This article, written by Patricia Burroughs is from the May 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership

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“It’s for writing something down. Then doing something about it.”
—Merlin Mann

In 2004, American writer, blogger, and podcaster Merlin Mann decided that the Blackberries and PDAs so many people lived with 24/7 were harder to use than a simple stack of index cards clipped together with important info on them — a way to write stuff down so that later you could do something about it. For him, it was just easier to whip out the index cards and scrawl on them rather than deal with the PDA. Oh, and he called this the hPDA — the hipster PDA. His explanation, bottom line, of the hPDA: It’s for writing something down. Then doing something about it.

Despite the size of his audience, this suggestion did not kill the electronics business or even put a dent in the PDA market. In fact, most people didn’t ditch their PDAs. But some thought he was on to something: a pen and something small and portable to write on was simply faster and easier.

Now, some 16 years of tech-explosion later, there are more people using paper than there were before. In fact, AP News even featured a story about this “digital detox” in January.

Which brings up one simple question: Why paper? (By the way, if the idea of using a paper planner has no appeal for you at all, time for you to bail on this article. Just saying.)

Benefits of paper planners

  • You don’t just plan your future, but you also have a diary-like record of your past, which can come in handy. Most importantly, the time you spend with paper and pen helps you get the most out of the present because you are able to bring together differing demands on your time and resources before they are on top of you. You can create a schedule or set aside specific days for specific tasks. Once you’ve done this, your tension will ease because instead of carrying around the stress of All the Things, you can focus on what is in front of you, knowing that you will be addressing the other needs on Thursday, or next month. Sometimes you even recognize that you can’t do everything and that it’s time to be more realistic about priorities and the demands you’re making of yourself.
  • Studies show that the physical act of writing instead of typing engages your whole brain, resulting in deeper comprehension, increased focus, and unleashed creativity. This effect can be strengthened by enhancing your planning time with a scented candle or music that calms or energizes you. And whatever else you do, don’t forget to take a few deep cleansing breaths before you begin!
  • The act of transforming thought through hand and pen and onto the page, watching the words appear, is textural, sensual, and an act of creation. Some have even compared handwriting to sigil magic, where the act of putting an intention in writing gives it more power. (Sigil magic, however, involves symbols rather than text.)
  • Paper planners don’t provide the temptations and distractions digital ones do, since almost anything you use digitally also has social media, email, internet access, etc.
  • There’s just something intensely satisfying in lining through a task when it’s completed or giving yourself a gold star as a reward!

But with so many options to choose from, where do you begin? Follow your gut.

Choose tools that make you want to use them

The number one thing you should look for in a planner is that makes you want to pick it up. Choose a planner that makes you want to open it, one that pleases you. This simple yet vital aspect will make the difference in how much you use it. And the more you use it, the more you’ll want to use it.

By the way, the same goes for the instruments you plan with.

If writing in purple ink means you enjoy looking at your planner more than if it’s a totally business-like grid, don’t second guess yourself. Buy a pen with purple ink. A fountain pen, if that’s what you want. Or the sharpest pencil you can sharpen — an entire tin can full of them — if that’s what floats your boat. Ballpoint pens or gel pens or an 18th century dip pen — never underestimate the motivating power of loving your tools.

How do you want to use your planner?

From bullet journals to to-do lists and daily calendars, there are as many ways of using your planner as there are people. When considering which planner to buy, ask yourself:

  • Do you want something you can carry with you everywhere? A desk-sized planner that stays open beside you on your desk all day? Both?
  • Is it specifically for your writing business and projects, or do you want to keep all your life’s appointments and organizing under the same cover with your writing?
  • Do you want a planner that helps you set goals and work toward them or a business planner that is primarily for schedules and organizing?
  • Do you want a daily, weekly, or monthly planner?
  • Do you want to have room to doodle, sketch, or decorate in the margins?
  • Do you want a planner that is decorative right out of the box?

If all these questions make you dizzy, you can narrow down your choices by surfing websites and watching videos. Some planners will excite you and make you want to try them. Others may overwhelm or bore you. But either way, you’ll begin to see which aspects you love and which ones mean nothing to you. Jot down the terms for things you like so you’ll be able to find them when you get ready to do your serious planner shopping.

The great news is that you can find just about any type of planner you want available for all budgets.

Want to DIY it?

Videos and websites, like the one linked in the subhead above, will provide many ideas for creating the system that is perfect for you.

You can easily customize loose leaf binders or discbound systems. Even if you buy a complete planning system kit, you may decide you would prefer your sections to be in a different order, or you may want to leave some out, or create sections that are specific to your project.

Bullet journals [aka bujos] are the ultimate DIY, a spiritual descendant of the hPDA, in that instead of bulging with everything you might ever need, these small pocket-sized notebooks will only contain what you think is important.

And don’t forget the printables! Whether from Etsy or planning blogs, an array of printable planning pages are available, many specific to the business and creative sides of writing. Many are free, though you’ll often have to sign up for a newsletter to get them. Print out the type you’re drawn to for a test drive. Once you see what you like the best, you’ll shop with more confidence and knowledge.

To decorate or not to decorate

Many writers will know if they want to decorate or not. If you wonder if decorating is frivolous, the answer is an emphatic no!

The time spent setting up the week with stickers, washi tape, or stamp-art is an activity that slows us down, releases tension, and allows the brain to work in the background. Doing one creative thing can stimulate your writing. If you’re artistic you may want to use watercolor pens and markers to create your own designs. But those of us who aren’t artistic can get just as much a creative satisfaction by choosing colors, stickers, tapes, and themes for the day, week, or month.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re in love with an expensive binder and system available online, check out Walmart, Target, or any discount store near you. You’re likely to find one similar enough to take for a test run to see if it’s working for you. Then invest in the more expensive brand.

Before I invested in my first Franklin Planner back in the early 1990s, I bought their one-month trial. I loved it so much that not only did I dive into the complete system, I also bought one to use for each trip I took overseas for research. It was an amazing organizer and I also treasure it for the running commentary and notes I jotted down.

One last tip

Don’t get overwhelmed by All The Things!

Isolate one thing, The Thing. The Thing that is the one overwhelming you, or The Thing that seems the easiest place to begin. Start there.

Whether you end up using a broad-strokes system with a few lists and schedules or a detailed system that holds all your needs in one place — planners work.

Finally, remember the first rule of planners: You’re the boss of the planner. It works for you.

You end up building trust and faith in yourself. You’re telling your brain, “We got this.”

And you do.


Pooks (a.k.a. Patricia Burroughs) is a novelist, screenwriter, occasional short story writer, and short story anthology editor. She is also an Academy Fellow, having received the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting (awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences). She and her high school sweetheart husband (a.k.a. The Resident Storm Chaser) are living happily ever after in Dallas. She loves Pratchett, Aaronovitch, Dunnett, and Heyer and is unable to contain herself within a single genre.