Using Cornell Notes to Write Stories

Editor's note: Sorry I've been gone for two weeks. Thanksgiving was a fun-filled all day event with my close friends. Lots of food, cheer and laughter. Last week I got really sick and it put me down for five days (still am fighting off some horrid cough). But the show must go on and here I am, hopefully back to fill your Thursday void.

I noticed something during NaNoWriMo this year. Many of my friends were planning, plotting and writing their novels long-hand. Many used Circa systems and index cards while a few used a system similar to Cornell notes. Looking at their notebooks fascinated me, as I'm often fascinated with how writer's come up with their ideas and plots for stories. I spent long bits of time looking through their notebooks and listening to them talk about how they'd use them to write out plot points (some of them in-depth), character sketches or locations, and then jot notes and images and suggestions down next to the various scribbles.

I thought it was a great way to plan a novel and started coming up with ideas on how one could modify Cornell Notes to plan stories or draft novels. This article quickly reviews the Cornell Note-taking system and then discusses ways you can modify and apply it for your creative writing endeavors.

The Cornell Note-taking system was developed by Walter Pauk, an emeritus professor of education from Cornell. Unlike most note-taking styles, the page layout of Cornell Notes is what makes this system unique. The format divides a single sheet of paper into a left and a right-hand column and a row at the bottom. You then use and write in each area using a strict guidelines.

The first space that you use is the right hand column or "Note-taking" area. This space gives you ample room to write down all your thoughts and notes that you have during a lecture or brainstorming session. When you're done with your notes for the session, you use the left column and bottom areas next.

The left column or "Cue" column allows you to jot down questions, reminders or notations about the notes you just wrote. The thought behind the Cues is simple, yet powerful. In studying your notes and ideas, and in taking the time to note down questions or other associated thoughts, you create meaning and context between the material in the notes and your mind. It helps you retain the information as well as understand and learn it.

The bottom area or "Summary" area allows you to write a short summary (just a few sentences) about the notes that appear on each page. The summary provides a concise review of all the important facts, as you see them, and can be used for reference later. Think of this area as the practical "test" that helps you understand how all these bits of notes fit together. The summary also helps you to see how all these facts fit into a bigger picture or context.

We can apply the Cornell Notes method to creative writing and planning during any stage of the process. I'm going to talk about what you can do during the planning and writing stages. However, you can probably use your imagination and these ideas to spark other ways of using Cornell Notes to help you craft stories.

When you are planning your story, you can use Cornell Notes to keep track of all your plot points, characters and locations. Set this up so that one page contains all the information for each singular piece of story idea. If you need more space, you can use the front and backside of a page for each item. One of my friends used the Cue column to denote which area she was writing about (character, plot, setting, etc.) and then used the Note-taking column to describe the thing she wanted to capture in as much detail as she thought necessary. In some cases, she found that making a diagram of a location's layout (like a character's cottage) was very helpful for later use when she needed to dive into details of where things were in relation to the character in her novel. The Cue column and/or Summary area can also be used to track outside suggestions. These are ideas you get from thinking about your story, reading other stories that have aspects that you want to add to your own, or ideas that come from talking about your writing ideas with your friends.

When you are writing your story, use the Cue column to quickly jot down a plot point you want to write about. When I write stories, I find that keeping a brief plot statement next to the block of writing I'm doing during the day very helpful. This statement doesn't need to be long or cumbersome, just short enough to help you recall where the plot of your story is going or where you left your character off last. For example, one of this year's NaNoWriMo plot points in my story was, "Reunited with who she is, telling her grandma, the final parting words of the grandma and gift that infuses her with grandma's knowledge and energy." This was enough to get me through a 2000 word sprint. You could also use the Cue column to write down any notes you have on your story (names you just created and don't want to forget, homes and addresses of various locations in the story, etc) as you write it.

The Note-taking column, if you haven't guessed it by now, is used to write the actual plot or bit of story down. Of course, in this modified methodology, it's okay if the snippet of story you're writing goes well beyond the current page. The point is that you get the story drafted and everything down. And you're allowed to refer back to the Cue column as you're writing to enter any snippets of notes or names or comments that you left there.

