Notebook open on double page of handwriting

Pen & paper

Trying out minimalist writing applications? You can’t get more ‘zen’ than this. The trusty notebook deserves a spot in a list of writing focus apps.


£1-£20 (any more than that and you probably aren’t using it for drafts).

In a nutshell

Dead tree mashed into simple text tool.


Anything flat and inanimate.

Last updated

1938 (László Bíró files a patent for a decent ballpoint pen)

Quick pros

  • Portable
  • Cheap
  • Customisable
  • Makes you look creative

Quick cons

  • I hate writing things by hand
  • I have ink under my fingernails?!
  • I hate writing things by hand


As a journo, I wrote a lot in notebooks – although I stupidly never took the time to learn shorthand.

A jotter is always worth deploying for an interview, no matter how good your dictaphone. It’s an extra backup, which is invaluable. Plus, it gives the occasion a sense of gravity: good for flattering the interviewee or (even better) putting them on edge.

Unfortunately, I am not a natural scribe. Please believe me when I tell you it’s not through lack of trying. I spent countless hours in mild agony as my hand cramped through middle school essays. I sat, head bowed, as teachers told me my handwriting was too small; then too big; then, finally, just too terrible.

Even now, as a well-practised adult, I can’t really read my notes from six months ago (last week’s are fine, though – the cipher changes periodically).


There is something beautiful and inviting about a creamy, blank, ruled page.

A pristine notebook is like a fresh sheet of snow: novel, crisp, vibrating with possibilities.

And, like snow, once you touch it… it’s ruined.


The pen

If you’re capable of writing swiftly with a fountain pen then I applaud you. I won’t shake your hand, though, because it’s covered in ink.

Packet of bic ballpoint pens

A cheap-but-not-the-cheapest ballpoint pen is the superior writing tool.

Don’t go mad – Montblanc’s £300 scribbler is for writers who care deeply about aesthetic and aren’t prone to losing stuff. I have never met a writer that fit in both categories.

Moreover, expensive ballpoints tend to be cylindrical rather than hexagonal, which means I can’t hold them. (Yeah, I was the kid with the rubber pencil grip. What of it?)

You want the kind that come in a multipack. Blue is best, although I can see black’s charms. Bic is just fine.

The paper

Here it’s worth setting your sights a little higher. I have a fresh, slimline Moleskine jotter to hand (hot pink – not my first choice, but Waterstones marked it down by 75%. Bargain).

A cheap pad will do in a pinch, but you’ll have to reckon with the blasted thing falling apart on the train home.

Plus, writing on bad paper is an order of magnitude worse than just writing on paper. Don’t do it to yourself if you can help it.


That’s why we’re here, after all.

It’s going OK.

My first attempt clocked in at 12 words per hour, because my pen (nicked from a trade show) ran out of ink after line one. But I’m now back in the coffee shop with my shiny new Bic multipack; and my concentration is surprisingly good.

You all know those frantic scribble marks

Obviously, there aren’t any links to click or apps to open – although I do need to pick up a whole new device if I have to fact-check (all right, I didn’t have to find out how to spell László Bíró, but the point stands).

There’s also something in the idea that writing something down cements it in your head more effectively than typing it. It’s a more onerous process, for one, and the actions are more varied and deliberate.

Today’s modest success might be down to the novelty, but I’m willing to try writing something less meta; we’ll see how it goes.


I don’t mind the scribbles, arrows and asterisks. I proofread on printouts, so it’s second nature to make corrections in this way.

However, it drives me nuts that I can’t scroll back and insert a thought when it occurs to me. This process is shining a light on my writing style – I am a cut-and-sticker, a constant reshuffler.

Being made to put away the metaphorical scissors probably isn’t a bad thing, if I’m honest. Loads of ‘focus on writing’ apps prohibit editing for good reason: if you reword your intro 20 times, you ain’t churning out 5,000 words before lunchtime.

Overediting can also kill the flow of a piece, making the whole thing sound staccato. I like to think I’m good at avoiding that trap but, realistically, it’s something I should be more aware of.


Ugh, this is the worst bit. The more I write, the more I’m going to have to type up later.

Those of you with legible handwriting might recommend an OCR, but it won’t work for me. Seriously. I may as well be writing in Sumerian.

Pro tip: take pictures of your notes and have the image on-screen as you type them up. Flickering your eyes slightly to the side is way less disruptive than having to look down at the desk or your lap.


I don’t really need to sell the world on the idea of ‘paper and pen’. They’re pretty established at this point – they’ve gone through ‘legacy system’ and out the other side.

A notebook has its place. Some of my friends – mainly creative writers – swear by it. Partly this is to do with its infinite portability; partly its ingrained association with creativity; partly because of the physical connection between hand and prose.

Personally, I find my ruled pad more useful as a psychological tool than as a replacement for a text editor.

Still, I always have one on hand; if your phone dies, your laptop’s at home and you’re stuck on a train for the next two hours, you’ll probably get a good amount of writing done. As long as your pen doesn’t dry up.

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