Is Your Journal Happy?

I’ve noticed over time that each journal has it’s own personality. It’s impossible to doodle on most computers, and certainly an iPad isn’t going to retain the ring from the coffee cup you set on the page in that Parisian cafe. The different ink colors from different pens I end up using are another reminder of the time and place. When a journal is full, it feels like an accomplishment, but it’s also sad. I’ve actually mourned a few notebooks, which were very good companions for a time.

With some notebooks I look back through them I feel so impressed with myself and what I put in them. Those are the happy journals. The book looks happy. It makes me happy to read it.

Others seem empty by comparison. They’re drab, boring. The journal is sad, or at least bored. It makes me think about how I was during the better time – what made it better? How do I get back there?

Sketching makes for a happier journal.

I think the amount of sketching and drawing I do makes the difference. Even the worst sketch brightens the page. I have one page where we were in St. Augustine Florida, at a cafe getting ready to have lunch. I tried to start a sketch of Susan holding our daughter Riley. It’s half a step above stick figures, and neither of them are even close to identifiable. But when I see it I remember that day, the place and what it was like.

Other sketches turned out to be purely functional, like the sketch of battery cables on the same trip. My brother in law was trying to charge the batteries in my father in law’s golf cart, and had to remove some of them and we needed to make sure we got it back together right. Again, it’s ugly, and really just served a purpose, but now it’s a nice part of the tableau.

Sketching is hard because I always hate it when I’m done. I hate it even more when I’m doing it. It’s never quite right, and if I’m using pencil I would end up erasing a hole in the page if I corrected myself until I was happy. I supposed that would be a great way to get better, but I don’t have the patience for it. Instead I do the best I can, grit my teeth, and either get bored making that picture or decide it’s unreclaimable and move on.

Usually I come back to it half an hour later and am pleased. Pretty funny, no?

There are times when I do enjoy sketching. I find myself drawing without thinking about it much, and those are usually the better ones. But while a good sketch is better than a bad one, a bad one is better than none at all.

I have some notebooks where I haven’t drawn much. Compared to those with sketches they seem cold, barren, and boring.

Purposeful writing

Sometimes I just want to write. What mean is, sometimes I want to use a pen on paper. So I write a lot of drivel – switching inks, switching pencil grades, whatever. Sometimes I write a lot of bah about should I do this or that or whatever. It’s filler. I’m doing it because I crave the act of using a writing instrument, but I don’t really have a purpose. This crap makes journals unhappy.

Ideas, plans, narrative about my life or my kids or travels or whatever has some purpose. This is useful stuff. It makes the journal happy.

I need to make my journal happy

My current book, for instance, is full of writing. No sketches. Ok, maybe a couple, but not many. And the writing isn’t of great ideas, or revelations, or even a nice narrative of what i’m doing. It’s meta journaling – writing about writing, or do I really like this book or not kind of drivel. The journal is unhappy, and I need to fix that.

How about your journal? Is it happy?

A gift of a secret journal

My new coach, Sharon Lerman, made a suggestion to me at our last session. She told me what her husband, David, had done for his daughters when they were young, and suggested I do the same.

David kept a secret journal for each of his daughters. It was filled with stories of all the times when the girls had done well, when they had excelled, or done the right thing, or had a lot of fun, or whatever it was that was notable and positive. He didn’t write about his fears, or concerns, or the troubles they had with each other. Only the good stuff. The purpose wasn’t to instill wisdom or serve as a parenting guide but to let each daughter feel precious.

He started when they were very young. He used hardbound notebooks he bought at hand when at a bookstore – nothing special. He wrote with a ballpoint; whatever pen was at hand. Months might go by without an entry, but in bed before going to sleep he would write to them in their journals.

As each daughter graduated from 8th grade or so, he met with them privately to give them their journal. As each daughter started high school, he started a new journal for them. As pretty typical 8th graders and high school students, his daughter’s first reaction upon receiving the journals was pretty offhand. In fact they didn’t really even read them until they were in their twenties.

But in October of 2012, David succumbed to cancer. You can read his obituary here, along with a nice quote from one of the journals. His daughter’s reaction to receiving the journals may have been offhand at the time, but now there are few things they treasure as much as those journals.

When Sharon first made the suggestion it hit my ears like another chore, but I realized what a good idea it is. My own mother died of cancer in 2001, and I know how much I would value her words now. When I think about the effort david had made, and the impact of its value on his girls I get choked up. As adults we have plenty of resources to help us find our faults. What we need more of are reminders of why people love us. Why wouldn’t I give that to my girls?

I’ve ordered 3 journals for the girls. My oldest will be 8 fairly soon, and I wish I had started sooner, but better late than never.

[UPDATE] I decided to make one change – the girls are always bugging me to tell them stories from my childhood, so I think I will try to include some entries about my early life. Now I just wish the vendor I ordered the journals from would actually ship them. Too Slow!

Want To Write More?

Does a bigger book encourage more writing? I feel like I’m writing a heck of a lot more than I used to, and I seem to be filling up books at the same rate, despite their being larger.

My theory is that a page is a psychological milepost. Whether that page is large or small doesn’t matter, a filled page is a filled page. Want to write more? Use a larger page, or so it would seem for me. But really?

Fortunately, it’s an easy thing to measure.

I counted the number of pages filled, the number of entries, dates of first and last entries, and the page size of  10 notebooks I’ve filled starting in the late 90’s to present day. Not all of them, but enough, I think.

The came in three sizes: four Pocket moleskine books which are about 19 sq. in per page, four medium 5×8 books which were about 40 sq. in. per page, and two large books, which were 70 sq. in. and 107 sq. in.

The interesting thing is that averaged across a total of 1,035 entries, a total of 2,029 pages were used, for an average of 1.96 pages per entry.

Large books averaged 1.98, small books averaged 2.29, and medium averaged 1.88. Not much of a spread, when you consider that the area of a small book page is half that of a medium book’s page. If we assume that square inches are proportional to number of words written, which should hold true if text size stays constant, then it’s true – a bigger book means more writing. A medium size book averaged 74 square inches per entry, a small was 44, and large books averaged 134.

There were only two large books to be counted. One is an accounting record book which was the oldest in this experiment. The other is the Leuchtturm1917 which I’m currently using. So it’s possible that with a few more books the numbers could shift, but even if we ignore the largest books, the difference between medium and small size books is pretty significant. Some of the small books came after some of the medium books, so it’s not simply that I’m writing more as I get older. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the average entries per day in a book and the average pages per entry in the same book.

The bad news is that bigger books may hold a lot more writing, but they don’t hold a lot more history, since they don’t hold a lot more pages. A pocket moleskine has 192 pages, a Leuchtturm1917 hardcover has 218 (not counting the perforated sheets), and a large Moleskine has 240. At two pages per entry, there’s not a lot of difference.

So if you want to write more, using a bigger book may do the trick.

By the way, all those entries used something over 72,000 square inches of paper, or smudge over 500 square feet. It would perhaps cover the walls of a large bedroom – say 18′ x 14′, allowing for windows.


The BookFactory Engineering Notebook

The folks at were generous enough to send me a sample of their hardcover engineering notebook for review, and I’ve had a chance to use it for a while. I’ll compare it to the Leuchtturm1917 book I’ve been using as a journal for a while now, since that’s the only other large book I’ve used in the past few years.

I’m using it to hold notes for a business research project, and so far it’s been a good book.

A half-filled Leuchtturm1917 Master size book shows some bag wear
Cover thickness compared - BookFactory on top

I love the heavy, stiff covers. This is one area where the European competition is weak. Is a smaller book it’s not a big deal, but with a full size book it’s critical that the covers be thick and strong enough to support being written on. You can see the Leuchtturm1917 A4 size book I’m using is starting to get bent, and also how much thicker the BookFactory cover is.

8×10 is a nice size. Actually 8.25 x 10.25, but big enough to have the big-book feel without the slightly too-big hassle that can come with A4+ size Master books. For example, the RedOxx Gator bag I’m thinking of getting would fit the BookFactory book no problem, but is actually 3/8″ shorter than the Leuchtturm1917 master dots. The LT will probably fit if angled a bit, but I’d rather have something that fits easily. Many bags I own were designed around fitting a letter size sheet of paper or not, and the BookFactory book fits just under that threshold where the Master is a tight fit.

Comparison of tables of contents. Leuchtturm1917 on top. Note the date column on the BookFactory book.

The table of contents is the best I’ve seen. Having one entry per page makes it easy to jot down what’s there. For me this makes the difference between a table of contents that gets used, and one that doesn’t. I can deal with the task of summarizing what’s on a page in a few sentences. I have a hard time deciding when a particular entry is important enough to warrant using up one of a limited number of TOC entries. Making it even better is the date column. Many times I know what date I’m looking for, and scanning down the TOC to find that date would be easy.

