Beethoven composed music and listened to conversations through notebooks during the last, deaf years of his life. Darwin started a scientific revolution through his field notes, diaries, and notebooks. Da Vinci recorded pretty much everything in his. And Hemingway, journalist and writer, famously said, “I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
Notebooks have been used by pretty much anyone and for pretty much everything for a long time–and you can bet they’ve evolved since the Renaissance. There’s now spiral and bound notebooks, coated and waterproofed paper, lined, dotted, or blank pages–and each innovation is suited for a certain kind of person. So, this time around, let’s talk about how to find a journal that fits you.
How to Choose a Notebook – Buying Guide
There are many, many ways to stick together a few leaves of paper. We could barely keep track of them all ourselves, so we invited the Stationery Nerd to walk us through everything.
The Stationery Nerd
When she was a little girl and it was back-to-school time, Pam was always most excited about the prospect of new pens, new notebooks, and new crayons. That love for stationery never died out. Rather, by now, she's amassed more supplies than we could ever hope to count.
She runs the Stationery Nerd blog, where she posts musings and reviews (including one on 30 different journals). You can also connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and YouTube.
・The Stationery Nerd site: https://stationerynerd.com/
Binding: When Do You Want Spirals and When Don’t You?
So, there’s two main ways leaves of paper are held together–on spiral rings or sewn and glued together. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages that seem small at first, but magnify over time.
Spiral-Bound Notebooks are Great for Jotting Down Notes outside the Home
Ring- or spiral- notebooks work well in small spaces. If you’re using a small desk, sitting on the bus, or standing by the curb, just fold over the page and flip the book over to write more. But if you stack enough spiral-bound notebooks together, the rings get caught on one another.
There’s also steno (or stenography) pads, which are small notebooks with the spiral binding along the top. Secretaries and journalists used to dictate in them, using shorthand. They were built for speed; actually, there’s a line running down the center of most steno pads, because it takes time to move your hand from the left-hand side of the page all the way to the right and back again. If you stop at the center line, you halve the distance your hand has to travel.
As for steno pads, secretaries use them a lot when they’re taking phone calls and need to write down messages. They're also often used by reporters because they can just slip the pad in their pocket, and it’s easy to write on with no desk. But I don’t see them very often in school settings; I almost always see it in association with a corporate setting or office setting.
Sewn Notebooks are Sleek, Ideal for Lining up along a Shelf, and Durable
Then, there are all the other bindings. Pages can be stapled together, glued together, or sewn together and then glued. Staple-bound notebooks are thin, light, and cheap. However, sewn notebooks are the most durable. Spiral-bound notebooks, after all, have got large perforations for the wire to loop through, and the little strips of paper left around the ring wear out over time. You don’t have that problem with threads running down the spine.
Also, staple-bound and sewn notebooks have sleek spines. If you need to carry multiple notebooks around, or you want to line your journals along a shelf, you’ll find that these can rub shoulders and not tangle the way spiral-bound does.
If you have just a glue binding, it’s easier for the pages to fall out as you open and close the notebook more often. And the notebooks don’t lie flat when you open them on the desk. Quite often, the glue binding's usually the cheap notebooks that you get in the dollar bin—and you don’t expect them to last long.
Paper: How Do You Check for Quality and Weight?
The thing about shopping online is you can’t feel the paper or rub it between your fingers–and that’s the best way to check for quality. The next best way is to learn some paper terminology.
So You Don’t See Through to the Other Side of the Page, Get Thick Paper with High GSM
First things first–gsm stands for “grams per square meter.” The higher the gsm, the denser your paper. The scale starts at around 35 gsm, which is flimsy newspaper-like stuff. Eighty gsm is average printer paper. We’d say 100 gsm is the threshold for good notebook paper (you get less ghosting, which is when you can see through the paper), while 140 gsm will give you the heft of a cheap band poster. Anything above 200 is entering card stock territory; 400 gsm is an indestructible business card.
