Today’s post is an excerpt from my book, Ready, Set, Write: A Guide to Creative Writing, which takes you on a tour through various types of creative writing. This is from part two, “Tools of the Trade,” and it explores two of writers’ favorite tools, a notebook and pen. Enjoy!
Notebooks and Pens
These days, we writers use computers, electronic tablets, and even our smartphones for most of our creative writing. But a lot of us admit there’s still something about good, old-fashioned pen and paper that really gets creativity flowing.
I’ve often said that one of the wonderful things about writing is that all you need to get started is a notebook and a pen.
It sounds so simple: a notebook and a pen.
But over the years, I’ve discovered that, like many things, it’s not that simple. As soon as you start perusing notebooks and pens in a store, you’ll realize that there are many to choose from, and it’s hard to know which ones to pick.
It’s not unusual for people to view writing as a sacred act, which can lead to coveting a fancy notebook and an expensive pen. But I’ve found that costly materials create a barrier. Many writers find that they are more resistant to writing—and in particular, they are resistant to writing freely—when working with tools that seem precious. It’s almost as if a beautiful hardbound notebook with archival-quality paper should only be used for a masterpiece. It’s not for scrawling and doodling, jotting down random notes and weird ideas.
As for the pen, I’ve yet to try an expensive pen that writes any better than some of the throwaway ball-point pens that I’ve used over the years. As with a fancy journal, we might want to reserve the precious ink in an expensive pen for a special project, which prevents us from creating freely.
When we create, it’s important that we feel uninhibited. That doesn’t mean we can’t work within guidelines or limitations (as we do when writing form poetry). But if we’re holding back ideas because we don’t think they’re good enough for the paper we’re writing them on, something’s not right.
If you can afford several notebooks and pens, by all means, include some fancy ones in your collection. But be sure to have basic tools that you’re not afraid to get dirty.
A Few Suggestions
Almost every writer I know has accumulated a large collection of notebooks and journals. But I recommend starting simple: Pick up a composition notebook or a spiralbound notebook. I like a 5×7 spiralbound with perforated pages and storage pockets for all-purpose writing and note taking.
Eventually, you might want to try fancier notebooks. Here’s what I’ve found:
Moleskines are pricey but worth the cost. They come in hardbound and softbound, various sizes and colors, and lined or blank. These are quality notebooks with both high-end and affordable options. I keep a hardbound journal with blank pages and archival-quality paper for freewriting, drafting poetry, and doodling. I’ve also found that I prefer blank pages, which allow me to include basic drawings and do some mind-mapping as a brainstorming method. But most writers probably prefer lined pages.
As you gain experience with writing, you’ll figure out which tools you need and how to best use them to suit your purposes. You might need only one notebook at a time, using it for everything you write. Or you might want different notebooks for different purposes.
When choosing a pen, find one that writes smoothly and doesn’t leave ink stains all over your fingers and blots all over the pages.
I like to keep a fairly large supply of pens on hand. I buy ballpoints by the box in several colors: basic black and blue for general writing; red for corrections; and a few highlighters for emphasis are my go-to pens. I also keep a supply of ballpoints in a variety of colors, which are fun to use when I’m working out ideas, especially when brainstorming and plotting.
For new writers, I recommend picking up a few different types of pens—nothing fancy or expensive—just pens that write well and comfortably. You’ll know when you’ve found a pen that works for you, and then you can stick with it.
In this modern age of digital wonder, it’s almost surprising anyone uses paper anymore. But in my experience, working on a computer or any other electronic device simply doesn’t offer the same creative stimulation that good, old-fashioned paper and pens offer. And I’ve seen many writers say they have the same experience. Ideas seem to flow better when working on paper. I wonder if it’s because writing longhand is a more tactile experience. Maybe there’s something about engaging more of your senses that sparks the imagination. But I’m just speculating. We’d better leave it to the neuroscientists to figure out why writing by hand is often more engaging.
Do you have a favorite type of notebook? What about a favorite type of pen? Do you find yourself drawn to various notebooks and journals? What does your ideal collection of notebooks and pens look like?
I can’t live without my Moleskine journals and my V5 Pilot Precise pens. I have a Moleskine for poetry, for drawing, and I’ve converted several “pens don’t matter they’re all the same!” friends to the V5. Smooth and fluid and effortless.
My favorite thing about the Moleskine is the off-white pages. It’s soothing and for some reason less intimidating than the bright white or notebook or sketchbook paper. I also like that the pages are thick enough for the liquid V5 ink not to bleed through and that it has light lines that I can ignore if I need to. I also love how flat it lays when I’m writing, and the medium size slips easily into my purse. Amazing!!
I have more notebooks and pens than I know what to do with! I have one journal that I keep especially for diary-type writing, with polka dots and stripes on it.. I keep a brown leather journal for brainstorming ideas and jotting down poems. I have yet another notebook (which is my favorite) that I keep second drafts of poems in. It’s held closed by a magnetic flap, and it has sheet music on the front and back, with a scrawled Beethoven signature. For my larger writing projects (short pieces and articles), I have a 1 1/2-inch pink binder filled with college-ruled paper. I use it to make story lists and jot down notes from my reading, and so forth. I have a pen obsession, so I use a different colored ink every time I sit down to write. It keeps me engrossed in my writing sometimes if I switch colors every other page. It was something I used to do in class when I was in college to keep from getting bored with my anthropology notes. 🙂
It sounds like you have as many journals as I do! Don’t you just love them?