Finally, use the Summary column to track each page's word count (helpful if you participate in a word heavy writing competition or are concerned about the length of your story for certain publication goals). When you're done writing for the day, just quickly count up the words on each page and denote it in the summary. Or, for those who are more industrious... you could use the Summary column to actually write a summary of the action on each page.

I'm already entertaining thoughts of "going analog" next year and using the ideas in this article to help achieve another complete novel draft. All due to what I saw in my analog NaNo writing friend's ability to organize and write their way to victory using modified Cornell Note methods and other hackable ideas. For those who participated this year, how did your novels fare? Did you finish? What techniques did you use to organize your thoughts and words? Feel free to post them down in the comments.

Syndicate content

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Three Words

I got down three words this year, then health and work took my attention away.

But, I got my writing space back - my grandmother's drop-leaf secretary desk that I have loved since I was old enough to notice it was bequeathed to be by my mom. It's been sort of ignored or used to store household papers for the past couple of years.

Last month I cleared it of anything except things that interest me creatively - paper, pens, origami books for now - and a couple of things that are precious to me.

So I don't count NaNoWriMo as a total loss.


Pictures possible?

Sorry about health and work. I hope all is well now.

That desk sounds wonderful as a creative area. I'd love to see a picture or two. I hope you get plenty of time soon to sit there.

My Blog

Three is more than none!

Three words is better than having no words! :)

I'm sorry you got sick and real-life interrupted your plans.

I echo the desire to see pics of your creative place and the desk. It sounds like a very inspirational thing to have.


Cornell Style Editing plus a question.

Personally, I think the Cornell notes method could be better suited for editing your story, especially at the earlier stages. Put the text in the main notes area, the bigger edits in the Cue Area, and what really needs adding in the Summary area. Formatting your word processing file to print it out in this format shouldn't be too difficult.

My question is this: What kind of notebook has that kind of layout. If there's a company that publishes notebooks in that format, things would be perfect for me to try it out.

Cornell Notes Templates online

ooohers, this is a good idea too. I didn't think about the editing stage, even though it is an important part of the writing process. DOH!

Well, as far as notebooks, if you're using our DIY Planner forms, I believe that Doug did create a Cornell Notes layout for the compact (digest) sized notebooks. And because they're in PDF format, I have been able to print them out at 8.5 x 11" sizes so you can adapt them to fit any notebook.

However, a quick search for "cornell notes paper" on google returns the following choices:

Word .doc templates

Custom PDF Generator

Levenger A quick search for Cornell notes on the Levenger site shows that they offer 3 styles of modified 2 column Cornell Notes for Circa, pad-style and loose-leaf formats.

Thanks for a great addition to the article and I hope these links and suggestions help!

Don't forget the Dynamic Notes

It does Cornell
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)


Mead makes one under their Cambridge Limited line. Spiral-bound, 80 sheet notebooks (8 1/2 x11"). Item No. 06064

They have the two columns, but not a summary block at the bottom. They call them "Action Planner" notebooks.


...but not quite. I have one of these, and the layout is Cornell-ish (two column) but the purpose is clearly for planning projects. The left-hand column is labeled "Notes", the right-hand has numbered lines and is labeled "Actions" and there's no summary block at the bottom (though there are sections at the top for Title, Date, and Project Number.) For truer Cornell style, turn the page over. :-)

There's no magic in the paper, though. A piece of gridded paper would certainly serve just as well. You could easily DIY the divisions with a marker or highlighter and a ruler.

Writing longhand

Thanks for a great article on using Cornell notes. I find writing longhand helps me when I get stuck. Something about the act of moving pen across paper and leaving a trail of ink really helps unlock the creativity.

My Blog

Sure thing


Sure thing! I had fun writing this one. And what's funny is that while I tend to take notes and write most of my journal entries long-hand, I find that I do most of my story writing online. Maybe it's because I dislike the idea of having to write the story once and then HAND TYPE it all into my system again for tracking revisions and formatting, etc.

