Pen & Paper: Better Than All Things Digital

Why am I using this paper notebook for notetaking? It may surprise those of you who have been following my work here, especially since I’m one of the biggest cheerleaders for digital publishing and blogging. Sure enough, my messenger bag carries three digital devices for reading, writing and entertainment. But mixed in with my iPod, Droid cellphone and MacBook Pro is a Moleskine notebook: black cover, ruled sheets, pocket in the back.

Why You Need a Notebook

It’s like collecting puzzle pieces. Use your notebook to store the pieces. Then put them together when you have time. And you’re going to need less time than you think if you keep a good notebook.

Also, the fact you’re taking notes will help you retain the information. You may not need to refer to your notebook as much as you think because your memory for the noted information is better.

What You Need in a Notebook

Here’s what you need to look for:

  • Something portable
  • Easy for you to use
  • Accessible to your workflow
  • Convertible into another format or media

Searchable, “tag-able” and sharable are good — but those traits don’t make your notebooks practical. For example, many people love Evernote. It’s a handy online notebook that I find great for research. And it has tools that make it easy to file notes and pieces of web pages.

WorkAwesome Podcast: Episode Four – Brett Kelly (author of Evernote Essentials)

But to be honest, it’s not really part of my workflow. I don’t refer to it very often. Thus, my notes are forgotten once filed. I don’t think of looking through it very often. (What I really want is an app that streamed those notes onto my refrigerator!)

The same can be said about the papers you just scribbled on. If your notebook simply sits in your bag without you going through it, those notes will never do you any good.

Unfortunately, the text on paper isn’t very convertible. You can try to scan it into your computer, but it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth. Or you can summarize your notes each day in a digital format. This should reinforce your memory of the material and put the highlights in a searchable and organizable format.

Confessions of a Geek

I love my computers and devices. I love storing documents in the cloud. Bookmarklets are the coolest tool for curating content and publishing it. I even figured out how to use a WordPress blog as an online notebook. And I have lousy handwriting.

But after a lot of experimenting, organizing, interviewing and note taking, my Moleskine notebook is the best tool I have for collecting content. It feels good in my hands. The size and rigidity are good for writing so that you don’t need to have a flat surface underneath.

Paper to pen is the fastest, easiest method I have at my disposal. I can easily review and accent my notes with a highlighter, looking out for material that I can use in a column or blog post. Then, I can outline the content in Google Docs. Those outlines can be converted to content quickly when needed.

There’s one more reason I use the Moleskine notebook. Right or wrong, it suggests status. I must be successful if I can afford to spend that kind of money on notebooks. A bit shallow, yes. But is it any more shallow than dressing in a nice suit for an interview or sales presentation? Let’s face it: you’re not going to get the gig unless you project confidence and success.


So, why is this “dead tree” system my preference?

  • It’s easier: Sometimes we make things harder than it has to be. There’s a simplicity to pen and paper that no app has replicated. I’ve tried taking notes in word processing documents. But when I want to transcribe the notes into a column or blog post, I rewrite everything anyway.
  • Paperless is overrated: As much as I love gadgets, computers and digital publishing, I can’t get away from using paper to conduct business.
  • Paper creates a bond: There is an emotional attachment to things we can hold. Especially paper. The words have more impact. And writing reinforces the memory.
  • Digital distraction is a huge problem: Your brain doesn’t work as well when you’re in front of a screen all of the time. It really helps my thinking to take my notes offline and reorganize the most important points into an outline or two. There is compelling research into what digital devices are doing to our brains.

Give me a pen and paper every time over all things digital. It has no operating system that needs tweaking, never needs rebooting and requires no upgrading.

Well, maybe the last one counts if you consider my Moleskine an upgrade…


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Carl Natale is a freelance blogger who writes about tips and advice for small businesses. He runs the site - a site about how top brands set their prices.


  1. Jennifer Brown Banks on the 13th March


    Love this post and I totally agree. I often pen thoughts to paper, and find that it’s very productive and therapeutic as well. I also dig the fact that I can carry notebooks during a.m. commutes, or to capture thoughts during a bubble bath.

    Not to mention, there are no worries about losing your stuff due to a computer virus. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Seth Etter on the 13th March

    I love my moleskine as well. My wife likes to say I’m just trying to be fancy, and maybe she’s right, but who cares you know? 🙂

    Pen and paper are way more powerful than digital notes though. The tangibility instantly connects more substance to the notes you’re taking. We type things out on the computer so many times throughout the day that the act of typing something becomes less and less significant to us.

