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Notes on paper

    Table of contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Habits
  3. Scanning
  4. Some pages

Introduction (§)

Over the past few weeks, I have been scanning my notes and homework from school using the nice professional scanners at my workplace. These notes have been sitting in my closet for several years because I don't want to keep them, but didn't want to throw them out until scanning them, and I've never had access to a scanner that could do all these pages.

This has prompted me to reflect on some of the habits and choices that I follow in my handwritten notes. I realize there are entire online cultures of journaling and notetaking and notebook-buying, and I'm not here to compete with them. This is just what I do.

Habits (§)

Always put a date on every page, including pages that are given to you. For multiple pages in one day, it helps to add a page number.

Always use loose leaf paper, never bound notebooks.

Always use full-size paper (US Letter or A4 depending on your region) so that your notes stack well with printed material. A lot of lined/punched notebook paper is smaller than printer paper.

Prefer to write in black ink rather than colored ink or pencil. Use quality pens that produce deep black lines, not cheap pens that produce off-black or hollow lines.

Always write on a single side of the paper, never the backside, unless forced to do so. The dollar cost of the paper is less than the inconvenience cost of double sided material.

Resist the urge to cram everything onto one page. The telltale switch from big handwriting to "I'm running out of space" small handwriting at the bottom of the page is shameful. Two pages with healthy margins and spacing is better than one page of cramming.

Consider using graph paper, even for non-mathematics, non-engineering notes. Prefer faint gridlines. You can:

Consider using plain, blank printer paper. At work, I am currently using blank printer paper for notetaking, and my "manuscript" is up to about 140 sheets. I don't think I would recommend this for structured school lectures, but it's good for unstructured meetings.

As a result of writing this article, I have decided to try going back to graph paper for my work notes. This time, instead of using store-bought graph paper, I'm just printing my own. I created an svg file with a half-inch margin and a whisper-faint quarter-inch grid. This is working out great and I wish I had done it sooner.

Treat yourself to heavier paper stock. The cheapest printer paper is usually 20lb or 75gsm. Try something heavier like 28lb/105gsm or 32lb/120gsm. Heavier paper costs more, but it feels more pleasant to write on. If you enjoy it more, you'll do it more.

Consider re-writing your notes after your class/meeting, so that you can:

I have never used a digital tablet for notetaking, and I will not make the appeal to tradition that paper is always better. I can imagine it brings some advantages:

But paper has its own advantages:

Scanning (§)

I scanned everything at 600 PPI in 1-bit TIFF. The scanners at work don't seem to support lossless full color, and I'd rather have the aliasing and dithering artifacts of lossless 1-bit than the jpeggy, blocky artifacts of lossy color. This is an aesthetic preference and I think dithering looks cool anyway.

I wrote to turn the scanner's multi-page TIF file into separate PNGs.

I use to rename everything.

When dealing with double-sided material and a single-sided scanner, I scanned the stack twice for the fronts and backs. Then, I did something like this:

md fronts && move fronts*.png fronts
md backs && move backs*.png backs

cd fronts

# Fronts will get even index numbers, starting from zero.
brename "f'{(index*2):03d}.png'"

cd ..\backs

# Large number minus index to reverse the file order.
brename "f'{(999-index):03d}.png'"

# Backs will get odd index numbers, starting from one.
brename "f'{(index*2)+1:03d}.png'"

cd ..
move fronts\* . && rmdir fronts
move backs\* . && rmdir backs

# ...
# Spend a few minutes manually deleting the blank backsides.
# ...

# Reindex all the files so we can pretend the blank backsides didn't exist.
# Renaming will fail if the target filename already exists, so temporarily
# bump up to more digits, then back down.
brename "f'{index1:04d}.png'"
brename "f'{index1:03d}.png'"

Some pages (§)

Here are some pages that I thought were visually interesting. These are not perfect demonstrations of the habits above, and that's the point — over time I have realized things I should have been doing all along.

I find there's something really engaging about being able to zoom in and pan around and pixel peep at these millimeter-sized features that, at the time of their making, only occupied a few tenths of a second of attention. The small writ large, as it were.

I am including more pages here than most anybody will care to look through, but I couldn't pick any more to eliminate. I think they're kind of cool.

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