If You Want to Write and Publish More, Use a Paper Notebook to Capture Your Ideas

In the fall of 2020, I started a blog. I write a lot for work, but found myself still restless.

I wanted to do more of my own writing; maybe even write a book one day.

I wanted to develop some ideas and share things that I had found to be useful, in hopes that others might also find them useful.

So I set up the blog, and posted some things; and then my blog started growing cobwebs. Months went by without me posting anything.

Why, if I wanted to write and publish stuff, wasn’t I writing? I knew I wanted to write my own stuff.

So what was the problem here? So frustrating.

But I’m a pragmatist to the bone.

What Do Other People Who Write and Publish a Lot, Actually Do?

The first thing I do when I find I’m struggling to do something, is to find out which things that a lot of people who do the thing I want to do, have done.

I trust general patterns more than exceptions; so I also look for things that LOTS of people do, when I want to succeed at something new to me.

I also firmly believe that what makes people improve is not so much native talent, as dogged practices.* In other words, I think if average people take on certain practices, it’s the practices that are the pole that vaults them over the bar.

Talent is common. Discipline, not so much.

I believed if I started doing the things that people who publish regularly do, I too would be able to write and publish more of my own thoughts.

I found a few practices I could try out, right away. It turns out LOTS of people who write and publish regularly do these things:

1) Set up a writing schedule. This was not hard for me; I already do this for work. So I scheduled regular time to get my personal writing done. In practice, this means my backside is in a chair and I am typing into my computer for about an hour most days.

2) Many people who write and publish regularly, send out a newsletter, not just a blog.** A newsletter acts as a deadline. This also was not hard for me. For work I have several regular writing deadlines. For work, I also send out email newsletters. Admittedly it was not much of a struggle for me to get this in place, either.

3) Use paper notebooks to capture their ideas. Lots of people advised carrying a paper notebook around with you everywhere, and recording random thoughts and ideas about your writing, and whatever else occurs to you.

You know what my initial gut response to this, was?

“Oh, HELL, no!”

For Developing Ideas, Paper Notebooks Are Less Efficient But More Effective

And now we come to the practice I resisted. I really struggled with this, I pushed back hard on it.

You know why I fell in love with computers? Because I didn’t ever again have to go through the tedious process of typing up my chicken-scratch handwritten paper notes, that’s why. I actually remember when I had to write papers by hand and type them up. Yeah, I’m that old. And what a pain. I’ve written what I think of as my REAL writing, on computers since the 19-coughty-coughs and never looked back.

I’ve written on computers since Word Star. Since the first screen to come up was a black DOS screen.

Use paper notebooks to record your writing ideas? That’s so… early 20th century. All right, also all the way back to the Renaissance, people have done this.

But that’s all they had!

We have antibiotics and computers!

I journaled and doodled in paper notebooks, sure; but real writing? Public writing? Writing for money, writing academic papers, writing for grants, writing for magazines, writing fiction, writing for my old parenting blog?

I did all that on the computer, of course; like a grown-up. Much less work. Much more efficient.

Who in their right mind would want to go back to handwriting their ideas, and then tediously typing them up again? Been there. Did that. (And hid from my boyfriends the fact that I knew how to type.)

Then I remembered Cal Newport; a prolific contemporary writer who uses paper notebooks to ignite all kinds of his ideas: mathematical ideas, and lifestyle ideas, and writing ideas.

What if a paper notebook actually would help me write and publish on my blog more?

The only way to know for sure, was to try it.

So I tried it.

It worked so well for me, I started another blog. Carrying a paper notebook around with me everywhere, and recording my random thoughts in it, has made me far more productive as a writer.

I didn’t write more because of my talent. I wrote more because of my new practices.

Including carrying a paper notebook everywhere I went.

Why Keeping a Paper Notebook to Capture Your Writing Ideas Works So Well

So why use paper first, instead of going straight to a device?

Some initial thoughts:

Making writing means you are making something out of nothing; out of thin air. Anything that helps to lessen the intimidation of a blank screen, matters very much. It is much easier for me to get writing into my computer when I can start with some handwritten notes from a friendly notebook.

You will also write different things into a paper notebook, than you would if you were writing on a computer. Writing on a computer feels much more public. It’s like writing while you’re at a New Year’s Eve metro street festival. You might excuse yourself to the hotel room that is the writing app on your device — but on the internet street below, are the food trucks and the jazz bands and the journalists with their cameras and microphones and all your friends wearing novelty hats and glasses with the new year printed on them, and the fireworks and the parade and all the distraction and entertainment you could possibly desire, to get away from the hard, deep work of thinking.

Writing in a notebook is a much quieter mental experience. You can hear your own thoughts better. It feels private. Personal.

If writing on a computer feels like writing in a hotel room while a street festival is blaring on below, writing in a paper notebook feels like writing in a snug cabin in the mountains on a snowy evening, with the only sound being the crackle of a cozy fire.

Writing in a paper notebook changes what you record. Because it is so private, it makes you braver, more willing to try stuff, more willing to write down a phrase or even draw something, to make it clear in your mind what happened, or what you’re thinking about. Sometimes I will draw diagrams of interactions, so I can understand what happened, better. Or little maps of places. I can’t draw things to help me think, in Scrivener.

Anyway. You will write DIFFERENT things in a notebook, than you would on a computer.

Using a paper notebook for writing ideas, for random thoughts and questions and wonderings, also serves as an editor in two ways:

  • First, you’ll type some of those ideas into the computer. But not all of them: some of them will cease to resonate for you; it was enough to get them on the page, to clear them out of your mind to get to the “keepers.”

  • Second, because you cannot copy-paste from a paper notebook into a digital file, as you type in or dictate ideas in that you plan to work with more, you will inevitably make some changes — you’ll think of another angle, a new question.

The iteration will only make it deeper, and better.

Try it.


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Since the fall of 2020, I have written and published 107 posts on annahavron.com and analogoffice.net, most of them long-ish. If you’re reading this, it’s now 108.

* One of my favorite quotes is from Anthony Trollope, who published dozens of books: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

** Why a newsletter, and not just an RSS feed? Sometimes doing something that feels less efficient, is more effective. An RSS feed feels too abstract to me: there’s no dialogue, no feedback. I’m hardly aware that the RSS is there. Knowing that one of my newsletters is going out, however, FEELS different, far more personal. One of my newsletters goes out automatically each Friday. The other is every other Friday, and I set that one up manually. Either way, I feel pressures both to produce in the first place; and then to stop endlessly tweaking and editing something because the newsletter is going out. And with a newsletter, I have the great pleasure of hearing back from people. Who in turn give me writing ideas…

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