Justine Houyaux

Research on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

On notebooks

I have been toying with the idea of writing about notebooks for quite a long time, so here we are. My project was to write a 500-something-word about the topic, but then I realised that I wanted to talk about notebooks in a professional context as well as journals and diaries. I will consequently start with general considerations and then move on to the rest.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard (aka I love stationery)

While I am as tech-savvy as the next girl, I am fond of paper notebooks as well. I have always loved the smell and the feeling of a new notebook, as well as the possibilities that a set of blank pages has to offer.

As a romantic, I love the idea of future generations finding my notebooks and reading them in order to find out what the life of an average gal was like in the early third* millennium (That’s also why I write down headlines of major significance in my diary. I have problems.); I also have that mental image of Raskolnikov working feverishly on his notebooks by the light of a single candlelight at the beginning of Crime and Punishment (Note: this doesn’t mean that I’d kill my neighbour to find out whether I can.) ; as a girl who grew up in the nineties when diaries were all the rage (and the agent of many a poor plot twist in TV series), I turned out to be a stationery addict with a blossoming love for Paperchase, Moleskine and the likes; as a researcher, I had to do some research to show you the benefits of paper notebooks, so here goes:

Academic benefits of handwriting
  • According to a study conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), “students who take notes on laptops perform worse on conceptual questions than students who take notes longhand,” mainly because those who take notes on a computer tend to transcribe what the speaker says verbatim instead of conceptualizing the material in their own words. [Source]
  • Duran and Frederick reached a similar conclusion in their 2013 paper, which showed that handwritten notes better facilitate comprehension, even on immediate test with no intervening study period. [Source]
  • In another study by Kraushaar and Novak (2010), it was shown that if they are given access to the internet, students spent 42% of their time using applications that were not related to the course and were generally less satisfied with their education. [Source]
  • In their 2012 study, James and Engelhardt have produced results that are quite a bit stricking: long story short, they monitored the brain activity of pre-schoolers through an MRI machine and neural activity was better when the kids had trained to form the shape of letters than when they had not. Would that mean that writing makes you cleverer? [Source]
Personal benefits of journaling
  • Expressive writing can improve your physical health, as well as the way you perceive said health, according to Pennebaker and Beall (1986). [Source]
  • Spiegel (1999) noted that if a drug showed the same results as expressive writing in terms of psychological health, it would be considered as a “major medical advance.” [Source]
  • In his 2012 study, Hiemstra also listed personal growth and development, intuition and self-expression, problem solving ability, stress reduction and critical thinking as potential benefits to journaling. [Source]

As far as I am concerned, I have had plenty of time along the years to think about the benefits of writing by hand and to come up with a list of benefits that I have experienced first-hand. Here’s my two-pence in the form of a top-5 reasons why you should use notebooks:

(1) It forces you to think. If you have to sit down at a table, take a pen, and focus on whatever it is that you have to write, you will consider it differently as if you were facing a computer with its infinite possibilities, ranging from social networks to LOLcats. You actually have to focus on what you are doing and to distance yourself from your object of study (in the case of an academic notebook) or from your feelings (in the case of journaling). I often find it easier to perceive the structure of a scientific paper if I have to write down notes about it (because I am lazy and I don’t want to write too much) instead of copy/pasting a few quotes into a digital log. I also find it easier to let go of, say, a detail of a conversation if I find my reaction too ridiculous to be written in my diary.

(2) It improves your handwriting. You may not believe it, but there are situations in which you still need to write stuff with your own hand. Coincidentally, what is at stake in that sort of situations generally is a huge amount of money or a liability. So your handwriting had better be legible.

(3) It improves your spelling. We are surrounded with autocorrect options that make us doubt our very ability to write. Writing for real will make you feel more confident.

(4) It declutters the mind. In the past, I would lay awake in my bed at night considering the stuff I’d have to do on the next day. Now I have to-do lists. I find paper to-do lists more satisfying than apps because you get to strike out what you have accomplished instead of simply deleting it, and I do enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with a neatly stricken out list of tasks.

(5) Speaking of which, it gives you a sense of accomplishment. You can always read what you have written weeks or years ago and measure your evolution, see if things have gone the way you wanted them to go or if something needs changing, check how much work you have accomplished and compare what mattered then to what matters now.

About my notebooks

I currently use three notebooks and a Filofax.

