Toolbox: Writing/planning tools

Toolbox: Writing/planning tools

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, refurbish, etc.

I have a love/hate relationship with organizational technology. I’m an anarchist at heart — I hate rules, authority, order, doing what’s expected. At the same time, I have to manage a fairly dizzying amount of complexity in my workflow, and that necessitates having to be organized. I vacillate between embracing it (reading productivity books and sites like 43Folders and Lifehacker) and rebelling against it. Within these perpetual oscillations, I managed to get a lot of stuff done, so however torturous the process, it seems to work for me. Below is the content of my writing/planning toolbox. I got a great response to my call for tool suggestions for this column. I figured, since these tools work in concert with each other, to keep each contributor’s toolset intact. This is only a sampling of what people sent. Many items were redundant (Moleskines, Maker’s Notebooks, Sharpies, Varsity pens). Add your favorite writing tools (my emphasis is on analog, but digital too — whatever you actually use and find most useful).

Gareth’s Tools:


The Maker’s Notebook
I know I was involved in this project and I’m far from impartial, but I love The Maker’s Notebook, I got flamed out on Boing Boing for claiming that the Notebook actually *encourages* me to do more brainstorming, drawing, scheming, but it does! The Moleskine drawing notebook I used beforehand did the same thing. I think any great writing tool (or any type of tool) seduces you want to use it. I use my Maker’s Notebook for all of my preliminary project planning, sketches, diagrams, and brainstorms — at least any of this that I do away from the computer. This column started out as a page in my Maker’s Notebook.


Moleskine Cahier Pocket Notebook (blank paper version)
I always keep one of these in my pocket. I’ve used them for years and have a nice collection of multiple volumes stuffed with my big (and little) ideas. I use these for miscellaneous thoughts, quotes I want to capture, book excerpts, fragmentary ideas, poetry and pearls o’ wisdom. I’ve been writing a novel for the past couple of years and all of my notes for that are in about six volumes of these notebooks.


Hipster PDA
These simple paper PDAs were such an advancement for me. With a pack of 3 x 5 cards and a box of binder clips, I made a bunch of these that I keep all over the house (with a pen): By my bed, in the TV, kitchen, in the john, etc. Now I never have a thought and am without the means to capture it. I keep one of these in my pocket too and use it for shopping lists, to-do lists, temporary notes, anything I don’t need to keep. The ones around the house capture any type of thought, and at the end of the week, I go around and collect up all the used cards and transfer them to notebooks or wherever else the info needs to go. This simple “creativity hack” has changed my creative/work life very dramatically (talk about bang for the buck!).

This Mac and iPhone-based personal information manager (PIM) is awesome. It’s built around the Getting Things Done system, to which I haphazardly adhere. Having my desktop Mac, MacBook, and iPhone all in-sync with my to-do lists for dayplanning/project outlining is a godsend, and it does it fairly effortlessly.


I love this free app (for Mac, Windows, iPhone, and Blackberry) that allows you to send images, text, audio, and web clippings into the cloud from any of these devices. I frequently get ideas in the middle of the night, or want to record dreams. I speak them into my phone in bed and they’re sent to my online Evernote account. Evernote also has character recognition within images, so you can, for instance, take a phonecam image of a business card and later search on the text of that card in Evernote or the text for something you’ve scribbled on a napkin and photographed. Just be sure to scribble legibly.


Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen
I’ve sung the praises of these pens before. I’m still singing. I freak out if I can’t find one at my disposal and have to resort to a “lesser” tool. You can easily re-fill them yourself, so you don’t have to dispose of them, which is good ’cause they’re hard to find in stationary/ office stores (most of the time you have to special order them).

Pentel Mechanical Pencils
I’ve had the same Pentel pencil for the past 20 years. It still works and so I keep filling it with lead. I don’t do that much technical drawing anymore, so I don’t use it very frequently.

Daniel’s Tools
Daniel Carter, our amazing MAKE Art Director, sent me his list:

The Maker’s Notebook


Pigma Micron #1 Archival Ink pens (.5 and .25 mm, black ink)


UniBall Signo Micro 207 pens (black ink)


Muji Blank Memo Pad

Also: X-acto knife, #11 blade, Adobe CS3, MacBook Pro, iPhone

Mark Adams’ Tools
From HacDC and Dorkbot DC


I use a hard-bound sketch journal, with a Pentel 0.5mm mechanical pencil, Pigma Micron pens (a range of sizes, mainly the 005 (0.2mm), 02 (0.3mm) and 08 (0.5mm), a nice, fat Sharpie or Faber-Castell Pitt Brush Pen (I like the greys!) for contrast. When I need a little color, I use watercolor from pans. My daughter Meg and I love the little field set from Winsor-Newton (fill it with Cotman colors on the cheap!)

When in the lab/shop, I like to cover the whiteboard I built with ideas – since it is two-sided, I can spin it around and just keep going. I built it for about US$50, and have loved it ever since.


For organizing, I also love my Hipster PDA — DIY Planner edition. I downloaded some of the useful cards from the Hipster PDA DIY Planner site, but mostly, I just use blank and grid-lined cards. I don’t use a binder clip, I punch them in the upper left, and use a big split ring to hold it all together. I “laminated” the top and bottom cards with packing tape and it has survived in my suit-coat pocket for years. I also like using colored cards as dividers. My pen of choice is one of those el-cheapo four-color ballpoints. It is pretty funny to pull that out in front of all the other execs who have multi-hundred-dollar fountain pens, but it works great and fits right in my briefcase.


