Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Actually Using Your Notebooks

by Andre · 7 Comments


Whether you’re a writer, artist, scientist, or just a sentient human being, almost nothing helps stimulate the thinking and creative process more than good notebook — provided it’s actually used. In a recent post, Time, Attention and Creative Work, Merlin Mann issued the following warning about notebooks for erstwhile creatives:

A notebook is basically the creative equivalent of the NFL jersey you picked up at Macy’s; unless you fill it with a lot of hard work and sacrifices, you’re just a dilettante with poor spending patterns. An aspiring something.

Bottom line: notebooks are for writing, not buying. The worst practice for handling a creative block when using a tool is to run out and buy another tool. The fact that a Moleskine doesn’t have Bluetooth doesn’t make buying more of them any less of a gadget fetish. I suspect that many geeks convert to paper media to deny or feel better about their consumerism.

Let’s look at a few ways to decrease the whitespace in the notebooks that you already have.

Review your buy-to-use ratio

If you only buy a new notebook after filling the previous one, feel free to skip this part. For everyone else — you know who you are. Gather up all your notebooks and take a look at how many pages you wrote on in each one. If you moved on to a new notebook after using only a fraction of it, it’s time to reexamine either your motives for acquiring new notebooks, or the appropriateness of the notebooks you’re currently using.

Assess the usability of your current notebook

All notebooks are usable in theory, but we’re concerned with determining the notebook that lends itself to use in practice. That means it should not only encourage you to write in it, but it shouldn’t discourage you from writing in it. The standard cardboard-bound Moleskine pocket notebook, at least for me, is a great example of a notebook whose sheer elegance discourages me from writing in it. If you find yourself hesitating to put your pen down on that nice Levenger paper in your looseleaf notebook, consider replacing it with Mead paper.

After years of wasting my time and money with Moleskine and similar notebooks, I found that I wasn’t only resistant to writing in expensive notebooks, but to notebooks in general. As much as I loved the image of writing in one, the process always incurred unnecessary mental friction. There was something about writing in a bound notebook that made me feel like whatever I was wrote was going into a “permanent record.” When I switched to writing on index cards and legal pads, the problem vanished. I can compose faster on a legal pad than with any other medium.

Distinguish between jotting and drafting

We may use the same notebooks, but how we use them can be entirely different. Clarify what you use a notebook for. What process does the notebook facilitate? We have a habit of amalgamating everything associated with the writing discipline as “writing,” but there are distinct, separate processes that need to be identified.

What most of us call “writing” is actually drafting. In most cases, before you can draft a piece of copy, you have to first collect, then organize your raw material. Collecting can entail doing research, or summoning your existing knowlege. Organizing entails rearranging what you’ve collected into some kind of throughline, either an outline or at least a list. Drafting entails your initial efforts at converting your material, guided by your thoughline, into copy. Editing, of course, entails refining your copy, either through local revisions or successive drafts.

When you use a notebook for “writing,” are you collecting, organizing or drafting or editing? The notebook you’re using make be ideal for one of these phases but suboptimal or completely inappropriate for another. You might be better at collecting and outlining longhand, but drafting by computer.

Determine the best modality for working out your ideas

Back in the dot-com era I worked for a content site with a team of writers, most of whom weren’t exceptional at the craft of writing. That’s not as much of a liability as it might seem. I was assigned to write about technology news, one team of writers wrote about pop culture news, another about political news, and so on. What mattered more than writing ability per se was domain knowledge. If you read a specialty publication like “Road and Track,” you’ll notice that much of the prose is subpar, even though the information is probably very insightful. You read “Road and Track” to get information about cars, not to study article writing.

I mention this because many niche writers, especially bloggers, are too self-conscious about their composition when they should be focusing on mining their domain knowledge. Your core competency is in the ideas you have to share, not (primarily) how they’re articulated. When I read an article from Warren Buffet about investing, I couldn’t care less about his writing ability.

What does any of this have to do with notebooks? Emulating the creative process of writers whose core competency is writing (those who write on demand with exceptional skill, regardless of topic) may actually be blocking you from leveraging your strengths if they don’t involve putting pen to paper. Ultimately, you’re going to have to convert your ideas into copy, but initially, your first priority is to get collect and work out your ideas.

You might have better results with something other than a notebook, like a voice recorder. If you’re a primarily visual person, written outlines lack the schematic representation that would best facilitate the organizing process; so use mind maps or diagrams instead. Experiment to find out whether this is best done with a notebook, or a computer application like MindManager.

Try using index cards to capture individual ideas or key points prior to organizing them. When many non-writers see a full-size blank page, they feel obligated to fill it. So reduce the whitespace you need to fill. Put down one idea per card, using the smallest cards you can find.

