Paper notebook experiments and reflections

2021-11-07 @Blog

Having experimented with mounds of paper notebooks through the years, I’ve faced tendencies to find something increasingly compact, less perceptible in a backpack, portable to carry around town, sufficiently comfortable to write.

This nomadic season I’d taken to the extreme and brought along a notebook the size of a checkbook, which I’d repurposed from an old 2009 pocket organizer.

For a while, I’ve adhered to the confines of these miserably short and ultra-thin lines. Sometimes I’d alternate for the small leaflets of paper I always carry anyway.

These compact paper instruments are great for brainstorming, compiling bullet lists and rapid note taking. That’s precisely how I’ve used my stacks of index and note cards all along. The tiny notebook effectively served the same purpose, and began to seem superfluous.

But to use it for free prose, I was fooling myself.

I felt so constricted within the narrow spaces, forced to write much in shorthand, some for later digitizing, some to remain analog. And that’s the intended means for the above mentioned applications, but not for creative prose! - not for the style of writing designed to stream, to elaborate, to ramble on and on.

I was unwillingly compelled to compress, to encode, to capture the skeleton, yet postpone the creativity. I wasn’t enjoying this. Not one bit.

Thus I purchased a 15/20cm 100-sheet grid notebook for roughly $1 USD: light, cheaply bound, but extremely comfortable to write in. The lines are at just the right length, not too long, not too short, the grid squares sufficiently small.

The notebook design is nearly identical to what I purchased in Mexico nine years back for the same 20 pesos, and still one of the more convenient through the years. Though not a pocket notebook, I easily bring this to cafes, where creative prose has once again become a pleasure. So much for trying to be clever and circumvent what already worked.

In fact, I’ve never asserted any advantage to any of the more expensive or elaborate designs.

The college-size notebooks are unnecessarily large, however wide the lines. I prefer grids anyway.

The expensive, hardbound moleskin models (the last of which I still found for $1USD at some thrift store), though of the proper outer dimensions, are too heavy, the lines wider than I care for, and haven’t conferred any notable benefit otherwise.

Sure, the hardbound cover compensates for the lack of underneath support, or even the stand-up writing. Yet that benefit only justifies a small minority of use cases. On the contrary, the pages are firmly bound - a supposed luxury, yet I prefer the cheaper wire-bound pages that I can tear out. And who cares for that bookmark or the inner pocket?

Concerning the exotic notebook designs, the durable and pleasant to hold covers, the thicker paper, the clever inner guides, the calendar dividers, the graphics, the Roman/Gothic typography: who cares about any of that?

Notebooks like this must sell (and probably sell well) for one reason: for the non-writers to at least entertain the notion, never mind if sustainable, and never mind for how long. Or I don’t know: have any of you consistent writers ever asserted notable marginal benefit across the more luxurious set of pages?

No fancy notebook design have I ever found to evoke increased creative input … save for the case of writing a blog ramble about notebook designs.

The only criteria of concern to me:

  1. The outer length roughly on par to an outstretched hand.
  2. Compact, yet sufficiently spacious lines, or better yet, a grid: whatever facilitates your ideal script.
  3. Minimal space-consuming headings, calendars, artificial organizing delimiters - or at least none that you couldn’t write over. In other words, maximal fertile real estate.
  4. Light, thin pages, this incidentally characteristic of the cheaper notebooks.

One tip I always emphasize: index your paper content.

Actively maintain an index (possibly even some reverse index) of at least the remarkable: consumes seconds of your time per entry, yet proves invaluable months and years down the road.

Most paper journal writers otherwise lose track of what they’ve written or when. And though much pure journaling reflects the ephemeral or ‘in the moment’, sections might comprise valuable, reusable material.

Dedicate the first or last sections of your notebook to the index, having first numbered the pages. Alternatively (or in addition), maintain a digital index of your paper notebooks for whatever content you haven’t (or cared to) fully digitize. I experiment with both methods.


Questions, comments? Connect.