October is not only about the joys of cozy sweaters and trying out new hot chocolate recipes, it is also all about pre-NaNo-ing, NaNo Prep.
Preptober, as some call it, even.
Now that I’m out of school, I can devote myself to NaNoWriMo completely for the first time in several years, and this year, it’s combined with my more recent obsession: Studyblr and bullet journaling.
This whole movement is so completely in my wheelhouse. I love clutter… to a point, as much as I love organizing… to a point. I am obsessed with office supplies and notebooks. I am a hardcore planner, not a pantser. Especially, as anyone who’s spent any time here knows, I love a bullet-point list.
Bullet journaling seems to be a love/hate thing in popular consciousness. For all the people cooing over being inspired and motivated by the beautiful handwriting, the neat indexes and keys, there are just as many disparaging it… some legitimately, some just out of pure assholishness. “That looks like a waste of time.” “This is super complicated!” “WHAT IS WITH ALL THE TERMINOLOGY?!”
I kinda thought that, too, when I first saw pages of spreads and collections. They were lovely, but… but what was the point of all that work?
Darlings, I soon found out.
Link: Bullet Journal Guide from Tiny Ray of Sunshine*
Link: Bullet Journal Hacks from Boho Berry*
(*Two of the best sites out there for bullet journaling.)
I went deep into the rabbit hole of bullet journaling and Studyblr concurrently last year… interestingly enough, post-election. While I was completely broken down from the horrors of everything we’d lost and everything that had happened, I spent a lot of time huddled in bed, trying to find distractions. I couldn’t function, so I rewatched all of Big Bang Theory three times in a row… yes, the whole series. I reread childhood literary favorites. I tried Tumblrs about cute kittens, silly movie quizzes, feel-good stories, tips for how to organize your closet-
Wait. There are all these lists of study tips, with absolutely stunning handwriting, enviable notebooks, all in soft, blissed-out colors. It’s, like, a major thing on social media.
Link: Aw, Yessssss!
I spent hours, days, clicking links. Pages of notes that looked like art. Spencerian penmanship. Rose gold and millennial pink everything, with touches of cozy gray. Photo effects and composition on a snapshot of that day’s cup of tea that was so stunning I’d print and frame it. Books, piles of them. No angry outbursts or shame, no fighting. Just support, enthusiasm, kindness, joy, ambition, passion.
The organization and beauty of it all gave me a sense of peace.
The “OMG, this is such privileged white girl shit” made my head churn with questions.
The “Ugh, get a life you dumb bitches” crap aimed at the people involved in this—mostly high school and college aged young women—made me feminist rage.
It’s hard to say if bullet journals are a subset of Studyblrs and Studygrams, or vice versa, or if they should be understood as two separate and yet forever interrelated things.
Bullet journals are intimidating… and in some cases (especially financially, but also time-wise) feel inaccessible as well. Look at all of those beautiful (expensive) notebooks, filled with gorgeous handwriting (that must’ve taken months, years, of practice!), decorated with artistic (time consuming) drawings and watercolors, accented with swatches of washi tape and unusual shades of highlighters (where do they get this stuff and how much does it cost?!).
The whole set-up and lingo around it is intimidating right from the beginning.
I mean, I am a pretentious twat for sure, but even I blinked at its slogan, “The Analog System for the Digital Age.”
After reading the site’s introductory guidelines and terms, I was even more annoyed. It reminded me of French Poststructural literary theorists, using the most loaded, even arcane, language possible to make things sound more important. To intimidate. To alienate. So BuJo’s secret language of all the things I didn’t understand, like “language of rapid logging” and “task migration” and “spreads” and “threading” AND FOR GOD’S SAKE, EVEN “SIGNIFIERS” LIKE THIS IS A DISCUSSION OF SEMIOTICS, felt just as alienating. Why not just call it a “list,” right? We all know what a list is, after all! Why insist on this “system” of terms?!
(There is a great deal of fun in being fancy, obscure, and twatty sometimes, but I’ll get back to that.)