You may also get paperweight flat-out in pounds. Your average printer paper is 20 lb. If you don’t want to see through the page, you should get something around 30 lb. But here’s a friendly tip: paperweight measurements aren’t strictly standardized, and two reams of paper that weigh the same can be wildly different in quality. If the gsm is available, know that it’s a more reliable reference.
Finally, there’s also point size. This is an actual measure of thickness–one point corresponds to 1/1000 of an inch. It’s most commonly used to talk about card stock. That’s why scale usually starts at 8 pt, which is about 175 gsm. Just so you know, 5 and a half pt is roughly equivalent to 100 gsm.
Notebooks that contain high gsm paper are not heavy because you're sacrificing pages. You give up pages to get the same size notebook that weighs about the same. To me, it’s worth the sacrifice to get better paper.
So Inky Pens Don’t Bleed or Feather, Get Coated Paper
So, then, what is coating? It’s a kind of varnish that’s put on the paper and can be used to add shine, smooth over a fibrous surface, or keep ink from soaking through paper. That’s why you want something that’s coated if you’ve got a wet pen; it’ll prevent any bleed-through or feathering.
Basically, the more heavily coated a paper is, the less ink it will absorb. (And graphite doesn’t take well to coating, so you don’t want coated paper if you use pencil.) Your writing will also take longer to dry. That’s why you want heavily coated paper only if you use fountain pens; if you have a regular ink pen, get lightly coated or half-coated paper, as it’s a lot easier to work with.
So Tomoe River paper can be like 52 gsm, but it’s got a coating—so nothing bleeds through, and nothing will feather on that paper, which is why people with fountain pens love that paper so much. But it’s very thin, so you basically only get to use one side of the paper; you can’t really write on the back side because you can see everything through it.
Paper Sizing: A5 is Standard; the Smaller A6 is More Portable
Think about how and where you’ll be using your notebook. Then think–do you want a huge thing to sketch on at home, or an itty-bitty one to fit in your purse?
Most writing, however, won’t need anything bigger than letter-sized paper (8.5 x 11.0 in) or its ISO (International Organization for Standardization) equivalent, A4 (8.3 x 11.7 in). But those notebooks aren’t exactly portable. The next size down, A5 (5.8 in x 8.3 in), can barely fit into a tote bag or a purse.
If you need to carry your notes around, you can get pocket notebooks. “Pocket” is not a standardized size, but most notebooks have the dimensions of a largish wallet. B-sizes, which fit in between the A-sizes, are also an option–they’re just a bit bigger (B4 is 9.8 in x 13.9 in).
The most common size is A5. However, I have seen a trend in the last six months or so going to A6. In fact, I'm using an A6 size right now, because I just moved into a traveler’s notebook. When I looked into it, I was like, “Oh, did everybody follow me, or did I follow everybody else?” So I think that that’s the trend—to go a little bit smaller—but I’m not sure how long that trend is going to last. But it’s interesting to see that’s the size people are gravitating to right now.
Ruling and Spacing: Do You Want Traditional Lines or Creative Grids?
Notebook paper can be lined, dotted, or even a blank slate. Then, you’ve got line spacing; in America, the most common forms are narrow or college ruled. Narrow ruled (6.4mm) is for people with tiny handwriting, or who need to fit a novel on a page. Medium, or college ruled (7.1 mm), is your run-of-the-mill, all-purpose paper. For kids, there’s wide, or legal, ruled (8.7 mm).
Then, there are books with dotted grids. Recently, bullet journals—where you write in short, quick notes and symbols—have swept over the Internet. Dotted grids notebooks, because you can connect the dots and use the page however you want, lend themselves beautifully to these. You can also draw pictures, diagrams, and graphs.
Finally, there are notebooks with no lines at all. For doodlers and artists.
And then there are some people who use lined paper. In fact, my last journal was a lined notebook that I used for bullet journaling.
Top 10 Best Notebooks to Buy Online
Well, we have to give you somewhere to start, right? Now’s when we and the Stationery Nerd weigh in with some of our favorite notebooks.
10. Five Star Spiral Notebooks (6 pack)
A Student’s Best Friend: Letter-Sized Sheets of Paper and Indestructible Covers
So it’s a little bulky–the cover measures 11 in x 9 3/4 in, and the sheets inside are letter size. But maybe it’s a good thing that the cover’s so big; it means paper edges won’t dog-ear and won’t fray, no matter how much abuse your backpack goes through. And the pages are perforated–which is crucial for people who forget to refill their binder with loose leaf paper.
And the cover is plastic (we all know that cardboard covers never make it through the school year) and waterproof (because spills happen). But, if anything, these are your cheap, typical school notebooks. The paper quality is just okay; thin-tipped gel pen is the inkiest you can get without any bleedthrough.
9. Muji Notebook A5 6mm Rule (5 pack)
Lightweight and No Frills, but the Paper is Substantial
Muji is minimalism’s poster child. This notebook is no different. The pages are light and perfectly limp. When it comes to bound notebooks, actually, you want the pages to drape; that way, they stay open without you holding them down. But even though the book’s light, the paper’s substantial. Normal ink pens are zero problem, and the pages also hold up to thin-tipped Sharpies and a Pilot G7 Gel Pens, though there’s some ghosting.
The lines are more closely pressed together than college-ruled. Each notebook contains only 30 pages–which means it won’t long to work through these books, but at least they’re also slim and lightweight.
8. Minimalism Art Notebook
Best Budget Notebook: Customizable, and the 100 gsm Pages Are Smooth
Talk about a range. From paper size (A4-A7), to colors (6 of them), to lines (rule, dotted, squared, or none at all), to the cover (hard or soft), this notebook will shapeshift for you. The paper’s soft to the touch and meets the 100 gsm threshold; black Sharpies bleed through, but felt tips seems to stay in place.
The craftsmanship isn’t bad for the most part, but we can’t vouch for the quality control. The pages sometimes detach from the spine if you open and close the book one too many times, and the texture of the paper may vary between smooth and rough, thick and thin.
7. Rite in the Rain All-Weather Top-Spiral Notebook (3 Pack)
Write on These in the Rain without a Desk
Steno pads were pretty much designed to be used outdoors–so makes sense that they should stand up to the random rain shower, right? (Rite in the Rain is also great if you live down in Louisiana, where it’s extremely humid.) These can take a beating in the laundry and go on rain forest adventures. Slight moisture beads off it, and it won’t rip even when soaked; it dries out with minimal curling and staining.
These don’t work well with super inky pens–we mean, they do repel water–so don’t even think about taking notes in gel. Ballpoint’s safe when the paper’s dry. When wet, use a pencil or one those Fisher Space pens (they’re awesome!).
6. Midori Traveler’s Notebook Journal Passport Size
You Can Fill the Book with Everything–from Lined Paper to Card Holders
Traveler’s notebooks are just covers–and you fill them with inserts. An insert can be blank or lined paper; it can be an agenda or folder; it can be a zippered pocket or card holders. Plus, Midori’s got a vocal fanbase, and you can look online for ideas on different ways to use one. (Though, we’ll warn you–Midori inserts are overpriced, if high-quality. They’re also fun to shop for; basically, Midori is a huge money sinkhole.) The leather is beautiful–any scuffs just lend it character.
But there are a few functional hiccups. There is a knot in the middle of the back cover, which you can feel as you work your way through the pages of an insert. Also, though the metal button gives the book a cool fantasy look, we’re not sure why it’s there–other than to get caught on things.
5. Leuchtturm1917 Medium Size Hardcover A5 Notebook
You Get More Pages than Normal–and Though They’re Thin, They Don’t Bleed
The Leuchtturm1917–you kind of either love it or hate it. The pages are heavily coated, so they’re smooth, and there’s beautiful glide–and you can use a fountain pen with no bleeding and no feathering. Ink does take longer to absorb, and, apparently, gel pen will still smear after you’ve left it out to dry overnight.
The pages are numbered–make of that what you will–and there are eight perforated pages in back, which people apparently use for testing out pens. There are also 249 sheets of paper in here, which is kind of a lot; this can be a good thing–you get more leaves for your money–or a bad thing–the sheets are thin enough that there’s some ghosting.
4. Moleskine Large Ruled Hard Cover Notebook
It’s a Moleskine: Silky Cover and Themed Collaborations
Have you ever touched the cover of a Moleskine? It feels like the love child and leather and silk–and if that doesn’t make you want to write, we don’t know what will. The paper is smooth; it’s lightly coated, so even something as inky as the Pilot G2 won’t bleed through (especially if you use a 0.5 or thinner). However, it will smudge if you don’t give it a minute or two to dry.
The paper is 70 gsm–so dark, wet ink may ghost and bleed a bit. We’ll be honest: Moleskine’s biggest strengths are its name, its wide selection of sizes and colors, and its various collaborations (it’s worth looking into some of the limited editions, like The Hobbit or Dr. Seuss themed notebooks).
3. Rhodia Wirebound Notebook Black Grid, Satin
Silky, Fountain Pen-Friendly Paper in a Spiral Notebook
Most spiral notebooks are the cheapy things you use for class–but Rhodia offers creamy, silky, coated paper (even their staple-bound line shares this feature). Fountain pen ink doesn’t bleed, and it doesn’t feather–but will still dry in a reasonable amount of time. Graphite will also take to the page quite well.
The odd thing is, even though the paper is divine, the covers are quite flimsy. They fray and bend, so you can’t take notes while standing. The pages are also micro-perforated, which is great if you mean to tear them out–but if you don’t mean to, then you have to be gentle with the book. Basically, the Rhodia’s great, as long as you don’t abuse it.
2. Tekukor A5 Notebook Hardcover Dot Grid
Sturdy, with a Thick Elastic Strap and 100 GSM Pages
This is the notebook the Stationery Nerd has named her favorite–for now, at least. It’s got only 192 pages, but what that means is the pages are thick, and there’s no ghosting to speak of. No feathering or bleeding either (thank you, 100 gsm), while we’re on that topic. And the book is numbered.
The notebook has other small things going for it. The elastic strap’s about twice as thick as average–what that means for you is it stays tighter for longer. It has three bookmarks. It holds up reasonably as well; however, if you abuse it enough, the glue may crack, causing the threaded pages to separate from the spine.
1. Dingbats Wildlife Medium A5+ Hardcover Notebook
Sewn Notebook with Silky, Creamy, Micro-Perforated Pages
Very few sewn notebooks have perforated pages. Actually, when it comes to sewn notebooks, the pages are added in as pairs–so take one out, and its buddy will fall out on its own soon enough. But people screw up when writing and want to tear out their mistakes, or need to pass along notes, or something–and at times like these, perforation starts looking real attractive.
Dingbats was tagged by the Stationery Nerd as one of the few sewn notebooks where you can tear any page out without compromising the binding. The paper’s 100 gsm and silky–gel will smudge if you don’t leave enough time to dry, but that means no bleeding or feathering. Even with fountain pens. Ghosting is there, but negligible.
When it comes down to it, there’s no “best” notebook; everything’s a mixture of personal needs and personal preferences. You may need perforation; you may not. You may use fountain pens and want coating; you may use pencils and not want it. But the point is, if you look hard enough, you’ll find something that answers to you.
We’ve organized notebook features into neat little categories for you; we’ve shown you some of our and the Stationery Nerd’s favorites. All that’s left is for you to find your favorite. Happy journaling!