The paper is white and thick enough. I haven’t tested it extensively with fountain pens, but it feels more like 100gsm than 80gsm to me. About the same as the Leuchtturm1917, and performs the same. I’m not a heavy fountain pen user and most of mine are fine, fairly dry writers, so bleed and so on aren’t an issue for me.

You can see the Leuchtturm1917 page numbers are much less obtrusive

The printing is toner based and is very bold and dark. I imagine this is to ensure it comes through on photocopies, but it makes me feel like I’m filling out a form. I much prefer the gray printing in Leuchtturm1917 books. You can see the difference in the page numbers.

The writing area is framed, which is strange. I’m used to grid and dots books with no margins, so having a window to write in does provide some structure. In the other hand, there’s a half inch of wasted space all around the sides. The spot at the top to write the “continued from” page number, and the spot at the bottom for the “continued to” page number are handy. I know I could just write it on any page, but the space is nice to have. It will sound a little silly, but the form at the bottom with date and signature and witness blocks makes me feel like what I’m writing is important. Don’t know if I’ll ever use them.

Flysheet reinforced with fabric tape
Fly sheet also stitched

Last but not least, the construction of the book is very sturdy. The book block itself is fastened securely to the fly sheet via tape, and the end sheets are also stitched. This book should survive just about any reasonable use, and the heavy covers will make it a lot more durable in the bag.


The BookFactory engineering notebook has been refined to suit a particular purpose over a long period of time and it shows. Whether or not it would make good place to record thoughts depends on what one plans to do with those thoughts. I find the table of contents very attractive, but the page design distracting for anything but straight writing. I feel too much space is wasted, and I don’t care for the ruling. Is the table of contents good enough to overlook the rest? Probably not for a journal, but as a notebook for any purpose where sketching isn’t likely to be involved I think it would be my first choice.

So what would make this the perfect journal? Basically, the covers and construction and table of contents of the BookFactory with the page design of the Leuchtturm1917. Specifically:

  1. Pages with 5mm dot grid in gray/halftone, without the border – have the dot grid overlap all edges.
  2. Unobtrusive page numbers in the upper outside corners, also in gray/halftone.
  3. Include the “Continued from page:” and “Continued to page:” entries in gray/halftone, in the upper left and lower right corners, respectively.
  4. BookFactory style table of contents, with one entry per page and a date column.
  5. 300+ pages, so I have more history with me.

I’ve spoken to the folks at BookFactory about creating a new version with some of these features, and it’s possible. The challenge of course is meeting minimum order requirements. The good news is that I don’t need to order hundreds – fifty would be enough.

Would you be interested in a book described above? Would you rather have dot grid pages or plain pages?

The Vacation Satchel: What I Brought

A short while ago I posed the question about what to bring on vacation, and what to bring it in. We got back from our trip to Florida on Saturday morning, and here’s how it turned out.

I brought:

Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots notebook – what got used. This is my main journal, and it was where I wrote everything. Carrying the book didn’t prove to be as much as a pain as I thought it might be – more on that later. I wrote about what we did, things to improve for next time, a battery wiring diagram for my father-in-law’s golf cart, a few sketches, and so on. I filled thirteen A4 pages.

Home made leather notebook – didn’t make it out of the bag. I don’t know why, but I’m just not getting into using this book.

Stories Of A Father And His Girls notebook – didn’t make it out of the bag. This was a gift from my wife, and I had great hopes of filling this one with stories of the trip, but I realize now it needs to be written in after a bit of contemplation.

Stillman and Birn Epsilon 5×8 notebook – did a very brief watercolor in it. Could have stayed at home. I brought it specifically to draw in, but I realize now that I draw to record what is happening, which needs to be in the journal.

BookFactory pocket notebook – carried it a few times, but never used it. It’s my favorite small notebook because of the table of contents, but every time I went to go use it I ended up using the journal.

Sakura Koi 12-color pocket watercolor set – used once. I think I will leave this at home in the future, at least until I know better what to do with it.

Nomadic pencil case with a variety of pencils and pens. Could have left most of it at home, along with the case. Partly because the backpack I took didn’t have room for it, and partly because I just didn’t need that many options. I ended up using my yellow Caran d’Ache 849 with a CdA blue medium cartridge, and the Kuru Toga mechanical pencil.

I ended up using a daypack that was part of a Eagle Creak solo journey  backpack combination, and while a daypack is nice I think I will be upgrading to a RedOxx Gator in the very near future.

How did it work out?

