Make: Time & Space, the notebook edition

Make: Time & Space, the notebook edition

In Make: Time & Space, our series on organizing your lives physically and mentally, we’ve talked about tips for arranging your tools and being more productive. What about your notebooks? I read this excellent Slate review of a book about Agatha Christie’s messy notebooks. Apparently she wrote anything in them, merging day-to-day stuff like shopping lists with thoughts about future novels and even she let her family write in them as well. She used Notebook 3 for 17 years and it contained elements from 17 of her novels.

The contents of the notebooks are as multi-dimensional as their Escher-like structure. They include fully worked-out scenes, historical background, lists of character names, rough maps of imaginary places, stage settings, an idle rebus (the numeral three, a crossed-out eye, and a mouse), and plot ideas that will be recognizable to any Christie fan: “Poirot asks to go down to country–finds a house and various fantastic details,” “Saves her life several times,” “Inquire enquire–both in same letter.” What’s more, in between ominous scraps like “Stabbed through eye with hatpin” and “influenza depression virus–Stolen? Cabinet Minister?” are grocery lists: “Newspapers, toilet paper, salt, pepper …” There was no clean line between Christie’s work life and her family life. She created household ledgers, and scribbled notes to self. (“All away weekend–can we go Thursday Nan.”) Even Christie’s second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, used her notebooks. He jotted down calculations. Christie’s daughter Rosalind practiced penmanship, and the whole family kept track of their bridge scores alongside notes like, “Possibilities of poison … cyanide in strawberry … coniine–in capsule?”

Sounds delightfully creative! I personally prefer using a single composition notebook at a time and work my way through it chronologically, dating each page and labeling which project or idea it relates to. Sometimes I’ll go on a roll and burn through 10 pages in one day, other times a week will go by without an entry. Oddly, I rarely read through older notebooks. It’s almost as if my scribbles serve more as a creative aid than an important record.

How about you? Do you keep a notebook? Are you neat or messy? Chaotic or organized? Share your thoughts in comments and post links to pictures. [via Kottke]

In the Maker Shed:


Pick up The Maker’s Notebook ($19.99) for all your big ideas, diagrams, patterns, etc. Exclusive to the Maker Shed: Sticker sheets and a band closure to customize your book.

16 thoughts on “Make: Time & Space, the notebook edition

  1. Alan says:

    For notes I can record in text, I use Emacs. Two modes, called outline and org-mode, make it an extremely powerful notebook – once you get past its near-vertical learning curve. I can take notes on anything in a plain text file (the only digital file format that could be considered “archival”), and easily format them into collapsible outline points. If I tag an item with a keyword such as “TODO:” it automatically shows up on my Emacs-generated agenda, regardless of how many files I’ve spread my TODO items into. Emacs pulls order out of chaos.

    My work notes start out in Emacs, then move into a local installation of MediaWiki (the software that runs Wikipedia). That allows me to search my whole archive of work through a familiar interface.

  2. CircuitGizmo says:

    I have my way of taking notes. I’ve tried to find paper that would suit my needs. Notebook paper is a no-go. What? Just a bunch of lines? No. Regular green engineering paper comes pretty close, but I always end up modifying each and every page by hand.

    So I broke down and made my own. With a color printer (I have a color laser) I can make my own faint blue graph paper. I can print them as I need them.

    My Project Paper has small boxes to fill in for Project name, for the Title of the page (where you can put a specific label for that page), a box for the Date, as well as boxes for tracking this page among many. On the bottom is a box for the Engineer Signature and for a Witness Signature.

    The graph paper part of this Project Paper is used like other engineering paper – for notes, charts, drawings, schematics, etc.

    The Project Paper also incorporates a to-do list. A to-do item can be noted alongside one of the boxes on the left side of the page. Listed along the left edge is the marking system that I use. A blank box, perhaps obviously, is a to-do that is not done. A check mark in the box is a done item. An “X” in the box is a to-do item that has been canceled – it doesn’t need to be done. A “+” in the box indicates that the task noted on this page has been moved to another later page.

    As a little bonus the right side of the page can be used as a ruler.

    Link to the graph paper:

    P.S. I have/love the Maker Notebook, but I needed larger paper that I could 3-ring bind.

    1. Donald Haas says:


      I had some of the same issue with what I wanted exactly in a notebook and on the paper. So I did up several different page styles and put them into a notebook that I got printed from Lulu. They have 8.5×11 as a size choice, you can have as many pages as you want (almost) and I could put whatever I wanted on the cover (big picture of my cat). This way I had Table of Content pages, project note pages, graph paper drawing pages, etc. etc. etc. I ended up doing most of it with lined paper on the left side and graph paper on the right side. The price isn’t too bad either. You can’t do the light blue color though, just black and white and shades of gray.

  3. Carnes says:

    For projects I plan them out on post-its, napkins, recepts, whatever is at hand. Then later that week copy the idea into a nice graph paper journal. This is because sometimes my thoughts come and go quickly.. i can’t always get to a notebook in time.

    Also i realized that when i put the idea into a notebook, i’m neater, slower, and try to work things out more.. in that delay i lose some creative thoughts. So scrap paper lets me make messes without worrying about a future generation finding it and laughing. The bad part is i MUST consolidate the scraps into the book or they can get lost over time. I also leave a few blank pages between each project for further expansion.

  4. Andy Johnson says:

    I scribble in Rite in the Rain notebooks that I can get for just above cost at my job. They are waterproof and very durable- water just beads up on the pages. They don’t hold well to the Pilot G2 Gel ink, but that is my only complaint. I keep 2-3 at a time. I have one book that I scribble project ideas, thoughts, notes, and even shopping lists. The other is used as a day planner- I printed 12 months of Google calendar, which already has my events that are already planned. I glued them in spaced evenly through the whole book, cut dictionary tabs for each month and write meeting notes and ideas in the space between calendars.

    I have a Maker’s notebook, but I don’t carry it with me every day because I don’t want to muck it up in my bag. I *do* use it however, it gets project ideas that will actually come to fruition.

  5. jeff-o says:

    I tend to keep track of my ideas in Evernote. One thing I’ve always got with me is my iPod Touch. I use the Evernote app to jot down ideas wherever I am. Other times, while at the computer, I’ll use the Evernote website to make more extensive notes that would cause my fingers to cramp up on my iPod.

    I’ve also got a few pads of 11×14″ graph paper that I use to draw out sketches, circuit diagrams, patterns, etc.

  6. EngineerZero says:

    I keep my invention ideas in a 4 x 7 inch paper notebook. I use paper rather than computer files so that I don’t have to fire up the computer and wait before I can jot down a simple idea. The notebook is small so that I can keep it at hand while I’m reading, which is when a lot of my ideas occur to me. It’s a multi-ring binder rather than a spiral so that I can rearrange and cull pages (my thinking tends to be chaotic, so I do a LOT of revision).

    I also use everything from Word document files to digital photo archiving to those fancy bookstore spiral notebooks for various other purposes.

  7. Donald Haas says:

    I mentioned above I used Lulu to create a custom notebook, but I also love my Equilibris graph paper notebook. I have a red one I use for my writing and a black one I use as an engineering notebook. For everyday notes I do a print and fold pocketmod ( notebook using scrap paper. Always have a few extra around for shopping lists and misc. to do notes and what not.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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