The journals’ contents are even more intimidating, with multi-colored charts tracking water intake, TV shows watched, meditations, watercolors of inspirational sayings, each task detailed with a bright, clever drawing. It was all so… so…
Was this hyper-organization? A secret code? A GOOPy Paltrow-like cult? Was it some zen-like life management, or was it going to cause even more stress and insecurity as I strove for the perfection of those stunning page layouts?
Are those… literally lists of lists, for god’s sake?! I mean, even I, a listophile to the core, couldn’t figure out why lists of lists of lists was supposed to help with anything but creating more work and stress. Right?
Link: My Planning Routine
Link: Show Me Your Planner
Link: Raspberry Rose’s Journal
The biggest issue with bullet journaling for me, though, was the same as with Studyblr culture in general:
I have shitty handwriting.
I can’t draw. Even my stick figures all inadvertently turn out to be well-endowed men.
I do not have the time or inclination to spend hours a day perfecting my handwriting with practice templates.
My journaling, while enthusiastic, is not pretty. It is not “Instagrammable.” It’s scribbly and messy and often legible only to me. I’m not the only writer with these concerns; in an online gab about bullet journaling, fellow writer Tamara Lush posted “I *wish* my planner could look that lovely and tidy. Mine seriously looks like a deranged five-year-old got their hands on a glue stick and some tape.” That pretty much sums it up.
Link: Managing Recurring Tasks
But. Know what?
You don’t have to do any of it.
That was the lightening bolt for me: It may look culty, but you don’t have to join the cult at all. Or you can. Whichever. You can adapt. You can bend, twist, redefine, reform. A bullet journal should, needs to, work for your needs. Those logs for sleep and water and calories might be great for someone with health issues, or who is using their journal for weight loss. The futures log techniques might work with someone who is dealing with severe organizational lacks, or is trying not to procrastinate. But you don’t have to do that.
I want my journal to be about my writing and academic work, period. I do not want grocery lists in there. I do not want exercise goals or budgets. My To Do lists are all writing- and academia-related. This journal for me to keep my projects organized and all in one place, since they tend to inform each other.
My journal is about me the writer, the scholar, and that is important.
Yes, you can make bullet journaling whatever you want to be. That is the point. You can turn it into a writing journal exclusively. Or just about one writing project in particular. Or a Traveler’s Notebook. You can use if for home renovation or all about makeup and fashion or to keep track of global seismic activity and weather patterns or for concerts and shows you’ve attended. You can use it for deep, personal, psychological work and mental healing. Anything.
You don’t even have to call it a “bullet journal” with all its implications. If it makes you feel less intimidated, call it something else. Call it a writer’s notebook. A planner. A Book of Secrets. Lists for How to Take Over the World. The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection.
Set it up as a practice run.
This was the biggest practical thing for me, and I’d argue it made my bullet journaling successful: I’m doing a “Trial Bullet Journal” as an experiment. I wanted to try things out, but I hesitated for many weeks because I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, and I didn’t want to mess up an expensive notebook and-
No. Don’t commit right away to the twenty-five buck notebook from the official site, or the cult favorite, a Leuchtturm 1917 dotted classic with the pristine cover (and extra pen-holder loop). Don’t end up frustrated with messed-up pages as you figure out how you want to design your key or when you got your index out of order from the get-go. Don’t end up with a fancy, expensive notebook with three marked up pages that then sits on your desk, mocking you, judging you.
Start with a decent notebook, but one that gives you the guilt-free freedom to play, to try, to mess up. And just try shit out.
A few words on notebooks before we continue: the slavish, cultish devotion to and analysis of notebooks was and is one of my favorite elements of the whole Studyblr/bullet journaling thing. I’ve been a notebook and blank book addict for decades anyway, and this validated the stash in the bottom drawer of my desk. I dug out a cool notebook that I’d been wanting to find a use for, and turned that into my Trial Run Journal. Ta da!
(That said, I wouldn’t recommend these Decomposition Books in general for this kind of work. There is a lot of ink bleed-through on the pages. And don’t think I won’t do a separate post on notebooks, pens, and other supplies in the near future.)
