In the age of mobile phones, everyone has a note-taking device in their pocket. Every note you take is uploaded and stored online and never lost. There are many free and paid note-taking and organising apps. You’ll find one that suits you in the Apple or Android store.
It’s convenient. It’s instantly backed up. It’s with you wherever you go.
But you should still have a notebook.
I used to keep all my notes in Evernote. Now I’ve converted to a physical notebook. A notebook does not replace the note-taking capacities of a phone, but it does greatly augment it. Here are 5 reasons why you should give pen and paper a try.
1) The Notes App Black Hole
You found a link you like. Maybe it was then-and-now photos of London. Or it was the effects of a specific poison. Or the lyrics of a song you found interesting. “I’ll want that later,” you thought. So you copied it into Evernote.
And never saw it again.
Unless you are frequently in the habit of scrolling through your notes app, it is a hole into which ideas fall and never return. Like they’ve fallen right out of the universe.
But when you write in a physical notebook, you create an index page where you list the title and page number of everything you put in there. Eg:
126 – Eternal Fascism
128 – Leviathan in Mythology
131 – What Jobs to UK Workers Actually Do?
You can run your eye down this list and recall the interesting, weird and wonderful things that caught your attention. The Bullet Journal link above suggests leaving a few pages blank at the front of the notebook. This didn’t work for me. I put mine at the back, so it can get as long as it needs to.
And if you come across random sentences or paragraphs that you like, do what I do: have a page titled “Scribbles” and jot them down for later.
2) All in One Place
Maybe you’ve tried this before and you hit the Too Many Notebooks wall. You know, one notebook for research notes, another for story drafts, another for blog posts. You can’t use the same notebook for different things because how can you make notes on “How to Optimise Facebook Alerts” when you’re only halfway through planning out a story idea featuring whisky bootleggers and mermaids?
Use the Bullet Journal concept called threading. This is another reason to number your pages. Stop making notes on your whisky bootleggers on page 50. Write about Facebook alerts on pages 51 and 52. Resume the bootlegger/mermaid action on page 53.
And then, on page 50, in the bottom margin, put an arrow pointing forwards through the book and the number “53”. On page 53, in the bottom margin, put an arrow pointing back through the book and the number “50”.
As you page through the book, you can follow the thread of one topic when it jumps over another.
You can even switch to a different colour pen when you go from topic to topic. I don’t do this, exactly, but if I’m ever scribbling fiction in my notebook I try to use a blue pen, while using a black pen for everything else.
3) Space and Time
Handwriting activates the parts of your brain involved in thinking and memory. The act of writing also creates spatial relationships between memories as you create them. This will help with recall.
Have you ever heard of the method of loci? Maybe you know it by its more modern name: memory palace. It involves associating ideas with locations in your mind to aid recall. The ancient Romans and Greeks used it.
Make your notebook your memory palace.
4) Makes you Think
“But writing is slow and tedious!” you say.
Yes. Yes it is. That’s the point.
Because it’s slow and tedious, you will try to find economical ways to phrase what you’re writing. You’ll pare it down to the minimum. You will, in other words, have to understand it. You’ll apply your critical-thinking claws to the idea’s soft underbelly. You will chew the idea into a tasty concept that your brain enjoys digesting.
Typing encourages verbatim notes. Handwriting encourages mental engagement.
5) The Warm Glowy Pleasure of Full Notebooks
There is a simple pleasure in a stack – even a small stack – of full notebooks. You can look at that stack and think, “Hey, that’s a lot of thoughts.”
When you start a new notebook, put the start date at the top of the index page. When you finish it, add the finish date beside it.
Grin a little bit. Go ahead. It’s awesome.
Don’t Delete your Notebook App Yet
Which is not to say you shouldn’t make notes on your phone. You might be standing in a queue at the falafel stall at the food market and the Lorde cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World starts playing on the falafel maker’s Spotify and it triggers an idea for a scene with the mermaid and her cave of hoarded whisky and the person in the queue in front of you probably won’t be cool with you using their back to steady your notebook while you scribble in it.
So tap that idea into your phone with your thumbs and order your falafel. But don’t let that be the end of it. Later, shift it over to your notebook. I’ll bet you your next falafel that what you write in your notebook is longer, more fully formed and much more satisfying than whatever you thumbed into your phone.
For that “Got to get it down now” scenario, I use Google Keep. It’s quick and easily accessible on my phone. But I regularly scour my Keep notes and transfer what I find into my physical notebook. And once they’re in there, they tend to attract more words. More ideas. More connections.
And later, when you need it, you’ll still remember that idea. Maybe not the full details, but enough to know that it’s time has come. You’ll open your notebook to the index, then flick through to the numbered page where you scribbled it all down, interpret your handwriting and think, “Yes, that’s right. I remember it all now.”