Keep a second sheet, card or notepad nearby

Whichever phase of the writing process you’re currently engaged with, you’re inevitably going to have unrelated thoughts surface. Trying to ignore these thoughts will further interrupt your creative process, so prepare for them in advance by having a separate capture tool nearby. Write down the unrelated thoughts, and when you’re done writing, either process what you’ve captured right then, or throw it in your in-basket. For instance, I keep a junior legal pad next to my laptop.

Consider elimination

Not everything idea you capture is going to be useful, either now or in the future. Don’t be an idea packrat. If something you’ve collected is clearly not compelling enough to be developed into something more substantial later, then it’s clutter. The more clutter you have in your notebooks, the less value you’ll perceive in the collection as a whole. If 80 percent of a notebook, for instance, is uninspiring but kept on the grounds that it’s “potential,” you probably won’t be motivated to sift through the notebook to find the useful 20 percent. Collect liberally, but triage regularly.

(Photo credit: sskennel)

Technorati Tags: , ,

Tags: Creativity · Productivity · Writing


  • Charlie GilkeyNo Gravatar // Oct 2, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Nice post, Andre.

    Of course you know that I agree with you 100% about using notebooks to capture your ideas and harness your creativity.

    I went through much of the same thoughts when I settled on my cheap Steno pads. Moleskines were too expensive, and other notebooks were too large. The 6″x9″ Steno pad proved to be the perfect balance of whitespace (or green space, given the color I prefer), and it encourages capture, but not drafting.

    My method of using multiple notebooks kept the page flipping down, but it also kept the notebook count high. But having the notebooks in the location that the ideas happened proved to work really well and was mostly a non-issue. I knew where my ideas were by the topic of the idea.

    The most insightful (and hardest lesson for me to learn) suggestion for me in this post was to have a second dumping ground nearby to catch those unrelated, “neighboring fields” ideas.

    Seriously, you’re going to bait me into talking about my notebook-digital migration. You…you…muse you!

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Oct 2, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    I always write a VERY rough first draft. It’s horrible as far as the writing itself, but it contains my ideas. Then I edit. Unless you’re a professional writer, I completely agree that “Your core competency is in the ideas you have to share, not (primarily) how they’re articulated.”

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 2, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    @Charlie: My method of using multiple notebooks kept the page flipping down, but it also kept the notebook count high. But having the notebooks in the location that the ideas happened proved to work really well and was mostly a non-issue. I knew where my ideas were by the topic of the idea.

    Spot on. Keeping multiple notebooks isn’t excessive if each one is placed at a point of actual use.

    @Vered: Blog posts are short, so there’s less of a need to separate the different phases of writing. If you’re collecting and drafting at the same time, you probably see the post’s implicit structure in the rough draft without having to do an outline. I sometimes write a post straight from a first draft, with no notetaking or outlining, and minimal editing — assuming everything I need to write it is clear in my head. But most of the time I need more structure.

  • John LaceyNo Gravatar // Oct 3, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    A very interesting post. I have personally not discovered anything that stimulates my creativity as much as physically just scribbling on a page. I carry A5 artist diaries around with me whenever possible, but particularly when I’m traveling. Sometimes I will actually write things in them I intend to publish. Sometimes I use them to make mini business plans or consider marketing ideas. Sometimes I just make notes, collect thoughts and make observations. The “artist diaries” themselves are cheap and relatively small; easy to store and small enough to slip into my little over-the-shadow messenger bag. I think it’s win-win!

  • John LaceyNo Gravatar // Oct 3, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    And of course I meant to write “over-the-shoulder messenger bag” there. [Insert obligatory remark about editing here.]

  • David PickettNo Gravatar // Oct 5, 2008 at 1:55 am

    To be honest, my life would be a lot easier if I used my notebooks less rather than more. Granted, I occasionally manage to perform all three steps in making one useful — put stuff in, review for value, get stuff back out — but it’s the exception rather than the rule. If I stopped all generation at this point and went to full-time “notebook mining” of my existing stacks, it’d probably take me years to dig my way out.
    OTOH, maybe my kids will have fun doing a random walk through after I shuffle off this mortal coil. TBD….

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 5, 2008 at 9:53 am

    @John: Sometimes I will actually write things in them I intend to publish. Sometimes I use them to make mini business plans or consider marketing ideas. Sometimes I just make notes, collect thoughts and make observations.

    I think that’s the reason I have trouble using a bound notebook. When I used the same notebook for different applications, it felt awkward. Jotting notes, making project plans and drafting copy was like mixing linen, tee shirts and socks in the same drawer. With a legal pad, every page is a new beginning.

    @David: A few weeks ago I threw out all of my older notebooks. At some point it’s time to face the fact that stuff is either being archived for future application or it’s not. Once I got rid of my old notebooks, and especially my architecture-related stuff, my ability to focus on my current projects increased dramatically.

    Backlog sucks. If you know you’ll never go back to mine your old notebooks, think about why you’re keeping them. In my case, I found that they were just deadwood in need of hacking away.