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How to Choose the Best Notebook for Journaling

by Jacki Andre May 28, 2018

How to Choose the Best Notebook for Journaling

Last week, I wrote a blog about  how to start journaling. While researching and writing that piece, I was hit with some major inspo (a.k.a. “journal envy”).

I decided to meet that green-eyed monster head on, and I did so in the most logical place possible: the aisles of my nearest craft shop. (Hey, I didn’t say I was going to SLAY that monster. I said I was going to meet up with her.)

Did I have a plan? No, I did not. All I had was envy. And the goal to create the prettiest journal anyone ever did see.

Without any structure or vision in mind, I was unsure what kind of supplies to buy. I did know that I wanted a new journal, for a fresh start. But shopping for a new journal is akin to being a kid in a candy store. Everything is so bright and pretty! So many options! Casebound vs spiral. Hardcover vs soft. Dots vs lines. Letter-sized vs pocket-sized. White pages vs ivory. Heavy paper vs thin. One ribbon page marker vs two. And, oh my gosh! Which inspirational cover quote or design?

Is your head spinning yet?

Well, sadly, we can’t buy them all. (Unless you win the lottery. Which I totally intend to do.) And so, I chose two spiral-bound A4 notebooks, with lined pages. I liked their sturdy cardboard covers and I thought that the perforated pages might be a good idea. I’m pretty sure I’ll be inserting ephemera in my journals. Being able to easily remove pages to make more space is the bee’s knees. I also thought the larger size would be better suited to gluing in ephemera and photos.

Doing research for this week’s blog, I’ve come to realize that these may end up working wonderfully for me, or they may not. I wish I had known to consider paper weight. I wonder if it would have been smarter to buy a casebound journal so that I could create double-page spreads. And maybe buying a journal with dotted pages would have been a nice change.

Now, you can and SHOULD journal with whatever supplies you have (or can afford to buy). If you’re like me, and you already have a journal without a clear vision in mind, that is fine. There are things you can do to make it work if it's not quite perfect. That said, if you start out with a well-suited journal that you love, it’s more likely that you’ll actually use it.

So: don’t be like me. Do your research FIRST and THEN your shopping. I’ve made it easy for you, by compiling all the things I should have thought about before jumping in.

How Do You Journal?

What you put in your journal is one part of this equation; the other part is the physical act of journaling. Here are some things to think about:

  • What will you put in your journal?
    • Will you keep a basic writing journal? Will you glue things in? Do you want pockets or envelopes for loose ephemera?
  • What mediums will you use in your journal?
    • Options include ballpoint pens, fountain pens, pencils, pastels, markers, and paints. You may also use things like gesso or matte medium.
  • Will blank pages be best, or would pages with lines, dots, or grids be a better choice?
  • Where do you journal?
    • If you hold your journal in your lap while working on it, you may prefer a sturdy hardcover for stability. But if you work at a table or desk, that surface will provide all the support you need.
  • Do you carry your journal with you?
    • If you need a portable journal, consider things like size and weight, as well as durability.
  • Is it important that your journal lie flat? Does it matter that you can’t create double-page spreads in a spiral-bound journal?

Paper

The best place to start is with paper. It’s easier to look for a journal that has the paper you need in it, rather than get your heart set on a particular journal style or brand only to find out that it doesn’t have the right kind of paper inside.

In almost all cases, heavier paper is the better choice. Heavier paper works particularly well for art journals, especially when using paint, gesso, or matte medium. But heavier paper can also minimize problems in writing journals, such as bleed (color showing through to the other side of the page) and ghosting (the indentations left on blank pages by pressing down with a pen or pencil).

That said, there are a few exceptions. Heavier paper isn’t the best choice if you intend to use a fountain pen. Ink from fountain pens will often “feather” or bleed on heavier paper. If you intend to write with a fountain pen, look for journals that are designed for that kind of use.

As well, a journal full of heavy paper makes it difficult to add bulk with collages or embellishments. (Although that’s easily resolved by removing some sheets.)

If you realize that your existing journal pages are too light, there are a few easy cheats. The most obvious workaround is to create your art or spreads separately and then insert them into your journal. The other option, as Kristal Norton explains in her blog is to glue two pages together and then apply gesso to prevent wrinkling.

Blank, Lines, Dots, and Grids

Choices about paper also come into play when choosing between blank, ruled, dotted, or gridded pages. Sometimes the choice seems obvious. Most people would choose a lined journal for a basic personal diary. But some artists (like Kristal Norton, above) actually prefer lined composition notebooks for art journals, which surprised me.

Pages that are marked with dots or grids make it easy to be creative with your journal spreads and can also help with lettering. If you’re not familiar with how to use dotted or gridded pages in journals, there are lots of places to check online for ideas. For example,  Miss McKenna’s Life Leverage channel on youtube is jam-packed with ideas, inspiration, and tutorials.

Binding

Journals are typically either casebound (having a stitched and/or glued spine like a hardcover book), spiral-bound (including binder-style), or stapled together. There are pros and cons to each type of binding. The choice often comes down to personal preference.

Casebound journals make it easy to design double-page spreads. If they are held together by stitching, or by a combination of stitching and glue, they lie open flat. These journals are also more durable than other types. Casebound journals that are simply glued together may fall apart over time as the glue crumbles, or as the glue gets damaged by paints or other wet mediums. Staples can become loose or fall out, and it’s easy to rip pages out of spiral-bound journals.

That said, spiral-bound journals do have their pros. They lie flat and can be folded in half to make handling easier. If the “spiral binding” happens to be binder-style, that has the obvious advantage of being able to easily add, remove, and move pages.

Staples tend to be used only for small, light (and cheap) journals, such as pocket notebooks. Be aware that stapled journals have a shorter lifespan than others.

Cover

Dear sparkly unicorn friends: I’m sure I don’t have to point out the obvious differences between hard and soft cover notebooks. But, let me throw one more choice into the ring: the refillable leather cover.

A leather cover may simply work as a way to protect your softcover journal and give it some personality. But there are other options too, like the “Traveller’s Notebook” system, which is  reviewed at buzzfeed.com. A Traveller’s Notebook is actually just a leather cover. But that cover is designed to hold multiple small soft-cover notebooks, and each can be customized in any way your heart desires. Multiple journals housed in one beautiful cover = all kinds of YASSSS.

Size

Journals come in all kinds of sizes. Go back to thinking about what you’ll be using your journal for, and how. If you want to carry your journal with you at all times, an A4 (letter size) is probably not a good bet, but an A7 (roughly 3” x 4”) would be too small for an art journal.

Most bloggers agree that it's best to start with an A5--the half letter size, which is roughly 5.5” x 8.5”. Big enough to do art in but small enough to be portable, it’s an ideal size. And then pack that gorgeous new A5 book with all the features that work best for you: be it a hard or softcover; stitched or spiral binding; blank pages or ruled/dotted/gridded; and the best paper weight for your purposes. 

Go forth, sparkly unicorn friends, and find your dream journal. It’s out there.

Photo credit: Matt Ragland on Unsplash

Jacki Andre
Jacki Andre

Jacki Andre has been journaling for over 30 years and still has her jam-packed Judy Blume Diary to prove it. Somewhere along the way, she started writing for reals, and is now a published author and Huffington Post blogger. In her spare time, Jacki supports dog rescue, advocates for disability rights, and educates other drivers via hand gestures about the importance of using turn signals. She keeps in shape by chasing joy (and her ‘80s teen idols) in earnest.


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