Don’t Forget Your Notebook

An observation on Zettelkasten and the continuing value of physical media.

January 03, 2019Filed under Blog#note-taking#research#writing#zettelkastenMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: people interested in research, note-taking, memory, and the like.

I’m sitting at a coffee shop enjoying a tasty drink and working on an app idea I’ve been slowly fleshing out over the last 3½ years… in a paper notebook.

I’ve been writing a bit here over the last month or so about my experiment in building a Zettelkasten, and so far I’m quite pleased with it. It’s already proven helpful to me, and given my experiences so far I expect it to be much more so over the (hopefully many!) years ahead. I’ve noted that I’m putting all of my notes in Bear, as it’s a handy tool that mostly maps to the way I think about note-taking.

As I’m sitting working on this app design, though, it strikes me how valuable I find a physical notebook to be. Plain old pen and paper remain my favorite tool for thinking.

I’m not alone in this, even among the proponents of a Zettelkasten approach. Nor does this surprise me. I’ve long observed that I write—and, more importantly—think differently with pen and paper than I do with keyboard and computer.1 That is true especially true of poetry, but it’s still a factor even for something like app design—and not only, but certainly, as a factor of the tactility of it and for the sheer analogicity (if you’ll pardon the neologism) of it. Pen scratching on paper, with genuinely immediate feedback, is different even than the best experience of stylus and laptop.2 Even for something like sketching out a particular UI flow, a notebook affords different things than a tablet does. Perhaps doubly so because of the very analog nature of pen and paper: I am not tempted to make sure my lines are just so on paper as I am on an iPad, where “undo” is a constant temptation, the very expression of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

The net of this is simple: even if you’re adopting something like Bear for your way of storing and searching your notes, it’s valuable to have paper and pen-or-pencil near to hand. You may spend a little more time copying and elaborating notes as you transfer them from your notebook than you would if you simply did everything digitally from the start, but you will also think different—and, at least in my experience, better—thoughts using pen and paper than not.

It’s a truism in software development that we ought to use the right tool fo the job. The same goes for learning, and we ought not facilely dismiss the old tools simply because the newer ones have their own strengths.

  1. I include iPads here, because the difference seems to be typing into a screen. There are also real differences I perceive between writing with an iPad and keyboard than with a traditional computer, but those pale in comparison to the difference between computer and analog.

  2. I have an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. The responsiveness is astounding and outstanding; but it is not paper and pen.