I wanted everything in one book. Every time I thought about writing in another book I felt like I was breaking the rules. I’ve had no trouble writing in other books in the past, but  I have noticed I have this feeling more often since I started using a larger book as my journal. It’s also that when looking back on the trip it’s nice to have everything together.

Wind, sand, and humidity mess with notebooks. The sand gets between the pages and makes the writing surface uneven. The wind makes holding the book open and writing in it a challenge, even with the band;  Wind is actually a good reason to have a band on a large book. The humidity made the pages wavy.

Sand actually jammed the 849’s pusher mechanism, but was cleared easily. I’d thought the 849 would be an ideal pen on the beach because the mechanism is more accessible than the Parker Jotter, but it actually jammed a few times. Not a big deal, and I never used the Jotter so I can’t say it would have been more reliable.

The thin cover of the Leuchtturm1917 was a bit of a liability. When carrying it in a briefcase with files and other similar objects the thin cover is not really a problem. But when the book is the largest thing in the back, and it’s sharing the bag with a camera, clothing, and whatever else it didn’t fair so well. As you can see it’s starting to get misshapen. If I was normally carrying this book the way I do on vacation, I’m sure it would be a pretty ratty looking mess before long. Writing at home and at work usually means writing at a table. Writing when traveling means half the time the book is in my lap, or some other less than fully supported situation. This really needs the kind of cover thickness that BookFactory and Stillman and Birn provide.

A big book was fine in the car and most other places. I’d worried that it would be harder to write in, or would be harder to get into a comfortable position, but it was just as usable as the 5×8 books I was used to carrying. The only time I felt the larger book was a problem was in the wind – those big pages were hard to hold down with my forearm and I eventually gave up, although a few binder clips would have worked ok. I just didn’t feel like digging them out of the bag. I think the thicker paper of a Stillman and Birn might be more wind resistant, but then I’d give up ruling and page numbers .

What I’ll Bring Next time:

Main notebook. It might be another Leuchtturm Master Dots, or maybe something else. I’m thinking a custom version of the BookFactory lab notebook might be on the horizon – more on that later. Regardless, I will use something large enough that I don’t hesitate making notes.

Maybe a sketchbook, with the purpose of filling it with bad sketches. I noticed that many times I hesitated to sketch because I didn’t want to fill up my journal with aborted sketch attempts. Maybe the solution is to carry a book specifically to fill in with the bad drawings one needs to make before the good ones become more frequent. Maybe I just need to get over the fear that someone will walk up to see what ‘the artist’ is drawing, only to see the pathetic graphical train wreck that is unfolding on my page 😎

A mechanical pencil, with a few spare leads. I took the Kuru Toga, but really any decent pencil would do.

A click eraser. Didn’t need anything bigger, but I wouldn’t depend on the stubby thing that comes on most mechanicals.

A ballpoint pen, with a spare – both taking the same cartridge. I think next time it will be a pair of Caran d’Ache 849’s, maybe in different colors or point sizes. Having two functioning pens is a good idea with kids, because as soon as one wants to draw, another does. If I didn’t have kids, I might bring something more refined, but when a hungry, tired kid wants to draw on a paper restaurant placemat (or glossy brochure, or whatever is available for them to write on) while waiting for dinner to come, I want to hand them something that works, won’t break, and won’t write through to the table(cloth) underneath. That’s a ballpoint.


The vacation satchel. What to bring.

I’m going on vacation for a week in Florida. I’m not sure how much, if any, time I will have to write and draw, but I expect there will be some. I tend to think I will have more time to do these kinds of things than I actually do. More accurately, I have the time, but decide to spend it doing something else.

So what to take on vacation? Just a small notebook, or my regular journal? Should I bring my project sheets in case I decide to get organized, or add projects? I probably won’t bother.

What about colored pencils and water colors? I have this vision in my head of sitting on the beach sketching the kids under an umbrella in a beach chair. Of course the obligatory bottle of beer with a wedge of lemon in it sits on a crate nearby. The reality, however, is that there will likely be no umbrella, nor chair, and probably not even the beer. I will be wet, sandy, and helping one daughter or the other build something or playing in the waves.

But only some of the time will be spent at the beach, and we will be visiting relatives. That might also be prime sketching & writing time. Not to mention the 4,000 hour drive to get there. Ok, maybe not that long, but long.

The real question is whether there’s a satchel, per se, or not. We’re driving so the travel-light bug is in dangerous territory already – “Sure I can take that! I’ll just leave it in the car”. I’m always happier if I have only one bag I need to worry about. But it doesn’t take too many sketchbooks, laptops, or watercolor sets to add up to a second bag.

