Writing Tools: Notebooks, the Kind with Paper

Writing Tools: Notebooks, the Kind with Paper

Ye olde trusty notebook.
Ye olde trusty notebook.

From the time I was in grade school all the way up until after I graduated from college I wrote in notebooks. It seemed such a natural process that I wonder now how I got away from it, and why it was such a revelation when I took up writing in notebooks again.

In my school days I used to carefully comb through available notebooks  and select one with multiple subjects, college-ruled. Usually it would be a spiral-bound Mead, 8 1/2 by 11, but sometimes I’d experiment with slightly smaller sizes. When I was older and wandering through the Kansas City Renaissance Festival with my wife, I purchased a lovely Celtic leather notebook cover with an unlined sketchbook, and I filled a succession of replacement sketchbooks between those covers with my scribbles for years after.

As striking as that notebook was, though, I eventually fell out of using the thing. It became impractical to drag it wherever I went: my student days were over so I no longer had a backpack over one shoulder, and I didn’t have the kind of job where I always toted a briefcase. In those rare instances where I DID have a briefcase, it was already so loaded down that something weighing as much as a hardback book was a nuisance. I never used a notebook for writing unless I was at home, at which point I might as well have been writing on the computer. I thought that I had “outgrown” the use of a notebook.

Paperblanks Mini notebook, with Pilot G-2 mini and Papermate Profile mini pens.
Paperblanks Mini notebook, with Pilot G-2 mini and Papermate Profile mini pens.

I’d gotten away from the purpose of notebooks. In the last two years I’ve rediscovered just how useful they are to me as a writer, and I’ve been trying to evangelize my writer friends ever since. Waiting on a really slow train to get by on the tracks? Waiting in a plane? Waiting for your kid to get out of a music lesson, or stuck in traffic? Maybe, like me, you’re waiting for your friends to get out of a panel at Dragon*Con you weren’t interested in attending, or you’re out back fixing the horse fence. Writers write; they don’t just compose when it’s convenient for them, when the stars are in alignment, or when they happen to be sitting in front of their computers.  Snatches of dialogue, scenes, entire outlines can be lost because the muses don’t wait to inspire you until you’re in just the right place with just the right tools.

I don’t mean to suggest that we are powerless before the goddesses of inspiration, nor do I mean to belittle the ability to simply sit down and focus and make writing happen even when you’re having a slow day. Writers have to be able to make writing happen, not to wait for it to happen. What I’m advocating is having a small notebook (and a mini-pen — those things don’t break when you sit on them, and can fit in a front jeans pocket) ready with you so you can be ready to write rather than NOT write, which is infinitely easier. Whipping out your pen and notebook is much faster than rifling through your laptop or mini-laptop case and waiting for the computer to cycle on. In many of the instances I described above, firing up a computer  would be impractical enough that you’d probably leave the writing for later.

Sideview of the Paperblanks Mini notebook.
Sideview of the Paperblanks Mini notebook.

I rediscovered notebooks while my family and I were wandering around the art museum bookstore in Cincinnati and I saw  a display selling 3.75 by 5.5 notebooks. They were lined, the pages were sewn into place so they’d be less likely to fall out, and the covers were slim but durable. They were small enough to slide into my back pocket, where us American men-folk often keep our wallet. It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase of something I didn’t think I needed, and I actually felt a little guilty spending the money. I haven’t felt guilty about the purchase since. I swiftly learned that I had found an ideal writing tool. I get all kinds of good work accomplished because of the thing, most especially outlining. I’ve found the notebooks especially useful for “thinking aloud” to solve problems I wouldn’t usually solve while in front of the computer screen. For instance, I often write in outline form what would happen if I followed this plot thread this way, and then this other way, and then that way, which has saved me from going down even more dead ends with my writing than I would normally.

The diminuitive Paperblanks Micro notebook.
The diminuitive Paperblanks Micro notebook.

I’ve found these little notebooks so handy that I filled one notebook last year and have only a few pages left in my current model. I’ve already picked out a replacement. I’ve looked at other brands, and seen that Moleskin, amongst others, has an equivalent size that might suit you. I’ve been very happy with my first choice, Paperblanks, though. They’re durable enough to last me a year, come with a built-in bookmark , lay flat pretty easily, and even have a sturdy pocket on the inside back cover where you can drop index cards or important scraps of paper (in fairness, it should be pointed out that Moleskins seem to have all these features as well). Paperblanks come in an array of styles sure to suit a variety of customers, and are available in larger (and even one smaller!) sizes. I’ve found Paperblanks, Moleskins,  and other brands at major bookstore chains, although they also can be ordered at online venues. I’ve paid between 9-12 dollars for one, which is why I first thought they were an extravagance. I’ve since realized that the right tool is worth the extra price.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
C.S.E. Cooney

When I was a kid, it was always 3 or 5-Subject College-Ruled Spiralbound Notebooks for me, because they had the most room. I’d write until the covers fell off. Letters, journal entries, story chapters, poems.