But I am open to the idea and like I say... I'm toying with the idea of doing an 100% analog nano next year. Maybe this will help break up the staleness I've felt with my works lately.

Keep on writing!

Jump start

This was my 2nd year doing NaNo and I found staring at the blank screen very daunting, thought I prefer typing to writing (bit faster). However, when I got stuck, I did just as you did -- whipped out a notebook and began hand writing. Within minutes I had 500 words. Whoa! I swear there is a psychological connection to the pen touching the paper.

~~Moleskines and a pint of room temperature Guinness are my drugs of choice.~~


Yet another technique think about since I primarily write my fiction longhand.
Very good article. Filed for future use.

"It's better to be a pirate than to join the Navy." -- Steve Jobs


This was my first NaNo this year (and I won!) I decided to do it only about a week before, and wound up doing most of my plotting and planning on 3x5 cards that I Rolla-punched into a "novel flip-book" with the top card being my daily word-count goals and totals. The cards were useful for channeling the pre-novel excitement and brain-dumping key plot points in a non-linear fashion, an area where I think regular note-taking -- Cornell style or otherwise -- is deficient. I've already promised myself to continue my winning streak :-) next year, but this time going in with more fleshed-out plotting and character development. For this I may continue to use the 3x5s since they are intrinsically non-linear -- capture the ideas as they come -- but then may do some outlining in another form. Cornell may be a good method for this, as I dislike rigidly formal outlines, but need something better than just "Character X finds a solution to the problem" (as seen on my note cards) as I tended to write myself a large number of plot holes and boring twists. Thanks for the Dummies Guide, innowen.

I've used Levenger's Cornell-modded paper for years

I love seeing others' notebooks. It's always fascinating to see how others work and to get a glimpse into their creative processes.

Though I can't write actual fiction in long-hand (too slow), I have used Levenger's wide-margined paper (a mod of the Cornell system) for both research and notes for years. (Like your pics, only I use the ruled instead of gridded.) It's perfect for when working on a story.

Quite a few years ago, I taught myself to write in long-hand and I can do it, but it gets very frustrating very quickly for me. I either end up scribbling to keep up with my thoughts but then can't figure out what I wrote, or I slow down and end up losing half the ideas that appear. Either way, my fingers end up itching to type. It's an actual physical sensation.

But for everything other than actual fiction writing, I love the feel of writing with a fountain pen on smooth paper. And the ability to comment on my research and my notes is a big plus.

Thanks for a great article. Hope you're back to 100% soon!

How I use Cornell Paper

I have an supply of Levenger's "old stock" Cornell lined paper, and I liked it for writing stories because of the "no, wait!" and or the "remember this for later" factor afforded by the margin.

But Levenger's margins were too wide, too much wasted space. (I have since put it in my work journal where it has been a godsend -- I started a new job, am taking reams of notes, and it allows me to "index" on the fly.)

So I created my own template for lined Cornell, with the box being only 10% of the area, and it's perfect for that "oops! Character X really should expand on that thought" or "I really do need a bit more explanation." I now have proper space to jot a line or three, instead trying to cram it all in in itty bitty hard to read handrwriting wherever I think I have some space.

I see myself using it as my "longhand a story paper". It's so flexible and forgiving.


BTW, 35,483 words for MiniNaNo. 1000+% of my monthly goal of 100 words/day. Lowest day was 422 words.

"In some situations you need to ask yourself 'WWRD?' What would Riggins do in a situation?"
Landry Clarke -- Friday Night Lights

Smart pages

Just reading about the pages makes me wish I was back in school again and could sit take notes for a whole day. But of course I still do a lot of research, maybe I should try this system then. Your article also really makes me want to WRITE a plot for real and craft a story. I did nano this year for the first time wihtout planning anything, and I couldn't finish it in time. It's still 39.000 words and I'm happy I did it. A bit of planning excersise will help me want to try this again.

Thanks for a great article as usual!


Alternating cue column?

Why doesn't the cue column alternate on the side of the page? Not sure whether I'd like it to be on the binding edge or the other edge. On the outside edge would make it useful for marginalia. I can think of occasions when each position would be useful.