Journal: Lines or No Lines?


These lined ledger journals are available at Staples.

People who keep journals have a strong preference for using a journal with lines or one without lines. There are even journals with alternating lined and unlined pages.

For years, I’ve been a no-line journaler. No matter what the journal was for (and I keep more than one), it had to be unlined. I’m changing my mind. Maybe.

Here are the journals I keep:

1. Client notes, telephone numbers, deadlines, to-do list journal. Unlined. I use Moleskine soft-covers with vibrant cover colors. When they are full, I write the dates started and ended on the cover and keep them. They help me remember where I was and what I did when. Good for taxes and how long a past project took.

2. Sketch journal. Unlined watercolor paper. I use ink and watercolors to do sketches,  small collages and other design work. This unlined journal keeps me from having to fight perspective.

3. Capture journal. This is the one I just switched to a lined journal. I write down brain dumps, ideas, emotions, class ideas, problems with solutions, in this one. I write only on the right side for the first pass. Every now and then I go through the journal and “distill” it. I find insights or ideas and write them on the left page. Sometimes I highlight or add another thought on the left side as well. This distilled material winds up on the free-standing pages.

A selection of my journals.

A selection of my journals.

4. Free-standing pages. These journal pages have art on one side and writing on the other. I’ve been making them for years and they are all the same size. They are the result of a combination of the  distill pages’ lessons and the artwork it inspires.

5. Commonplace Book. I didn’t know this type of book had a name till Kaisa from Vakloinenponi mentioned it. This is the book I use for quotes, well-written sentences, poems, titles and authors of books I want to remember, even articles I’ve cut out of a magazine. The history of Commonplace Books deserves a whole blog post on its own.

6. Nature journal. This is an unlined journal. I am finishing up a big, bulky book with rough pages. I keep notes on the weather, when  my fruit trees bloom or set fruit, or unusual events like this year’s killing freeze. I keep notes about trimming and fertilizing trees, birds I see, and general nature notes. I’d like to switch to a journal I can also sketch in. That’s the next one.

Using a lined journal helps the lines stay even, which helps me write faster and concentrate on the words and meaning-making instead of what the page looks like. The even lines also help me keep my handwriting the same size, which makes it easier to find a word or a specific idea when I hunt through the pages to distill the information.

It’s a new idea for me, but I’m warming to it. I will keep a mix of journals always, and it’s good to switch to a new size or type to see if it changes your journaling habits.

How many journals do you keep and do you prefer lines or no lines?

—Quinn McDonald may have to take a 12-step program to reduce the number of journals she keeps. If she does, she’ll probably keep notes in a journal. Oh, wait. . .

53 thoughts on “Journal: Lines or No Lines?

  1. Pingback: Spring Arrived Last Tuesday Around 3 pm | Valkoinen poni

  2. I finally decided to organize my journals a couple of months ago in anticipation of moving. I grouped them into “new”, “partially finished”, “finished”, and “drawing/watercolor pads”. I think I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-50 new journals just waiting to be filled! I know I’m a journal junkie, but I love looking at the shelves and seeing them there. The finished ones are like a time capsule. Now I’m working on a shaped handmade journal for an online workshop, and I’m loving it.

  3. I keep a lot of journals: art journal, sketchbook, two different commonplace books (I’d love to read one of your posts about commonplace books, by the way), written journal, Tarot journal, poetry journal… and quite possibly a couple more that I’m forgetting here.

    Currently, my favourite format for writing is neither lined nor unlined: it’s the dot grid. I love it because it allows me to keep my writing tidy the way lines do, but it also allows more freedom than lines (I can write vertically, or I can easily line up my writing in columns or draw charts). And the dots are still unobtrusive enough to give the appearance of an unlined page. For me, it’s the happy medium between lined and unlined. For drawing and sketching, though, I still prefer unlined.

  4. I’ve missed a few days . . . and really enjoyed catching up on the posts and the comments. There is such a good community here; when people respond to other comments it is obvious that much thought is going on.

    I am working my way through an old 2001 lined A4 sized day-to-a-page diary that didn’t get used at work or I was given . . . I’m not sure how I got it, but I found it in a box of books I was sorting out. It’s too good to get rid of so I repurposed it and just write the day’s date and go for it. Sometimes I write to settle myself because too much is spinning round inside my head and then I manage a list of what I need to do for the day. At other times I’m pouring out emotions and thoughts, and often end up with a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) which gets embellished. At the back there are sections for quotes and ideas for blog posts that I’m obviously not using much these days.

