (e.g., crumpled napkins stuck in your coat pocket are no good).

The commonplace centers the quote, or the anecdote, but if it doesn’t speak for itself, add a few words of your own thoughts to help get yourself back in the same frame of mind later. That’s, in a sense, what the commonplace is trying to do: create a series of vignettes that help you remember what it was like to read or hear something, or have an experience, and transplant those experiences into new contexts.

It’s OK to update entries. I like to indicate what part is original and what part is new by writing Update: before my new thoughts, but adding more thoughts over the years usually makes entries more valuable.

Have your tools visible all the time. If you’re using a single file like I recommended, keep it open on your computer. At the beginning, this will help you remember it exists and you should use it, and later on, it will make your whole life less annoying.

Can I see your system?

Sure! In addition to the public commonplace file itself, here’s a 25-minute demo of what it looks like to work with on my end. Some parts of the demo are pretty technical, but if you’re comfortable with the Linux command line and advanced text editors like Vim, you might be excited to see all the gory details: