The two-colored-pen solution

Write with one color pen, then come back to highlight, review and doodle in another to get the most out of your notebooks.

I use my notebooks for both personal writing and productivity. I use them for everything, really: I fill them with little snippets and lines, insights and commonplace quotes, lists, longform, words, for clarifying my thoughts, for keeping myself company.

I often catch myself journaling rather than doing the harder, more concentrated form of writing that finished, published works demand, and that I set out to do in the notebooks. Or the tasks and dependencies that I need to track in order to make progress, whether that’s at work or in my personal life.

And this is where the problem with notebooks is. My notebooks are everything-notebooks. This means that I can’t and don’t review them enough. I don’t go back to them. They’re “write-only.”

When I do visit my old entries I can often literally not read what I’ve written days before, since my handwriting is so bad. Or I read the words on the page but they are dead to me, either the spirit of them, the thing that caused me to want to write them, their meaning, or the personal obligations therein. But why would I need to call Bob about another yard sign, I think to myself, or spend “at least 5 minutes upside down with heart below legs”.  Who’s Bob?

Notebooks get valuable when you review them. We need review in our lives. Of our written works and everything. But how do we do that, when the words and the spirit in the notebooks are dead? Deader than things you read off the printer tray, even. Double-dead because you can see that they are your words and your obligations to self, but you can’t even recognize that self.

For me, one answer has emerged. It’s a thing I do to enliven my words, to re-participate in them. During the reading and not just the writing. I use a second color pen in my notebooks as part of a regular review process. Once a week, every few days. It gets me back into the spirit in which these words were written, into the things I thought were important. It helps me highlight and process, and pulls me back in in a way that has genuinely put my own best self back in front of me.

Interactive review on the cheap!

Two colored pens. For me it’s often black and then red. But not always. I write with my Pilot Precise V5 pen in a dotted graph hardcover journal, and I review and doodle in red, or in teal or some other very different color

The two-colored-pen review:

  1. Highlights, of course. Reminds me.
  2. Categorizes or calls out things in an area, like music or personal health, for grouping and scanning
  3. Doodles, just to light the page up again, to touch the written word, mark the trail. Makes it more fun to review a third time, or a fourth
  4. Provides status, like with little red checks that show progress

The hand-written word, as much as I’ve cherished it, as much of my life as I’ve given to it, is fading for me. I sense it may be fading for all of us. Fading in the blue glare of screens and scrolls, videos and loops and epic fails. And yet I don’t want to delegate all my writing and tracking to the screen. I believe in the pleasures and advantages of handwriting. And so this way to make the notebook more interactive but not more screen-like, to put more value into it by valuing it with review, has been a really big one for me.

This little habit has helped me connect the circuit of writing and reading again, and has made my notebooks more productive as sourcebooks for inspiration, organization, concrete writerly progress or durable clarity.

2 thoughts on “The two-colored-pen solution

  1. Michelle Corbin

    I subscribed to ScribeDelivery, a subscription “box” that includes notebooks/journals and writing instruments of all types. I love it so much. Now, I actually keep 4 different journals, instead of an everything journal/notebook. I have reviewed past entries, but I think I will use your two color review process, and I will start to leave lines and space for this review going forward.


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