You can find all sorts of comprehensive guides to picking out notebooks for your bullet journal, but in my own experience, I’ve found for journaling in general, and especially for bullet journaling, there are a few key factors:
- No spiral notebooks. They fall apart, get tangled in things, and the pages can tear away after too much use.
- Don’t get a notebook or blank book that is too heavy. I discovered the hard way that those gorgeous journals that look like old, embossed leather books add a lot of weight to one’s bag. Even the smaller ones. Ow.
- Careful with decorating the outside, because it will get beat up. You may want to personalize your notebook with stickers or flowers or bows and things, but the point of a bullet journal is to be able to carry it around with you.
Bullet journalers are usually fans of dot or grid pages. OTOH, I’ve been a fan of lined pages for a long time, to the point that I have passed on truly beautiful notebooks because the pages were blank or dots. But the dot page thing… after almost a year with bullet journaling, I’m really seeing the appeal for keeping my handwriting less of a mess. I might try it out next.
Also, be warned: the whole BuJo/Studyblr thing is going to make you a pen snob. I have been a fan of medium tip blue ball point pens for EVER. No black ink, no odd colors, BLUE. MEDIUM. Plain pens, none of those office give away things, no cutesy pens. (Cutesy pencils? Hell yes. Pens? No.) Gimme good, functional Paper Mates, and I was happy.
Then, well… I tried out a couple of the Paper Mate pens in other shades to make a few page titles… and then combined them with highlighters… and, yeah, only days later, I gave in, and just started ordering all of the Sarasa Milk pens and the Mildliners and the Staedtler sets and started trying out the various Muji tips. It’s an addiction. I already had a dozen different colored Sharpies, though, because I am not a complete philistine.
(I still prefer medium ball point pens to fineliners, though.)
Spend some time researching before you dive right in.
I know how eager you are to get going, but don’t just start off numbering pages in a notebook right away and labelling collections, or you’ll make a mess of things. Prepare.
Give yourself a week, or a long weekend, to watch YouTube tutorials on bullet journaling and lettering and layouts (and there are millions and billions of them). Look at the -blr and -gram and -spo posts, some of them linked here, even. Look at all the different things people are doing, and think about what you find appealing, what you think might work for you. Not only that, but because everything around bullet journaling is immersive, you might as well immerse from the start.
Watch a dozen reviews and find out what pens work best with what notebooks, and how to customize different spreads, before you start scribbling away. Read and compare all of the lists of supplies, the demonstrations of pen tips and highlighter shades and brush pen lines. Look at how much washi tape you can get with $10. Admire the excitement of the high school students or the new college undergrads with their Supplies Hauls, and think about how you might use similar supplies. Rough out some sample or practice pages on looseleaf paper, and get the feel of things.
(If you think “I don’t have time for all that” or “I don’t care about that crap!” then you may not find bullet journaling useful at all. This is actually a good way to find out before you spend $200 on notebooks, pens, and washi tape.)
Use what you have.
Buying new pens and notebooks and things is fun. If you can, if it motivates you, then yes, of course, do it! (However, I’ve said re: Studyspo, don’t think you have to have the trendy stuff to participate.) But also use your writing journal as a way of making use of things you already have on hand.
For me, it was an excuse to use those really cool stamps and inkpad, dig out the stickers. And even the odd little stencil that I keep for sentimental reasons because it was in my grandma’s desk since before I was born. I horde postcards and paper ephemera, as well as tons of old pictures and sheet music and things for collages. I’ll use them for writing prompts, and, depending on where my office is, sometimes do an inspiration board for writing projects. I have dedicated binders for each of my writing projects, too (which are more cumbersome to haul around than a bullet journal) that I’ll decorate with themed collage covers. But incorporating my scrapbookish-collage bits—which, incidentally, I hadn’t seen being done this way at the time for bullet journaling, so I felt all unique and personal and smug—made me love it all even more.
I get to use the things I enjoy in new ways, and that is awesome.
Try some of the things before rejecting them, even if you think they won’t work.
That’s another one of the benefits of the Trial Run Journal.
I knew right away that I wouldn’t need things like the hydration chart and the daily weather records and step counter. I also thought I would hate stuff like page numbers, an index, a key, and a variety of header banners. It turns out, as I tested them out, those things are incredibly useful, once I’d tailored them to my own needs. For example, I didn’t need a key with two dozen different symbols for “meeting” and “appointment” and “deadline.” (If it is on my to do list, it has a deadline, and doesn’t need a special individual deadline tag.) But I DID need a key, and I designed it to be moveable from one journal to a new one when the time comes. I’ve ended up adding things like a Reading List, as well as personal things, like a list of Fellowships and Post-Doc opportunities.
Celebrate its imperfections.
The Tumblrs make bullet journaling look flawlessly, effortlessly beautiful, right? But, like airbrushed and photoshopped fashion models, those smooth, perfect, pastel pages can be just as deceptive. If you want, you can achieve that look, according to others’ suggestions, by doing rough drafts of the page separately on loose paper, and, then when it’s arranged/drawn/plotted to your liking, copying it over into the official journal. You can practice the penmanship, and you never dreamed there could be so many Amazon reviews of… calligraphy guides. If it is important to you, go for perfection. That may be what helps motivate you.
Or, on the other hand, especially if you’re feeling intimidated or insecure, you can go with the bobbles. You can cover up a mistake with washi tape or a sticker, turn it into a doodle, use White-Out, or go full-on “embrace the chaos” and scribble it out with great violence. (If you’re a doodler by nature, this could be your paradise.)
Use the available resources.
If you decide you want your journal to look like many of the ones on Instagram, even if your handwriting sucks, it’s still possible. There are a ton of resources available, from printables, to stencils and templates on Etsy, pen kits, penmanship training, transfer stickers, anything you can imagine. The stencils I got made a huge difference. And I just added Studyblr-specific picture-taking tutorials to my list, because, well… obviously.
Yes, it’s performative.
This is another thing that some initially find off-putting about the whole movement: how it relies on demonstrating things. Showing off. The stuff. Look at my rose-gold Macbook and my marble-covered notebook next to my Starbucks coffee drink. Let me artfully display my morning tea and scone on a china plate with a dew-covered rose, because that totally happens on a Tuesday at 8am. Is this picture is about my class notes, or my manicure and jewelry? HOW MANY BANAL QUOTES IN BRUSH FONTS DO YOU NEED?!
Yes, there absolutely can be a sameness to a lot of them, which will be something to interrogate, I’m sure.
Moreover, posting a picture with the opened book, artfully arranged, carefully composed, then filtered and cropped and retouched and posted on social media is not the same thing as studying, after all, I will be quick to point out.
But it’s not about the stuff for all of us. It’s also self-creation. And that is fucking powerful shit. It’s cosplay for your intellect. It’s choose-your-own-adventure even more than writing a novel is.
It’s predominantly female space, as I’ve mentioned… space that is supportive, open, and enthusiastic, where your interests are celebrated, whatever they are. You get to design and be what you want, through a medium focused on ambition, art, accomplishments.
You can make your Bullet Journal anything as a reflection of you, or your writing, or your ideal self. (Many today would call this “your personal aesthetic,” perhaps.) It doesn’t have to be pink-and-gray-and-black-and gold brush fonts and tiny lettering and faux-marble. Or it can be. If you love that and it’s part of you, it might be.
It can be minimalism, sleek and focused and pared-down. It can be a retro composition book, and you can make it look like an 80s diary with bubble letters and stickers. It can be pastel and dreamy and Impressionistic. It can be heavy and gothic, with pen-and-ink drawings. It can be Korean anime, or vintage 1950s. It can be all that stuff on different pages. It can be cute, artistic, old fashioned, crafty, messy, pristine.
As long as it feels like something you enjoy, are, want to be, find delightful.
