Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bullet Journal for a Writer

Sujata Massey

Every December and January, calendars are on my agenda.

I'm drawn to paper calendars of every type, whether they are freebies from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works or Japanese ones from art museums. However, book-sized planners that fit into my handbag are the Holy Grail.

I've a history of buying personal diaries. For most of my adult life, I've used (and never thrown out) a motley series of  faux-leather planners containing my appointments, necessary phone numbers, and shopping lists. These little books make sense. When traveling, there's no easier way to keep track of necessary phone numbers and appointments.

The emotional power of the agenda book is beautifully described in Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. Mrs. Miniver, a suburban mother living in 1930s England, has traveled into London for shopping. She buys a practical brown calfskin diary costing three shillings nine-pence, although she prefers the look of a green lizard-skin diary marked at seven-and-sixpence.

After leaving the stationer  (most likely Smythson's) Mrs. Miniver regrets her frugality and jumps off the bus to make a return.

"She walked back to Sloane Square as fast as she could. At this very moment, perhaps, the green lizard-skin diary was being bought by somebody else--some wholly unsuitable person who merely wanted to get one in a hurry: a rich, earnest woman who would fill it with committee meetings, or a business man who would not even glance at the binding when he opened it to jot down the words "Dine George." While she herself, with all her dearest activities soberly confined in brown calf, would be thinking about it in an agony of regret."

2017 Smythson calf-skin Cosmic Agenda ($500!)

Ouch, those Smythson agendas are expensive today! Even more than the famed Filofaxes that people loved in 90s before the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry were released. You would have thought with those sexy new toys, then that the handwritten agenda book would die off.

It did not.

Pictured above is a handful of the drugstore and giftshop agenda books I've used over the last few years. You might wonder why I don't throw them away. The answer is that they are chock-full of phone numbers of old friends I might one day wish to call. One never knows when one will be in Yokohama or New Delhi or Minneapolis!

My husband has mentioned we share a free, easy to use calendar that we can synch to better handle our lives. Naturally, he's speaking of the iPhone's calendar app. In the interest of marital harmony, I  began scheduling events on the phone. While the iPhone Calendar makes a lot of sense for a person on the go, I've noticed some appointments inexplicably disappear--and also, how really stupid events from Facebook get pushed into my calendar.

These tech problems can be sorted out, but it's a pain. While in Mumbai, I listed a few appointments happening later on in Baltimore. Because of its too-clever reliance on Greenwich Mean Time, the IPhone registered the events--including carpool pickups!--during the middle of the night.

Given the measly space an iPhone calendar allows, one cannot include a shopping list, a book title,  a friend's phone number, and a to-do list. It's all too easy to hit the wrong numbers when you're touch-screening and record a useless E-ticket number.

This is why paper and pen still rule. became an international phenomenon 

I'm not alone in my feelings. This past December, I began hearing the phrase "Bullet Journal" while listening to podcasts. People were suggesting these so-called bullet journals were a way for people to handcraft their own social diaries and take control of their lives in an easier way than with technology.

Ryder Carroll, a young graphic designer in New York, adopted a plan of converting a simple notebook into a handwritten daily calendar for himself which would feature elements like a future log of upcoming activities, a week at a glance, and to-do lists for each day. A round bullet next to each line is either Xed when the project is completed, or given an arrow to push it onto a future day's list. It is truly as simple as it sounds. You can use any notebook in the world, any kind of pen, although Ryder sells products through his website (and bullet journal is a trademarked word).

Here is an example of how Ryder Carroll "rapid logs" his day:

for the complete getting started guide, go to

Other creatives and organizers have combined the adult hobby of coloring and doodling to push their bullet journals to new highs. Boho Berry and Tiny Ray of Sunshine are two very popular bloggers who have inspired followers to designate pages in their journal related to gratitude, affirmations, quarterly goals, and so on. They help people with handwriting practice, so the bullet journals are beautiful to read, rather than inscrutable (a concern for me).

you can visit for templates and guidance

Journalers (I cannot call them journalists with a straight face) also share tips on what to use. The best are notebooks with archival, acid-free pages that don't show bleed-through from pens, and the very best fine-tipped markers to use. Still, the most popular notebooks are many times cheaper than a formatted Filofax or Smythson. For example, a rule-lined Moleskine notebook in the 8x5-inch size runs $US 18-20, and a dotted-paged Leuchtturm rings in at $US 20-33. All of the top books are hardcover and have an elastic string to keep them from falling open and becoming as destroyed as the agendas I've treasured.

This fun article from The Guardian is a smack-down comparison between the UK's beloved Moleskine and Germany's Leuchtturm (the name means 'Beacon' or 'Lighthouse. ).

I couldn't decide which was going to suit me better, so I bought both!

I'll wager a lot of writers are already keeping notebooks related to their work. But this is the first time I've merged my writing plans with daily life. And it's GREAT.

The bullet journal is perfect for feeding the muse. You can set up pages titled "brain dump" and collect all sorts of random ideas for your book in progress. You might make another collection page all about the steps needed to publish and promote a book. You can create a habit tracker page that charts how many hours you worked, how many words you wrote, whether you checked in on social media, did your research reading, and remembered to take a walk.

For someone who processes information better on paper than any other way--as a lot of us writers do-- such journals are a godsend. And  for the rest of the world, research is showing that if you write something down on paper, it may be retained longer in your brain.