My Filofax

I have already written about it. More than a year through, I have to admit that buying a Filofax was one of the best ideas I have ever had (that and my risotto recipe). It is my brain on paper. I use it to note down my work schedule, which tends to be hectic, classroom activities, to-do lists, appointments, and to jot down a few notes on the fly. I think that I have never missed any appointment or scheduled activity ever since I have bought it.


Notebook #1

My diary is a plain black Moleskine squared notebook. It is nothing special, just a record of my everyday life as it is. I write down the titles of the books I read, ideas to develop in papers I haven’t got time to write right now, quotations (mostly by Germaine Greer and Caitlin Moran, for some reason), or anything I like or find interesting.


At the beginning of each month, I draw a small calendar, write down my objectives of the month and start a new habit tracker. For instance, in January, I have decided that I needed to keep up with my water intake, eat my five a day, read for my research, write something, literally anything, in my thesis master document and walk a bit:


It is not particularly private material, but I guess writing down what I do helps me reflect on my ways and correct what needs correcting. Plus, I am a firm believer that the small things are worth remembering.

Notebook #2

My second notebook is my research notebook. I care about it more than some people care about their own children. After using yet another plain black Moleskine and many notebooks of all shapes and sizes along the years, I decided in the summer that I could afford something different (not to mention a bit fancy) for the last few months of my research. After reading reviews on r/notebooks, I decided in favour of a Leuchtturm1917 (which I can barely spell properly) in turquoise (because given the choice, I’ll always buy the turquoise item).


What does it look like?

It is a lovely object. Contrarily to Moleskine, that is 5″x 8¼” (13x21cm), it is a proper A5 (5.8″x8.3″; 14.8x21cm), which is nice because I do need the extra space to annotate my notes when I work on them. I add stuff like references, comments and updates on certain topics.

I like notebooks that open flat. After years and years of using notebooks, I find it much more convenient to write on a flat surface instead of battling against a rebellious spine that won’t crack and having half of the notebook collapsing on my hand at any given time. The Leuchtturm1917 is quite good in that respect.


Moreover, the Leuchtturm1917 has two pageholders, which I find extremely convenient in the sense that they prevent me from using any scrap of paper I find (including my tax income form) as a second pageholder — a s well as a table of contents.


How do I use it?

It is by far my most organized notebook since I need to access anything when I am writing my dissertation. I have colour-coded the pages thematically according to the visual indexing method (also called “Japanese hack”) I have read about online. I have decided to colour-code it because it makes it possible for me to have easier access to specific topics.

I usually leave 1.37″ (3.5cm) out as a margin on the left-hand side of even pages and the same on the righ-hand side of odd pages so that my annotations always are on the outer side of the main body of notes. I also write the complete reference of the source on the top of the page, and, from time to time, a few keywords at the bottom. I also use mind mapping, visual thinking, shorthand, longhand… whatever works.

While all this may look like a huge loss of time in the context of a dissertation, I believe that the meditative aspect of handwriting and colour-coding actually help me process, remember, and establish links between the different elements of my research.

Notebook #3

Notebook #3 simply is a reading log that I bought in Florence when I was depressed (an no, it was not Stendhal Syndrome, I know what it feels like). While I sometimes write down quotes from the books I read in my diary, I use my reading log to structure notes on books I might want to reuse in my literature class later.


For instance, here is a page about Paper Towns by John Green (my students will be reading it in the 2nd semester). When I first read it, I did not know that I would make it part of the syllabus, but I had an idea that a few notes about it might come in handy at some point.

I like the fact that there is an alphabetical index on the edge of the pages. It makes it super easy for you to find the title you are looking for according to the name of the author. I also find the “rating” detail rather amusing.

All in all, as you might have guessed, I love notebooks. I took a liking to Moleskine when I was a teenager. They were unaffordable on my weekly allowance, but I would buy one when they were on sales, mostly because I was vain and easily manipulated by ad campaigns that led me to believe that all aspiring writers should have one. I have dropped the idea of becoming an author sometime along the way but I have kept the Moleskines (and many others) because I do enjoy the idea of having notebooks. They make me feel responsible and organized.

*^Thanks Romain for drawing my attention to the fact that I had written “second millennium” instead of “third.” “Whose time machine did you steal?,” he asked.


Related links:


Do you use notebooks? What are your favourite types? I’d love to read your thoughts!


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This entry was posted on 14/01/2016 by in Academic Life, Blog, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , .
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