For most of my twenties, I’ve been more into unlined journals – sketchbooks, yes, or whatever new gift my friends gave me for birthdays or whatever. Recently, when my last journal ran out, I bought a 3-Subject spiral-bound college ruled again, and it felt like coming home.

I still carry a backpack around everywhere, and most of my time is spent away from home and my laptop (which no longer has any battery power anyway), on trains and so forth. For years, the term “first draft” has been synonymous with “in my notebook version.”

I used to write with ballpoints or even pencil (ew, fades over time), but then someone gave me a fountain pen. When that runs out of ink, I have a back up of precise-tipped pilot pens. “Scratchy pens” I call ’em, ’cause I like the sound they make.

It is strange how aesthetics of writing can affect one.

Bill Ward

These are beautiful books, and I’ve seen yours in person, Howard. For some reason, for me, I just can’t write freely in a nice/expensive sort of book — has to be the cheap ones, else I feel like I’ve got to measure every word. Maybe if I had nice handwriting I’d feel differently….

I totally agree that pen and paper is more useful and flexible than any electronic solution — just so long as those little pens really don’t break in your pocket!

John ONeill

Agree with Bill. These writing books seem like a great idea, but they look so permanent I often feel rough drafts should go elsewhere. My rough drafts are usually on scratch paper (frequently the back side of rejected manuscripts, of which I have an infinite supply).

Howard gave me a notebook, but I’m terrified of losing it. So I don’t take it with me.

I should probably buy another one and just try this experiment of Howard’s… carry it everywhere with me for six months. I bet he’s right — it would eventually work.

Still wish you’d come with us to that panel at Dragon*con though, Howard. 🙂

John ONeill

Yeah — I remember the phone call when you thought you lost that notebook. I had to talk you back in off the ledge. 😉

OK, I’ll bring mine with me on my business trip this week. But if I lose it, I’m coming for you.


Bill Ward

I may be working up to this — I recently bought some smaller notebooks with a tougher cover on sale for around 4 dollars a piece. It was hard at first, but now I don’t mind writing any old crap in them. Well, one of them — I’m saving the other two 😉

Maybe I’ll gradually work my way up in 2 dollar increments, go for a 6 dollar notebook when I’m feeling a bit wild.


I am using a leather-bound blank book as we speak, but it doesn’t contain a single word for prose work. No, I reserve my notebook work for the theater, for readings, for rehearsal notes, for random thoughts about scripts.

My problem is not, I suspect, related much to the medium, but t to the method. That is to say, I hold my pens and pencils incorrectly, and it hurts my hand, after much more than a postcard’s worth of prose, to write. Thus, crafting anything of any length in a notebook would simply cause pain, and because I was gifted by my parents with a highly sensitive fight-or-flight impulse, and because I can’t imagine bothering to fight a notebook, I simply run away.

I run, as it were, back to any given keyboard.

And what do I do when ideas strike me during Howard’s daughter’s gymnastics class? Or my own son’s soccer shenanigans?

I scribble one or two keywords down on whatever’s handy, not excepting napkins, and pray that my memory will regurgitate what I need later on. When the babes are asleep, and the computer says “beep”…

: )

Mark R.

[…] weeks ago I waxed on about how useful I find my Paperblanks writing notebook. I fill one up about once a year, and recently found myself copying over some of the information I […]

[…] weeks ago I waxed on about how useful I find my Paperblanks writing notebook. I fill one up about once a year, and recently found myself copying over some of the information I […]

[…] more at Black Gate » Blog Archive » Writing Tools: Notebooks, the Kind with Paper. var linkwithin_site_id = 33949; (function () { var elem = document.createElement(‘script’); […]


[…] I absolutely love the Safavid Paperblanks notebook. I try to get a different notebook every year, so you’ll notice that the one my wife picked up for my birthday is Black Moroccan. It’s pretty cool and all, but I’m now wishing I’d just asked for another Safavid, which is incredibly well suited for Dabir and Asim, seeing as the style is associated with the Islamic golden age. These days I always have a Paperblanks mini-notebook on me, as I discussed in probably too much detail at Black Gate. […]

[…] that I can slip into a front pocket. You can find a link to my discussion of that very subject by clicking here, along with some photos of my favorite notebooks and size […]


I have several beautiful notebooks I also feel I must have Important Things To Say when I use them — thus, they are still empty.

Instead, so far, I use Composition Notebooks. For this reason, I love Back to School Season — I can get them for 50 cents each at Walmart. I stock up for the year. And, bonus, I can get them in graphed pages!

I think handwritten notes make the writing feel more *here*, more real. While my handwriting isn’t the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, I do like it well enough to enjoy the process of handwriting notes. Now, if I could get them into my PC without having to type them up, that would be wonderful!

Thanks for sharing.


Would love your thoughts, please comment.x