The Writer’s Toolkit: 5 Ways a Notebook Beats the Computer

Angel Coulby, still from Merlin

I’ll admit: when I first started writing in notebooks, my reasons were less than practical.

Those were the naive days when I still viewed writing as glamorous. I thought only spunky, beautiful women wrote novels, scribbling away in attics until publishers chucked six-figure book deals on their doorsteps. My notebook possessed a romance completely absent from my laptop. Whenever I rose to find my fingernails, desk, and blouse ruined from ink stains, I would nod and think, Yes: Behold the scars of my literary genius. Only a poser, after all, would emerge from the battle of first drafts with spotless hands (and clean shirts).

Worked for Jo. And her sleeves aren't even that dirty.
Worked for Jo. And her sleeves aren’t even that dirty.

Of course, once I learned that writing was less about midnight inspirations and an entourage of imaginary friends, and more about hours of research and hard work, notebooks grew less attractive. Computers were just so easy. I was no Luddite. In my world, convenience reigned supreme. I could type as fast as I could think; I could move things around without awkward dashes and and arrows. Best of all, I could integrate previous drafts without rewriting anything. Copy, paste, and presto: a month’s smattering of ideas, all in the same place.

But I never managed to shake my notebook addiction. Perhaps old habits die hard…or perhaps a part of me will always romanticize writing, no matter how many times I’ve been on my third cup of weak tea and the cursor still blinks, blinks, blinks on an empty page. Over the years, however, I’ve realized that notebooks are more than security blankets. They’re actually invaluable to a writing process, and here’s why.

Reason 1) They’re portable.

Unlike your laptop, a notebook can be swept off a desk in a hurry. You don’t need to haul cords or protective casing everywhere, and you never have to camp by power outlets. More importantly, notebooks come in every size. I invest in big ones for intensive work, and pocket-sized ones for when I don’t intend to write.

But I still take it. Always. Photo on 2011-12-25 at 19.13 #3

Fact: if you carry a notebook, you will use it. You know those fleeting moments when you have Possibly The Most Brilliant Idea You’ve Ever Had– a Pulitzer Prize worthy character idea, or the solution to that plot loophole that’s been torturing you for weeks? Funny how those always happen when you’re miles away from paper, but you swear you’ll remember it for later.

Yeah. You won’t.

Think of all the inane things you do with dead time, in between commitments or standing in line. Most of us check our email every few minutes; those slightly more conscientious might bring along a book. But what if every time you reached for your phone, you reached for your notebook instead? Even if only to jot a few sentences, a word, or to browse whatever you’ve written so far. You’d be surprised how much flows when you prime the pump…and nothing passes time more quickly than a paragraph gaining momentum.

Reason 2) They’re more suited to outlines than computers.

Word processors encourage you to think in lines. You can go sideways, up, or down– space button, backspace, return button. But that’s not the way story boarding works, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, or a blog post. Details become pertinent as you write them out; you make make crucial rabbit trails, elaborating in some parts, saving other areas for later.

Can Microsoft Word do this? Nope. No room for my bird, either.
Can Microsoft Word do this? Nope. No room for my bird, either.

On a page, you can think in any direction you darn well please. You don’t have to stifle details because they’re not relevant to the central plot line. You can rant for as long as you like, to the side, and then snap right back on track. Huge, unlined notebooks are especially wonderful for outlines, though small ones work just as well for smaller scenes or character brainstorming.

Reason 3) You won’t get distracted (as easily).

Six words: No Facebook, no email, no Youtube. Need I say more?

You can always turn off the wifi on your computer, of course, but you’ll still click your browser out of habit…and it  takes Herculean will power not to turn the internet back on. In contrast, when your pen hovers over a page, the only thing it can do is…well, make more words.

Reason 4) They are so freaking fun to shop for.

I won’t lie: I have an insane amount of notebooks. More than I could fill in years, all different sizes, colors, personalities, and to all of which I have a Gollum-like attachment (especially the Paperblank Precious. We love the college-ruled and Italian leather binding, don’t we? It will never be false. It loves us forever…) I even have little christenings when I start a new one, engraving my name on the title page in curly script.


And maybe cry a bit when I finish one.

Don’t judge.

Here’s the main thing: if you have them, you will want to fill them. Surprisingly, the stacks of empty, glittering books filling my closet have never discouraged me. Rather, they feel like an investment in myself; a promise that I’m not a hit-and-run. A pact that someday, I will have a body of work big enough to fill all the Preciouses.

I’ll leave off the titillating details of how to find and purchase your perfect notebook, which could (and will) be a blog post in itself. But seriously: so many choices.

Reason 5) They don’t have a backspace button.

This button is possibly the most fatal feature of a computer.  Every draft of your work is valuable- not just major changes but also minor descriptions, dialogue, plot details. It’s not impossible to save these on a computer, but they seldom survive, due to the ruthlessly efficient way in which we edit a digital document. Name doesn’t sound right? Delete. Don’t like the way that scene ended? Delete. Don’t need that person in the story after all? ViveLaGuillotineDelete. 

My handwriting: mad scientist scrawl or elvish script? Can't decide.
My handwriting: mad scientist scrawl or elvish script? You decide.

More often than not, you include things in first drafts for a reason. If you change your mind once, you can do it again. I’ve dismissed countless scenes in notebooks, only to look back through the crossed-out lines eons later and think, “Hey. That’s actually pretty good.” Even if I still don’t use it, often my story “bloopers” include details I need to flesh out a setting or character. As children’s novel goddess Gail Carson Levine chants in Writing Magic: always, always save what you wrote.

Of course:

Computers are irrevocably necessary, and always will be. But maybe it’s time to expand your toolbox. Go on a quest for the perfect notebook and pen. Put away all your electronics on a quiet evening and light some candles. Get your fingers dirty.


Photo on 2012-09-04 at 20.57


6 Replies to “The Writer’s Toolkit: 5 Ways a Notebook Beats the Computer”

  1. Reasons three and five are why I write in a notebook. Or, perhaps more accurately, they’re why I CAN’T write on a computer. Except the only thing I can write in is a 10-cent spiral notebook. So many people have gotten me beautiful notebooks and journals and they’re all sad and empty — apparently I only like notebooks that can be folded and wrecked without any problem.

    – Annica

    1. I SO understand. I think that’s the psychological part my “christenings” play- as I write my name and info inside the cover of a beautiful book, I’m also making peace in my mind that it won’t stay…as beautiful…for much longer :D Hard-bound notebooks are pretty durable though, especially if you get them big.

  2. Points well taken. More than often, I find young writers encouraging the masses to black out the background of their laptop and get to writing. So this is a breath of fresh air. Nothing is best than the feel of your emotions and every thought gracefully brazing each space on charta in a personal notebook. I love writing in script as I can go back and tell where my thoughts were not connected or where I accessed my conscience and was not conscious. In the same way I have notebooks, each describing my disposition at that era in my life. I have carried my notebooks with me, although the covers may be plain, from city to city as I love to flip it open years later and examine my character and reconnect if I feel a persona has set in. Even the smell takes me to a place where ideas, thoughts, and emotional evolvement can continue their journey and blossom when the time is due. Thanks Jordan!

  3. Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a really
    good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole
    lot and never manage too get anything done.

  4. SO true!! I love my composition notebooks and pocket-sized moleskins and I despise my blank Word documents hahaha! I recently had an idea about a typewriter.. Can’t decide if its the best of both worlds or the worst of one… just louder and WAY less convenient than a computer… *shrug* Thanks for the post. I’ll be back!! =)

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