Link: ArtBulletSmash NaNo
Know what else? Yes, the language and the conceits for bullet journaling are fucking pretentious. Okay. Go with the pretentiousness. Don’t dismiss your journaling as “scribbles” or “my diary”… feel free to call it a writing system! You are important. Your work is important. This is serious, real, solid stuff.
It may not be the right writing/tracking tool for you, and that’s fine.
Ultimately, that is what it is: a tool. But just because everyone else is using a flat-head screwdriver doesn’t mean that’s the right thing for you. A Phillips may be more effective. Or a hammer or a chainsaw or a micro-drill.
If you don’t like it, no worries. (But if you bought all the stuff, I’ll buy it off you for a good price, yeah?)
How to use it for NaNo.
And this is the real reason why we’re here. You’ve decided to BuJo (God, I hate that acronym) specifically for National Novel Writing Month.
NaNoWriMoBuJo, if you will.
The best things about bullet journaling are what make it functional for NaNo. Use it for:
Scheduling. Make a calendar, monthly, weekly, whatever, and put down the local NaNo meet-ups. Block out specific times on days a week exclusively for writing, so there is no getting around the fact that Tues, 7-10pm is you and your laptop. Plan a Night of Writing Dangerously twice during November. Schedule as much space on your calendar for NaNo stuff as possible, in detail, so you can see it there as a thing to do. For example, I have a list of Boston coffeehouses to try, so I’ll schedule two new places a week, “Mon. — Pavement Boylston,” “Fri. — Meet S & C @ Blue State.” Getting out of the house, meeting up with friends, and trying new places to write is as important as the daily word count.
Accountability. It’s all right there, in writing. Put down your goals. Put down that daily 1667 word count. Put in Printables or design your own word tracker. Add rewards for every major milestone.
Motivation. You see results. A number of practitioners cite the tangibility of seeing accomplishments right there on the page. Even the anticipation of crossing something off a list or filling in a section on a progress tracker can be motivation to do the thing.
Certain bullet journal collections will be useful for NaNo-ing, and you can adapt depending on if you are a pantser or plotter. I also adapt depending on where I am in the project. I will be using NaNo to finish a WIP, not starting with a brand new idea, so I use my journal map out a path to completion. My NaNo lists/collections this year include:
- Scenes left
- Historical details
- Outside references
- Lists of names
I will also sometimes do a refresher/clarification on:
- Character motivations
- Secondary characters
I’ve done character horoscopes, letters from one to another, and, of course, playlists. All of these would fit into this format.
Another important collection is Possible Submissions. You can track where you’ve queried, and keep a list of publishers and agents, or indie publishing resources. I’ve found it helpful to write my synopses into the journal itself as a summary of the work, so I have material right there when the time comes for a blurb or cover letter.
Some possible collections/pages/lists/whatever you want to call them that you might need:
- Plot ideas
- General notes on plotting, character construction
- Character breakdowns, questionnaires
- World building
- Word lists
- Synonyms for overused stuff
- Writing prompts
- Helpful websites
- Motivating and/or uplifting quotes
Finally, some writers find a color-coded approach helps them stay organized.
However, this was one of the elements of bullet journaling that I really had to bend to make work for me. I wasn’t clicking with colors assigned to tasks, and kept getting it mixed up with the color-code system that I use for annotating critical texts, but cannot replicate and move over to bullet journaling. I also wasn’t doing daily tasks and migrating things. So the pink-is-for-phone-calls and blue-is-for-writing breakdowns wasn’t useful. I needed something with more scope.
My system is that I use color-coding for each project. There is a palette/feel that fits each work, and it was obvious to me even before I started doing journal pages, because I’d make those themed binders with collage covers for each project. The one for my thesis looked very different than the one for the contemporary romance featuring a former boy bander and a computer programer. So in my journal, each project has its own feel, down to the specific colors of pen I use. I started off making up a little key for each to try out my new supplies, and it ended up working well for me.
So go forth and BuJo and NaNo, and enjoy it!
(As if you couldn’t tell, I can’t get enough of looking at others’ journals for inspiration, or just to admire, so please send me links to your own, or links of ones you like.)