    When we take our hands off the computer and pick up a pen to write something out, it’s a completely different physical process than striking keys with your fingers. The mind will recognize this and typically will attribute more to whatever you’re writing.

    Thanks for the read, I’m going to find something to take notes about now. 🙂

  3. Cybertramp on the 13th March

    I love my notebooks, they act as a record of everything – jotted notes, phone numbers, things to do. There’s also nothing like sketching out a design on paper or crossing things off a list. You don’t worry about losing it when your computer dies on you.

    Unfortunately, I can’t find mine right now …. what to do …?

    But I really prefer the nice cover designs you can get over moleskines. Moleskines seem too thin to me. But it’s essential to have an elastic thingy to keep it closed – so you can stuff it full of papers and a pen and chuck it in your bag.

    • Carl Natale on the 14th March

      Good point on Moleskines. It’s important to pick a notebook that feels right. If you don’t like holding it, you’re not going to use it.

  4. Melanie on the 13th March

    I carry notebooks around with me everywhere! Right now I have a moleskein going as well as a notebook designed by Angela Adams.

  5. Daquan Wright on the 13th March

    I agree, I prefer paper and pen to the digital realm, but I don’t have anything against a good E-Book for sure.

    Whether it be a novel, manga, or my process of wireframing, I love the feel and smell and ink and paper. 😉

    I have a notebook on my desk and as soon as a thought comes to mind I sketch it or write it.

  6. Star Zhang on the 13th March

    I love jotting down thoughts and ideas on my notebook during the day. I do it partly because that is helpful in retaining my ideas so that I can do something about them later when I have time. It is also because putting things down allows me to look back some day and see what I have been through. Every time I read my diary, I got surprised by myself – gosh, I had this brilliant thought that time? Or, wow, I was really puzzled that time. Our thoughts, ideas and what happened to us define us as a person. Paper form is a more direct and handy way for me to record them.

    My problem though is that I do not keep up with my notebooks regularly. I am a huge notebook fan. Every time I see a nice notebook, I want to own it and I want to use it. The end result is that I have lots of notebooks, each with something written, something actually valuable. But without sticking to a routine or a system, the valuables get lost over time.

    This post is very helpful in that it enhances my belief into a notebook. I will try to be more consistent about my note-keeping.

  7. Michael Lynton on the 13th March

    What you said about Evernote is so true (at least for myself as well). I am always clipping content, but rarely do I go back and look through it. It’s almost like a black hole. Great post.

  8. Kathy Rausch on the 14th March

    I love my pencils and paper daytimer.

    I was at a meeting with a bunch of really “hip” folks with their iPad, iPhones, etc (by the way, I own and use both) — they were shocked that I had a PAPER daytimer and a PENCIL.

    Drawing and writing with a physical pen or pencil, are essential to this Tekie’s brain!

  9. cameron plommer on the 14th March

    I’ve been a big Evernote advocate for a long time. But just recently I’ve wanted to start a notebook based organization system. It’s a definite back-and-forth feeling. Digital and analog each have their costs and benefits for sure.

  10. Andrew Tagg on the 15th March

    As I don’t always have internet access I have set up a WordPress blog locally on my laptop using MAMP. I really use it as a digital depository of all the links that I like and can reblog articles that I want to re-read and think on.

    But for true portability I cannot fault my Moleskine. I am on my fourth iteration now and I love looking back and seeing all the little notes I made five or six years ago. Even looking at the lists I have made takes me back. I’ve read countless Moleskine hacks on how to keep my little black book organised but in the end I love the randomness of it all.

  11. Bojan Djordjevic on the 31st March

    A mental note takes place when writing things down. I remember things easier. The translation must happen between the brain and the hand for me.

  12. Bojan on the 31st May

    Sorry, but I have to disagree as a men. I love movingp light weight, eithout a bag to carry around with me to hold me down.

    I love pen and paper! I use it on daily basis, I am outlining my blog posts, creating mind maps and draw with my own hand, but I simply dont have extra space in my pocket to hold all those unnecessery things.

    Evernote on my phone is a killer, because it allows my home taken notes to be ported in digital format with a single snapshot.

    Go step beyond, merge your offline and online 😉

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