Paper notes

From about 2011 through 2018, I was mostly a digital note-taker. Armed with a phone, laptop, or tablet, I always had the ability to take notes as well as access them anytime and anywhere. But lately, I find myself taking far more paper notes, a subset of which become digital transcriptions. Here’s a few things I’ve come to notice when doing paper notes.

My notebooks are append-only. There is only one exception to this: a writing journal I keep as I work on books, chapters, or articles. But otherwise I don’t find it helpful to keep notebooks on specific subjects, mainly because I can’t organize paper notes the same way I can digital notes. Instead, anything and everything ends up in notebooks. I leave the first page blank, and return to it after I’m done with a notebook to add a table of contents. This does two things: 1) captures the content of the notebook for easier discovery, and 2) ensures that I’ve transcribed notes that need to be in digital form.

What needs to be in digital form? Reading notes, meeting notes, sometimes random ideas or reminders.

I want a notebook that is extremely portable. This means I’m not using Moleskine. I love Field Note notebooks, which gives me a simple 40-some-page notebook with a simple but sturdy cover stapled together. I typically fill one of these up in a month.

Since the notebooks aren’t organized by subject, I keep all of these notebooks organized by date in a Field Notes archival box.

Field Notes archival box.

The other great thing about Field Notes is how awesome their cover designs are. If you want simple, they offer simple. But some of my favorites – Autumn Trilogy, National Parks, Mile Marker – are so well designed.

The only exceptions to this are Panobooks and GoodNotes. The Panobook by Studio Neat (along with the best pen I’ve ever owned) is the place where I do a lot of sketching and planning for projects. Anything related to data visualization, software engineering, or digital history typically end up in the Panobook, which gives me a lot more space to sketch out ideas than the Field Notes. Another frequent tool I’ll turn to is my iPad Air and Apple Pencil, often for the same reason: sketching out ideas in a space larger than my small notebooks. GoodNotes is a fantastic tool for this.

The breakdown is pretty simple: if I’m working on something that needs sketching or annotation, it’s in Panobook or GoodNotes. Most other notes end up in Field Notes. Nearly everyting that’s created on paper ends up digital, as a transcription or photograph that’s tagged, noted, and stored away for later retrieval.

Digital notes end up in Drafts. I was a Bear user for quite a while, but with recent changes to Drafts and its arrival to macOS I find myself turning to it more frequently for longer-term storage of digital notes. Plus, Drafts actions means if a piece of text needs to end up somewhere else – as an email, twitter quip, longer piece of writing, text message, Things 3, Basecamp – I can easily send the content off to a different service. And since Drafts is purely a Markdown editor, the text is extremely portable and can be moved if or when the need arrives.

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