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“You don’t need to take notes,” one esteemed lecturer told me and others in the crowd ahead of a highly anticipated presentation on digital publishing. “I’ll send you a PDF of this slideshow.”
I soon found myself in a sea of side-eye when I—undeterred—took out my notebook and recorded the date in the upper right-hand corner.
My mother has accused me of being an “old soul,” and perhaps it’s just a quirk of my personality that I’m keen on pen and paper, but I’m not alone. A 2014 study from researchers at Princeton and UCLA, previously cited in a July 2017 guest post on my blog, showed that taking notes by hand helps with retention in the classroom—largely, they say, because the physical note-taking process forces the listener to actively synthesize, process, and reframe the information being presented.
“The more deeply information is processed during note taking, the greater the encoding benefits,” researchers Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer reported.
If you’re like me, and the majority of the participants in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study, then taking notes helps you better understand and recall new information—and you’re going to want the right tools for the job. As a freelance writer and editor, here are my five favorite notebooks, journals, and planners—the ones I use on a daily basis and simply can’t live without:
For Creative Writing: A Classic Moleskin
There’s nothing quite like a new Moleskin, is there?
There are already enough hurdles between me and my completed manuscript—my notebook shouldn’t be one of them. I love the soft feel of a classic Moleskin under a felt-tip pen; it just makes me want to put words on the page—and I’ll take any extra motivation I can get.
My Moleskin houses everything from prewriting exercises to a list of ideas for future blog posts; I use it as a sort of “everything” notebook for my personal writing endeavors. In the PRO edition, my current favorite, the pages come numbered, and early on in the journal is a blank table of contents that allows me to keep track of what I’ve written and where I’ve written it. (This is super useful when I’m fleshing out an idea for a scene—I can easily find the right page when it’s time to go back and type up my draft.)
Personally, I prefer the larger size because I find that I have big handwriting and a lot of things to say, but if you’re going to be using this more as a journal or diary, you might prefer the classic 5″x8.25″ version. They also have a “pocket-sized” edition that would be great for jotting down ideas on the go.
For Work and Meeting Notes: A Clipboard Folio from Cupcakes and Cashmere for Blue Sky
I was actually at Target to pick up a new Moleskin when I saw one of these lying around on the wrong shelf—and I immediately knew it would suit my needs perfectly. As a freelancer who works remotely, my chances to talk to my colleagues face-to-face are slim. For this reason, I like to have all my notes together and ready to go for our weekly video meetings, and this clipfolio makes that simple.
With a pocket on the inside for me to store loose papers and a periwinkle clipboard on the front to make it easy for me to take notes from anywhere, this notepad serves me functionally as well as aesthetically. The inner pages are also laid out in a format that works well for my style of note-taking: I like to jot down brief outlines of our meetings to help me recall what was discussed later, and a wide space for notes on the left side of this notebook’s pages allows me to keep that separate from questions I have and tasks I need to complete; those are denoted in the checklist-style right margin.
The pages of this notebook are also perforated so you can remove a sheet without removing those in front of it, which helps me keep my notes to a minimum—if I no longer have a need for one page, I can just throw it in the recycling bin!
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find the link to purchase this clipfolio anywhere! This one is quite similar, however, and may just do the trick.
For Jotting Something Down: A Trusty Yellow Legal Pad
When I’m editing, I often like to take notes that I won’t need to keep long-term—things like the correct spelling of names or the preferred formatting of a business name. I know I’ll likely want to reference these again, but not after today or this week. For this, I like to use a cheap notebook with lots of space to write and no frills.
The answer? A traditional yellow legal pad.
Amazon has great deals on multi-packs of these, which are perfect for journalists, freelance writers, editors, and anyone else who works with words. I don’t feel the least bit guilty about using these pages as scrap paper—and having a cheap notebook lying around just for that purpose helps me keep my other journals and planners clean and tidy.
For Keeping It Together: A Day Designer Planner
I’ve gushed about Day Designer planners on my blog before, and I’ll undoubtedly do it again. I’m willing to spend a few extra bucks for the quality I get from Day Designer, which has been my go-to planner since I was in college.
I turned to Day Designer because I love the layout of each page: a section on the left for appointments, and a section on the right for a to-do list. It keeps me organized, and the large version I have has plenty of space for me to keep track of everything I’m working on—from freelance editing projects to PR consulting. I also use the spaces at the top of each daily planner page to mark pay days, recycling days, and any other important things my husband and I have going on in our personal lives.
Day Designers are also reliably sturdy; I never have to worry about my planner falling apart before year’s end, no matter how many times it gets thrown in a backpack or tossed into a kitchen drawer.
I’ll admit I don’t use the monthly planner pages very much, but this was the first year that I switched from a weekly view to a daily one, and I just can’t get enough of all this extra space. When people ask how I keep it together with everything I have going on, I tell them that it’s all thanks to Day Designer!
Day Designer has dozens of color, size, and layout options available—but if you’re interested in the exact same planner I have, you can visit this link to learn more and purchase their 2020 edition.
For Being on Time: A 22″x17″ Wall Calendar from Day Designer for Blue Sky
Though it may sound like it, I’m not exaggerating when I say this wall calendar changed my life.
I hit one of the lowest points of my adult life earlier this year when I let myself work to the point of exhaustion. I was burned out after months of trying to do too many things all at once—I never had time for myself, let alone my friends and family. It wasn’t until I fell physically ill that I realized what my body had been trying to tell me for some time: I needed to take a break.
Life is about more than work—it should be, anyway—and I use this calendar to keep my workaholic self disciplined in that regard. I work from home, so I try to make sure I get out of the house at least twice each week, and I try to schedule as many social outings as my husband and I (who are both insufferable introverts) can manage.
This functions as a family calendar for us, so besides social events, I also use it to log my husband’s work schedule (I like to know when he’s working so I can try to plan my off-hours around his!) as well as birthdays and doctor or vet appointments.
I ordered this calendar on Amazon because I knew I was already a fan of the Blue Sky and Day Designer brands, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s held up for six months now, and I plan to repurchase when the time comes!
So there you have it: these are the five notebooks that help me keep my work life and my personal life organized. I hope this list proves useful to you in whatever you’re looking to do—whether that’s make the grade, finish your novel, or even just get your work-life balance back on track. Not everyone prefers to write by hand, but those who do understand that the tools you use can make all the difference.
Do you have a favorite brand of notebook? Share with me in the comments!