A Year On Paper

About a year ago I wrote about the paradox of journaling. I had read about Thoreau’s journal. One commenter pointed to a guy who’d been keeping a diary on paper for 66 years. Not long after the post, I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. There, I discovered that more than 7,000 pages of Da Vinci’s notebooks have survived the 500 years since his death. I wondered, as did Isaacson, how many of my blog posts, tweets, and text files would exist 500 years from now.

A New Journal

So I started keeping a journal on paper again. My notebook of choice was the Moleskine Art Plus Sketchbook, A4 sized, hardcover. I optimistically ordered four of them. One of the challenges of journaling on paper is going back and searching for something. Given that I expected to index my journals, I decided that each entry would get a unique number, and I’d key my index to the entry number, rather than the page number. A year later, I have filled 2-1/2 of the Moleskine notebooks (about 241 pages) for a total of 823 distinct entries.

One thing I love about these journals is that they are multimedia. Read the post about the British diarist made me realize that what I put into the journal doesn’t have to be exclusively writing. So there are many pages with photos I’ve taken, pasted in. For instance, here’s an early page a few days after I started when I was attending a conference in Atlanta.

Another thing I started doing is writing short entries about books that I just finished reading. In these entries, I usually include a photo of the cover. Here is an example of one such entry after I read Essays of E. B. White.Essays of E B WhiteOther times, I might find some interesting picture that I really like in a magazine. This one might be from Outside magazine, I can’t remember. But bears, especially grizzlies, fascinate me.


In order to make things easier to find, I decided to index each volume after completing it. This was time consuming, and I ended filling something like 300 index cards.

Index Cards

So I opted, somewhat reluctantly, for an alternative: I actually type up each volume into a text file. I wrote a series of scripts to parse the text file and I now have at my fingertips, a set of commands I can run which will lead me to just about anything I am looking for in a few seconds. This isn’t the most efficient use of my time, but it is better than creating the index cards. And while the text files may get lost over time, I have a feeling the notebooks themselves will last.

Field Notes, redux

At the same time, I still keep my Field Notes notebook in my back pocket at all times. This is my repository of short term information, observations, and random notes, many of which get transposed to the Moleskine journal at the end of the day. I’ve gotten better at pulling my notebook out to write down observations, regardless of who might be standing around. (I used to feel self-conscious doing this.)

Moreover, I now keep two Field Notes notebooks in my pocket. One is for the same thing I’ve always used it for. The other is for jotting down books, articles, and other things that I might want to read someday. I used the Field Notes checklist notebook for this purpose.

Composition books

Remember those old school Compositions books? Target has them in back-to-school sales for 50-cents each and I’ve bought dozens of them. I use them at work for everything I do. In the last year or so I’ve filled 4 of these 200-pages notebooks. Meeting notes go in them, but they also act as lab books for things I am working on. If I am writing code, or installing some software, the steps I followed get entered here, the error messages I encounters and how I worked around them. All of it goes into these notebooks. They have made a real difference in how prepared I feel.

And paperless?

I still use Evernote, but it is mostly automated these days. I pull in various statements automatically using FileThis. I still scan important paper that I get in the mail.

But I have to say that if my Going Paperless experiment taught me anything, it’s that my heart is with paper. There is something about a Field Notes notebook that Evernote simply can’t replicate. There is something about a Moleskine journal that Day One can’t touch.

Besides, I enjoy seeing the jumble of notebooks askew on the shelve above my desk at home. There is something remarkably comforting about that.

Bookshelf of notebooks


  1. So out of curiosity, what pen do you choose to carry with you for a quick jot in the Field Notes? I’ve tried a Fisher Space Pen for the size, but hate the way it writes. I find my usual Uni-Ball Vision a bit uncomfortable depending on the pockets and hate tucking a pen in when I’m being casual.

  2. Finally, you’ve entered the future via the back door. Now all you need to do is trade your G2’s for a fountain pen, or two, or twenty. :/ As you know I’ve been journaling on paper for the last couple of years while still using EN for conference and project notes, capturing key documents, etc. Lately I’ve taken up a modified form of bullet journaling. Tools of choice: Palomino Medium Ruled Notebook w/100 gsm acid free paper. A dream when using a fountain pen. As for the pen I have several, but my Sailor F nib and the Pilot Custom 74 are my journaling faves. It’s like writing with butter on glass.

    1. Ken (welcome back!), I think my problem using a fountain pen is that I don’t think I can write in cursive well any longer. I’ve been printing most of my life, although I wrote in cursive in school when it was required. (It was, strangely, required on the LSAT when I took that years ago.) When I think of fountain pens, I think of beautiful flowing cursive script. I think it would be wasted on me.

  3. Actually, multiple surveys indicate that about 1/3 of FP users print instead of writing cursive. This fraction increases significantly among respondents with technical backgrounds, e.g. engineers and architects, etc. No surprise there.

    I never write cursive but do alternate between all caps and initial caps. That is the extent of my variation, which is also predictable. 🙂

    1. Well, I feel much better about my print handwriting. I remember taking a drafting class in 11th grade and learning how to write like an architect. That is a unique way of printing.

    1. Davy, Funny you should ask that today, as I was talking about it with someone else. That comes from the runic alphabet used in the Ultima games in the 1980s. There was a symbol for “th” that I started using as a shorthand for “the”. I’ve used it ever since in all my own handwritten notes, etc. It’s actually become second nature, and on those occasions when I am writing something for someone other than me, I have to make a real effort to write out the word “the” instead of the symbol.


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