I am thrilled with my brilliant purple Leuchtturm diary. Its dotted paper pages make drawing boxes easier. I like the three-page index in the front and the numbers at the bottom of every page.  I'm regularly listing my appointments--and putting some things on the iPhone, still, if they involve the rest of the family.

There's so much in the Leuchtturm, though, that would only be of interest to me. I've created a monthly tracker where I mark off the good habits I'm trying to maintain. I have a page of quarterly writing goals, and another section where I am sticking in post-it notes with blog ideas (I use post-it notes so I can move the ideas around for different weeks as the fancy strikes). I'm not a graphic designer or artist, but I'm now the owner of a set of the popular British felt tip pens (Staedler), some gorgeous metallic Uniball gel pens, and ten rolls of colorful washi tape that can border pages and cover mistakes.

Some of the more reflective parts of the journal are a summary of writing-related milestones of 2016and how I can use this information to be a better writer in 2017. I also have a growing list of writing commandments to view every morning before I start on my book.

Here are the writing commandments so far:

Bodies speak as loudly as words.

What's missing in the scene? Animals, people on the street, cracks in the walls, smells of fire, flowers, etc.

Don't explain too much in literal terms.

The sentence can be hard. Walk away and come back to it, if you can't think of the right words immediately.

Remember to chart time writing.


  1. I used to collect Filofaxes! :-)

  2. Oh Sujata, some people lust after expensive shoes or jewellery. My greed level goes over the top at the sight of a good stationery store. I now keep my appointments in my phone, but all my research notes are written with a fountain pen in beautiful notebooks. The act of writing in them inspires all sorts of ideas. I have a lovely old Filofax, its leather softened by daily handling, where--using the address book tabs--I keep my list of characters that have appeared in my African series, with their vital statistics, which book introduces them, etc. etc. Everybody in the series who has a name gets an entry. Now that you have told me about the tools you are using, I know I will not be able to resist checking them out. And acquire an excess of irresistible materials.

  3. I've been a stationary junkie for as long as I can remember. Back-to-school is like the Super Bowl for me as I end up getting just as many, if not more, stationary as my kids. Is this bullet Journaling something new though? Or has Journaling made a comeback? I've always done this and perhaps naively thought everyone else does too.

  4. Ha! Leye, I should have tried Filofax but I wasn't emotionally ready at that point.
    Annamaria, I am not surprised to hear about your secret life of journals!

  5. Bullet journaling is maybe 3 years old...though journaling has been going on forever. the "bullet" focus means you don't have to write as much out and in these times, that's what many people prefer.

  6. What a mind-bending post. And here I thought I was alone in the wilderness relying as heavily as I do on the box-ruled mini-Moleskine I carry everywhere in my back pocket (mini, as in it's softcover and 1/3 the size of the "official" Moleskine)! It is in no way organized as a bullet journal, because, frankly, I no longer have the patience to every month recopy the pages and lists. Instead, I just search for what I need where I think it will be--sort of like the organization of my desktop.

    Which reminds me. I was once told by a mentor in the law, that if you want to be truly free you must learn to run your life out of your pocket from anywhere in the world. Thus began my love affair with a series of business pocket journals called, DAYTIMERS. They covered precisely what you describe today's Bullet journals as doing, though the version I chose had a separate book for each month that fit nicely into a pocket-size leather case. Each year, I'd subscribe for the next year's set and spend a lot of time deciding what sort of leather cover I'd like to treat myself to for the coming year.

    Sadly, with the entry of the Palm I waved good bye to trusty Daytimer, never to look back. But still I find myself longing for its month-at-a-glance single page function that I can't find in a comparable form amid all the apps out there. I miss it so.... sniff, sniff.

    Thank you, Sujata, for reminding me of a long lost love.

  7. I too am a sucker for notebooks, Sujata. I work with one all the time, both for domestic and work lists and notes and numbers. I call it using my neck-top computer, and claim I am saving up for an iBrain ...

    1. There's a blonde joke in here somewhere...go for it EvKa, I'm not brave enough. :)

    2. Trust me, Jeff, I have heard most of them. Remind me next time we meet to tell you the joke about the female brain cell who finds herself inside a man's head ...

    3. I sense if she's looking for a bridge partner she'll have to choose her head wisely.

  8. Love this! Fellow stationary addict here. I think the page numbering and indexing pages may be the most exciting thing I've heard of in a long time (seriously). Love being able to categorize. Can I ask what is and where can I find washi tape???

  9. Bodies speak as loudly as words - I'll take that as today's commandment too, if I may. Lovely nod to notebooks and their latest has Oscar Wilde's pic on the cover and if there's an inspiration wordsmith...

  10. Ah, you are a woman after my own heart, waxing poetical about notebooks and journalling methods (especially the bit about " I bought both." :^)

  11. I have a serious addiction. Not drugs or shoes. Notebooks. I have bookcases of them that I adore. Empty ones, full ones, half chewed by puppies ones and one damp 'cause the cat was sick on it yesterday. Those and my fountain pen filled with blood red ink. TK Maxx does Moleskin notebooks at a third of the normal price. I have been known to bulk buy.

  12. Okay, so that's seven out of ten of us admitting this predeliction. Michael, Stan, Susan, care to fess up? I hope one day we will all be in the same place. London would be a fair meeting point perhaps. I'll bring nine notebooks as gifts for all. Don't worry, I will have acquired one for myself.