Why the notebook is (still) the writer’s best friend

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In the early years of my writing life, I used to carry a notebook and pen with me wherever I went. It was my constant companion, and I’ll share why it helped me then and how, even today, it’s still the most important technology I own.

At university, I’d be waiting for a class to begin and get an idea or observation or even a question. I’d open up my notebook and jot it down. I did the same on buses in Costa Rica, between teaching English classes in Berlin, at coffee houses in Brooklyn.

Maybe I’d never look at the note again. I filled dozens of notebooks with quotations, definitions of words, story ideas, and character observations, and probably only revisited a fraction of them.

But sometimes an idea would germinate and I’d revisit it later. Expand on it. All I had to do was open my notebook again and continue writing.

There were times when the idea would mushroom, growing bigger and bigger until it was clear it had become a full-fledged story draft. Then I’d usually move on to a larger medium — a legal pad or a computer.

In that way, most stories — especially the successful ones — began in my notebook.

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”

— Will Self, Rules for Writers

These days, my writing life is digital. If I’m away from home and get an idea, I note it down on my iPhone. With iCloud keeping my files up to date, I can easily revisit the note the next time I sit down at my desk. And most workdays I’m never far from my desk, which also means noting down ideas on my computer is quick and easy.

I do still keep a pen and notebook next to my bed. Why not my iPad? Because apart from my Kindle e-reader, I don’t allow any digital devices into my bedroom. Banning screens from bed was the best thing I ever did to improve my sleep routine.

Besides, all I need is pen and paper.

Sometimes I get an idea during bedtime reading or I wake up in the morning and my brain has mysteriously solved some gnarly plot problem. I have to jot down the idea quickly or risk losing it. It’s easy to reach for my notebook in the windowsill next to bed and write down my idea. Easier than unlocking my phone and opening the notes app and creating a new note, etc. And if inspiration strikes at 3 a.m., I have a book light that I can clip on to the notebook. Though over the years, I’ve also gotten good at scribbling blindly in the dark.

At times, I’ve prioritized using a notebook outside the bedroom too. Mainly when discipline was a problem.

I’m generally very disciplined when I sit down to write at my computer, but there have been times, especially when I worked a busy corporate job, when I was easily distracted. My concentration span got extra short. Opening my iPhone or iPad or Macbook, I’d get antsy and feel drawn to YouTube or some other site. Before I knew it, my precious writing time was gone, eaten up by social media or other distractions.

If you recognize this problem, I’d recommend switching to a paper notebook for a while. It’s worked for me. Because the notebook is entirely dedicated to writing, it is the original distraction-free word processor. And unless you’re indulging in a beautiful Moleskine or LEUCHTTURM1917 notebook with a fancy pen, it’s also arguably the cheapest word processor out there.

By the way, I once had a beautiful notebook and I wound up worrying that I would deface it with the odds and ends of my writing notes, not to mention my ugly handwriting. Instead of serving as a tool to make writing easier, it increased my resistance to getting things done.

Solution? I bought a cheap supermarket notebook instead, and as soon as I stopped thinking about the notebook, I wrote more. Lots more. The point is that sometimes we have to pick the simplest tech to be the most productive.

  • Starting out, get a pen and notebook and keep it with you at all times. Write down your thoughts and ideas and revisit them daily.
  • Allow your notebook to be a place of messiness. If you’re afraid to get your notebook dirty, switch to something cheaper, simpler.
  • Stuck? Distracted? Get off your digital devices. Get a pen and notebook instead – the original distraction-free word processor.

Finally, what happens if my laptop breaks, my phone is stolen, the power grid goes down? Even if going 100% off-grid, or facing a zombie apocalypse, when all else fails, the notebook will still work. I may not give it the love it deserves every day of the week, but through good times and bad, the notebook will always be my friend.

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