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Thursday
Aug042011

Writing is Fun Again With Field Notes

 Several years ago, I adopted a digital workflow for writing, task management and note taking.  The iPhone made this easier to do than ever before since I could carry a satellite to my digital information and work with me wherever I went.  Then the iPad came along and made it even better. I was hooked - my work flow was completely digital. For my work I have to attend a number of meetings where taking notes is essential.  I also have to manage projects and day to day tasks and there I try and follow a GTD system.  Keeping lists of tasks and projects is important to that process as is ubiquitous capture of tasks as they come along. My work also requires me to do a great deal of creative writing where I have to generate and then distill ideas and thoughts into a coherent document.  Up until recently I have done all of those things with my Macs, iPhone and iPad because they allowed me to do my work more efficiently.  The system has worked well and has not let me down, but for some time now it has felt like it is missing something. The closest I can come to naming this missing element is "personality" or "soul."

This nagging sense of dissatisfaction with my workflow and thought processes came to a head in the last couple of months.  In particular I started to hate writing.  That is a serious issue because it is a big part of my profession.  I could complete a project but it felt mechanical and hollow. When you no longer like what you do you need to rethink how you do it or if you should even be doing it at all.  The latter was not an option so I started to reconsider how I approach the task and process of writing.  

One day I was reading an article on Daring Fireball and saw an ad in the Deck for Field Notes.  I had heard of these little pocket notebooks at some point in the past but had dismissed them as an analog relic of the past. But in that moment the idea of getting back to actually writing things with pen and paper was appealing.   I clicked the link and decided to order what they call "The Kit" to dip my toes back in the water of pen and paper and see if I liked it. "The Kit" is a great way to do this as it includes a couple packages of their pocket notebooks, two steno notebooks plus some nice pencils and pens. Several days after opening my package of Field Notes, I jumped in with both feet and ordered a Colors Subscription that guarantees delivery of their special limited edition notebooks plus regular supplies of their standard notebooks. I was surprised that this happened so quickly considering how immersed I had been in the digital world prior to using Field Notes. I sat down one night with pen in hand and a Field Notes notebook to journal about this change. What follows is the fruit of that reflection.


Since my main goal in ordering Field Notes was to help me capture inspiration wherever it might strike, the size of the notebooks was appealing. Carrying one of these notebooks with you wherever you go is pretty easy as they are the perfect size to fit in a pocket of your pants. They are also neither too thin or too thick to sit comfortably in a back pocket.  The unpretentious covers are thick enough to be durable but pliable enough to mold to your pocket and develop some character as they wear. The paper is thick enough to hold up in daily use but not so thick as to feel harsh. Field Notes just feel good to carry around and touch.

The fact that they feel so good to the touch has something to do with the quality of their construction. They are a pleasure to use.  There is obvious attention to their crafting. First, they are printed and made in America.  I like that - especially in today's economy.  It maintains skills that our country shouldn't lose in the mad rush to make things as cheaply as possible through outsourcing.  The back cover of each notebook tells you what paper, ink and staples were used and where they were printed and put together.  This led me to look for more information on their website and there I found numerous well-produced videos detailing the printing processes of several of their special edition notebooks as well as the work that goes into their standard edition.  I like that each notebook has a back story. For some people a notebook may be just a notebook but for me quality thoughts deserve quality paper to give them shape and expression and these little notebooks deliver it. 

All this adds up to make Field Notes the ideal daily companion for brainstorming, note taking, journaling, writing, diagramming or drawing.  I know that there are countless apps that could do this digitally but it seems more coherent to do all this on paper.  There are a lot of great apps for drawing, outlining, writing, and note taking but there is no single perfect app for all of them combined so you have to use several of them.  A result of capturing your ideas in several digital apps is that your work ends up compartmentalized in these apps and you can't see it as a coherent whole. I think this was one of the factors contributing to the break down of my writing workflow.

There is also something about the medium of pen and paper that has unlocked my creativity. The glide of the pen across the page of a Field Notes notebook seems more natural than touch typing my ideas onto a capacitive touch screen.  I seem more connected to the writing. My thoughts are rendered in something uniquely personal - my handwriting - instead of a precisely rendered digital font.  My printing is less than perfect and full of idiosyncrasies but it is mine and there is something satisfying about seeing my thoughts given shape in it. It also slows me down enough to actually think about what I am writing. Pen and paper provides fewer distractions that keep me from hearing the words form in my mind. No pop up alerts to interrupt my train of thought and typing. Another benefit is that there is no annoying auto correct to fiddle with as a I write. I have lost too many good ideas to this "feature" over the last couple of years to count. 

One of the other uses for which I purchased Field Notes is note taking during meetings.  I have found that taking handwritten notes using a Field Notes notebook is less conspicuous than pulling out my iPad or iPhone. Pen and paper on a table or in your lap produces less of a barrier between you and the person(s) with which you are meeting.  If the interaction of people is why you hold a meeting then introducing obstacles to that interaction seems counterproductive. By keeping an electronic device out of sight, no one thinks that you are tweeting, texting, emailing or playing Angry Birds during the meeting.  This tells them that they have your undivided attention and that you value their time and input.
 
While you can't backup the handwritten pages of a Field Notes notebook as easily as you can a text file to Dropbox or secure sensitive notes with a PIN code or password, the benefits of this analog medium outweigh the drawbacks.  Ideas and words are once again flowing and writing is fun.  Thanks to Field Notes for making such a great tool. Their cool little notebooks have a found a home in my heart and in my pocket right next to my iPhone

 

I have also posted a photo of the first installment of my colors subscription featuring the American Tradesman special edition on my photos page.

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Reader Comments (5)

Great post - I'm also a huge fan (read: addict) of Field Notes, buying far more of them than I need and forcing them onto unwitting friends and loved ones. I'm like people with "The Wire", except for notebooks.

August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrett Kelly

Brett- feel free to force a few on me! I love 'em and, like you, have far more than I could ever use. If I wrote on a page an hour for the rest of my life and lived to be 183 years old... I'd have a hell of a writer's cramp.

August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Excellent post.
You said exactly what I have been feeling lately, and you and I followed a similar path to the little notebooks that could.
I love my iPhone and iMac, and I use them all day every day. However, there was a void there and a need for something to capture ideas in real time for me too, mostly for blog ideas as they floated in and out of my brain throughout the day. The little brown Field Notes book in my back pocket goes with me everywhere and fills the bill.
Thanks for articulating so well what I'm sure many writers are feeling nowadays.
Cheers!

Greg.

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Smith MD

I also use the field notes notebooks and you said you can't backup your notes to dropbox or online. I beg to differ - I use evernote as my note storage location and I "Scan" my pages with my iPhone and upload the images which are searchable if my handwriting is legible enough. Plus I can also add tags and additional notes or voice to the notes as well. This way I have the best of both worlds.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDigital Alan

Thank you for articulating your journey back toward notebooks! I found this article digging through Google to find sold out Field Notes special editions. I just purchased my first pack and am addicted already! I wrote a similar article about going back to memo books on my blog as well. Thanks!

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Johnson

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