I’ve recently (over the last few months) started using a Livescribe digital pen, which captures everything you write on special paper, along with optional voice annotation/ recorded notes. If you use it on a Mac, like I do, you can generate PDFs in a snap of what you wrote, and then import it into other applications for refinement, sharing, etc. It is like carrying around your computer and graphics tablet everywhere. Very accurate, good enough for plans, etc. Give me a year with it and I’ll know if it’s permanently in my routine… :-)

Finally, you didn’t ask for software, but I use several applications almost all day, every day (keep them all open on virtual desktops on my Mac and Llinux computers, so I can quickly zap back and forth):

Inkscape – for vector illustrations and planning

Gimp – for more refined “painterly” designs and cleaning up the vector stuff for use

DIA – for planning flowcharts, etc. on demand

Emacs – for catching notes, text, etc.

Python – as a general purpose grapher, calculator, quick scratch pad, etc. I have a library set that I have gotten used to that I automatically import (Image, numpy and scipy) so I can quickly hack out answers to numeric/ programatic questions.

[Thanks to everyone at Dorkbot DC, HacDC, the Maker Media staff and everyone else who contributed writing tool ideas for this column.]



20 thoughts on “Toolbox: Writing/planning tools

  1. Subvert says:

    For the longest time, I’ve had a huge aversion to pencils. I can tolerate mechanical pencils better than wood ones, but even then it’s iffy for me. Using a pencil for me is similar to the experience of fingernails on a chalkboard. (I hate chalk on chalkbords as well).

    BUT! I do like liquid graphite “pencils”. These are basically ballpoint pens filled with liquid graphite. I’ve only ever seen two brands of these. One were blue, retractable, refillable (as in a cartridge), and sold at Wal-Mart. The problem is, the tip is a bit small, and annoying for filling out standardized test forms. A little better are the Pentech ones. They’re non-refillable, and have an exterior made of wood made to look like a real pencil.

    I’ve also recently found a couple of mechanical pencils that I actually like using. I think one reason I like them is because the leads are pretty large, so they feel like they write more smoothly.

    A Zebra MLP2, which has kind of a rectangular lead, intended for standardized test taking. They’re hard to find, so far I’ve only found them is at the MIT bookstore.

    The other pencil I like is a Striker carpenter’s pencil. The leads are called “DuraLead”, which is really sturdy, and has grooves that the lead holder grips onto. They also are available in red and white.

    1. Jack of Most Trades says:

      Liquid Graphite? Sounds cool, I’ll have to check it out. I have a couple of leadholders for 2mm lead, and they work OK for me (I have a heavy hand and just crumble the .5’s)

      I’m a big fan of the Pilot Varsity, too, when I’m not using my 1949 Sheaffer “Statesman”.

  2. brian says:

    I’m curious about how people use their Maker’s Notebook/moleskines for brainstorming, project planning, sketches, etc. I tried a bound notebook for a while, and found it very limiting. When I’m scheming, I like to have access to several different kinds of paper (lined, blank, graph, maybe even weirder things like log or isometric), and when I’m working on several projects in parallel, it’s important to me that all the notes for each project be together.

    Notebooks don’t allow me to have access to the paper I want, and also make it difficult to make notes about parallel projects without breaking up the order.

    While I do understand the value of a lab notebook (write only in pen, every page properly dated and signed to maintain integrity), I think it’s not the idea I or other people here are going for – and I think that the official lab notebook as it currently exists is not a good solution to the problem of the integrity of lab work (but it’s probably the best that can be done).

    I’m currently using a cheap 1″ ring binder. I can put the pages in whatever order I want, and even add printouts. It is a bit bulky, but smaller binders are available.

    Am I doing it wrong? Do other people not use their notebooks in the way that I’m trying to?

  3. hurf durf says:

    I’m a like to make, build, tinker, if you can’t open it you don’t open it, open source everything, void your warranty, anarchy rules don’t come down on me man you’re harshing my vibe kind of guy. That’s why I own every mac product there is!

    brb, jailbreaking.

    1. Toolbox: Writing/planning tools Becky Stern says:

      Hurf, consider this an official warning. Play nice and contribute valuable, genuine (non-sarcastic) comments, or you’re out for a month. Continue after that, and we’ll ban you from the site.

  4. Silverman says:

    I saw those Varsity pens at the bookstore and I thought about trying them out. But I was turned off by their disposableness. Can you share your preferred method for refilling them?

    1. Benji says:

      I simply pull the nib out from the body and add ink via an eye dropper. A step by step process can be found on the blog Here is a link to the specific article:

  5. Nicholas says:

    My favourite pen for 10 years now has been Pilot G-TEC-C4.

    Rich ink (black’s my choice), smooth 0.4 mm line for dense writing, and a clear barrel you can slip some personalization into. The tip has some of a nib’s scratchiness on paper.

  6. John Park says:

    I’ve fallen in love with these Sharpie writing pens:

  7. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Liquid graphite pencils sound awesome. Gotta try those.

    Re: Varsity pen refills
    They’re really easy to refill, if you’re careful. You just slowly pull off the nib with a pair of pliers (i use needlenose), refill with fountain pen ink, and reseat the nib. I use a rag over the nib to protect it and so I don’t get ink everywhere. Make sure the nib goes all the way in or it’ll leak.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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