I started making my own booklets with regular printing paper. I put about 5 to 8 pages, fold in half and then I use colored printing paper for the cover. I even bought a stapler to staple the bookle at the fold. Its worked for me so far. I do like your idea of a skechbook, that might be the next thing I try for my writings.
I have made little booklets like that for special projects. I use colored paper (construction paper if I have it) for the cover. A few years ago, I got into making books. I only made a few, but it was a lot of fun. You can get pretty fancy with it.
I use a 5 x 8 spiral bound lined journal for my journal writing and keep smaller notebooks handy on the kitchen table, near the bed, in my purst, and on my desk for miscellaneous notes. This system works perfectly for me. I may try a sketchbook, but I lean toward lined paper. I was an artist, so the sketchbook might make me more creative again! Thanks for the idea!
I too have notebooks everywhere: in my nightstand, purse, car, etc. I used to use them a lot for jotting down random thoughts and ideas (including to-do lists) but then I got Evernote, which syncs to my phone, computer, and other devices so I haven’t had much need for the notebooks lately. I still like to keep them around though.
My all around favorite is a refil from Renaissance-Art. The make leather bound and covered journals and books and other leather gear. But it’s the paper that does it. It’s Velin Arches (aka Arches TExt Wove) that’s been around since the French Revolution, It takes ink and watercolor and most mediums (except oils) beautifully. The paper has a texture to it that makes pen and ink not a smooth writing and drawing as hot pressed type surface. I am filling my 14th of these. They are hand-sewn, coptic stitch that lays flat easily.. I have used the leather versions but now prefer to put my own hardback cover on them with imitation leather trim. The sioze I most use 5.5×8.5″.
I also have filed a lot of Aquabee’s Super Deluxe Sketchbooks. These take watercolor, fountain pen, gel pen, pencil wonderfully too. And come in a lot of sizes. I use these for painting planning and notes. They are spiral bound, 60 sheets, 120 pges, sized on both sides for wet media.
I am also sketching and watercoloring my way through the Straathmore series 500 Mixed Media Art Journal (5.5×8.5″ again, hardbound). And the Stillman & Birn Beta Sketchbook (double-wire-bound). Both have lovely paper for sketching, we-media painting, pen and ink and pencil. .
I recommend them all. All above ar archival.
My favorite sketch pen is a Sailor Sapporo extra-fine nib, a bit on the expensive side but a lovely and well made pen with a legendayry smooth nib.. I also use Lamy fountain pens and a Pelikan with a vintage flex nib. I like sketching and writing with fountain pen.
I’ve always been particular about my notebooks. I have tons of pens and pencils in a variety of colors, but I actually prefer writing with a simple Bic disposable pen. I do have a few pens with archival quality ink. I also keep plenty of red pens for editing and proofreading (although I do most of that work on the computer now). Thanks for sharing your preferred notebooks and pens. I’m always interested in learning about the tools that different writers like to use.
Totally agree about the unlined page. No lines means you can change the weight (size) or emotion (direction) of the words. Constricting lines? No thank you.
Yes, I love unlined pages for sketching ideas, drafting poems, and freewrites. Actually, I use lined composition notebooks for my fiction notes. I rarely draw or sketch in those notebooks, and almost everything that I write in them gets transcribed to the computer. I love a blank, unlined sheet of paper though!
Moleskine notebooks and Parker Jotter pens…only.
Yes, Moleskines are favorites among writers.
This is off the subject, but first I want you to know how much I enjoy your posts. Your wrinting inspires me. I love to read and write and have learned so much from you. Thank you for all you so generously give!
My problem is that the typesetting on your posts is so light. It’s a real effort for me to read, especially because I have degenerative disk desease which makes reading a strain.
I wonder if it’s possible to correct this.
Thank you for your kind words, Sharon. It means a lot to me to know that people find these articles helpful. I have darkened the font color and also switched to a font that I think is a little more legible. I’ve actually been meaning to do this for a while, because I knew the font was too light. I hope this helps you. Thanks, and keep writing!
Thank you, Melissa, especially for your prompt reply. I know the darker font will help a great deal.
You’re welcome, Sharon 🙂
Moleskin notebooks are a favorite, but sometimes scraps of paper will do. The right pen is a necessity! Loved reading your reflection. 🙂
I agree one hundred percent! The most important thing is to write. It’s better to write with a pencil nub and scrap of paper than to sit around waiting for the best supplies. Get it done!
My needs are simple – a black Bic biro, plain white A4 for freewriting and doodling and lined A4 for a first draft. Sometimes it’s hard enough to get down to work, without complicating the issue!
I’ve been using Bic pens for years, with a variety of different notebooks and papers. But lately I’m trying different pens and papers, and it’s interesting to see how pens write differently and how they affect the writing experience. That said, any pen and paper will do. It’s more important to get the writing done.