Maybe I should bring just a few pocket notebooks, a good ballpoint, and a pocket watercolor set. Ah – the lure of miniaturized travel perfection! But then, I’m driving, not going by air mail, so why not just bring what I want?

So how about it folks – what do you bring to record your thoughts while on vacation? Do you end up using it all, or just some of it?

[UPDATE: See what I ended up bringing here.]

What size is the right size for a notebook?

One of the things that got left out of my recent series on single vs. many notebooks was the topic of notebook size.

So what is the right size? It of course is a matter of what works but here’s my observations:

Small notebooks – pocket size or 3″x5″ or so.

  • Easiest to carry, and it fits in most pockets. Not always convenient in a bag, as it can move around and end up on the bottom.
  • Requires small writing, and a narrow pen or pencil. I found this to be fine as long as I wasn’t planning to use that pen for regular writing, but a real fine point is not the right choice for everything.
  • The books fill up quickly. Very quickly. Sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. For myself I prefer to have more history.
  • it’s hard to shoehorn a full size sheet in them, like an agenda for a meeting or the like. It has to be folded more than once, which makes it thick to put in the book, and ugly once it’s unfolded.
  • They’re easy to conceal, and they feel more private.
  • It feels a little silly to sit one on a conference room table and take notes.
  • Small drawings are possible, but diagrams, org charts, and things with writing can be challenging to fit.
  • The pages aren’t big enough to devote to one thing. Any list that’s long enough to need to be written down is likely to be more than one page.
  • Too small to have much history, unless I write in very terse language.
  • Ok for lap writing. Really, I have to balance the book on a thigh.
  • Easy to buy – they’re everywhere, and they are cheap. This also seems to be the most popular size for specialty books, like music, storyboard, etc.
  • Easy to devote to a single purpose.

Medium notebooks – 5″x8″ or thereabouts

  • A familiar size, and they don’t look silly on a conference room table.
  • Easy to buy – if the store has notebooks, they’ll have them in this size.
  • A letter sheet can be folded in half and stuck inside. It might hang out at the edges, depending on the book.
  • A page is not quite big enough for some purposes. For example, a page devoted to listing all the books I plan to read might end up being two or three pages.
  • A good size for lap writing, like in a car or plane.
  • Big enough to have some history. A book might last 6 months or more, if I don’t draw much.
  • Won’t fit in many pockets, but will fit some. An outside suit jacket pocket will likely be ok, but not inside.
  • Better behaved in a briefcase or other bag, but it can still move around, rotate, etc.
  • Painful to have devoted one to a single purpose, and end up not using it.

Full size notebooks – 8″x10″ and larger

  • Not going to fit in a pocket.
  • Stays where you put it in a bag.
  • Doesn’t feel silly to carry by itself.
  • Doesn’t look sill on a conference room table.
  • Not always good for lap writing, especially in cramped quarters.
  • Harder to find.
  • It feels less private. I don’t know why, since my writing is the same size, but I feel like it’s easier for the person next to me to read.
  • I can write in large letters, lots of room for diagrams.
  • Seems more likely to be available in larger page counts.
  • Hold letter size sheets without folding, but many “full size” books are 8×10, which means a sheet overhangs.
  • More expensive. A pocket size book might be $10-12 for a premium brand. A full size book might be $30. Although the price per square inch of writing area is probably a better deal on the larger book.
  • A single page is large enough for many purposes, without worry that more pages will be needed.

Bigger is better for the journal, so far

My experience has been that while the pocket size books are very attractive, as soon as I went to the mid size I couldn’t go back to pocket. I tried, but it was just too cramped. Three to five words on a line makes it hard to write coherently. Now I’ve gone up to an A4 (actually a little larger), and I wonder if I will be able to go back to a mid size again.

For other purposes I think full size books are too big and expensive, and too much to haul around. However, I’m finding that I’ve rolled at least one of my special purpose books into the large journal – I no longer freewrite in a separate book. An average freewriting exercise is at most two pages, so it’s not taking up much of the book. I also haven’t replaced the mid-size (their size large) Leuchtturm1917 Jottbook that I’d been using for blogging material now that it’s full, and have been writing those things in my journal instead.

For the first time in several years I’ll be traveling with the family, and that means I will be using my journal in a lot of new situations and carrying it around a lot more. I haven’t done this with a big book before, and I’m not certain whether I will end up still loving it or hating it.

What size have you settled on, and how did you get there?