    I have another very messy and somewhat disorganised blank paged visual journal where I have explored techniques and sometimes come up with something I like . . . I have ripped out pages that I don’t like therefore I might start using loose pages so I can put the ‘likes’ in ne folder and the ‘not-so-much but might use for collage’ in another – I can also put some in that nice round filing bin that I empty now and them. This journal also has little treasures drawn by my grandchildren, their measurements so I can sew or knit something for them – I’m thinking of starting a separate book for this.

    A third one is a Moleskine with watercolour paper that lives for the most part in my workbag along with some watercolour pencils and brushes . . . and has not been used much recently.

    I also have a visual journal with black and white alternating pages where I just doodle.

    The last one is a large sketch pad where I draw, sometimes I’ll cut things out of it to use when really it might be better if I were to scan and print so I don’t lose the original image completely as it is often one of a progression where I have copied something I like and drawn so often that it has morphed into something that is mine.

    These five journals have just come about of their own accord; I didn’t plan to have them all. Oh would that I was spending more time inside them . . . the day-job sure does get in the way but I’m very grateful to have one that is a creative challenge in itself!

      • I’ll look out some unlovely pages and pile a few books up later today.

        The commonplace book origins have led me on a nice little meander through the virtual world . . . I rather liked coming across the term ‘zibaldone’ on Wikepedia where it said in the entry on commonplace books: Giovanni Rucellai, the compiler of one of the most sophisticated examples of the genre, defined it as a “salad of many herbs.” I like the term so much I even searched the pronunciation.

        Now, off to write in my zibaldone and maybe graze a little on previous entries.

        • I love the other name under zibaldone (which sounds spicey and exotic) in Wikipedia – a HODGEPODGE book! I totally know what a hodgepodge is, even if I cannot define it. Such a great word. “I am off to Hodgepodge in my Zibaldone now.” Ssshhhhh…..

          • Oh, I LOVE Hodgepodge!!! It is a wonderful word! I was nodding my head at, “I totally know what a hodepodge is, even if I cannot define it.” 🙂 (It always make me think of a hedgehog-like creature and that always makes me smile.) I have journals that are so eclectic that there probably couldn’t be a better description than Hodgepodge…

  5. I love journals!!! I am happy with both lined and unlined. I have been given quite a few journals as gifts, and I can’t resist buying journals if I come across them at the fleamarket, or while out and about…I often choose them by their covers or designs and colors, or journals that have unusual features. If unlined, I tend to use them more for sketching and collage, etc. though I do not mind writing in unlined journals either.
    I have a gratitude journal, a journal for pouring out feelings, I have journals of poetry, haiku, collages…I have an Ideas journal where I jot down words and lines and ideas for collages, etc.–I also like to take a journal and designate it as a book (Author: Me!)–I have The Book of Green, Sleeping Poems, and others…I would like to someday have a travel journel (but that would involve some traveling). I love to write. I’ve always been able to amuse myself with paper and something to write with. This was a great post today. Thanks!

  6. I also keep what I call an “I don’t know what I feel like drawing” journal.
    I use it when I don’t know what I feel like drawing and it usually gets filled up faster than the others.

  7. I could not find the refernce to commonplace books in Vakloinenponi’s blog. I too would like to follow-up on that idea and learn about the history! As If you weren’t busy enough.

      • As Quinn says, I haven’t mentioned commonplace books on by blog but I’m glad you check out by blog! 😀 And it’s a good thing, Quinn, that you’re researching them, since I really don’t need a distraction just now as I need to get my Ph.D. done by the end of May. What I would love to know is how commonplace books were taught and used as a study technique in universities in the early 20th century.

        • And the original ones had a very cool name! Yes, they have been used since the 14th century and the ones used by Thoreau and Emerson are still intact in museums! You really got me going now. I’m relieved not to be writing a dissertation anymore. Good for you!

          • ray4155: Thank you! Glad you liked it/them. I really did like making the covers. And you have a great taste in music. 🙂

            Quinn: I know! They are so fascinating! I definitely need to look into them after my duty roster clears up a bit. Let us all know what you find out. And I have to find out more about Thoreau’s and Emerson’s commonplace books. would definitely love to see them.

  8. I keep mostly capture h\journals, although like you I did not title them that way. When I am reading and run across a really juicy sentence or quote, I grab whatever journal is at hand (why don’t I grab a specific one before reading? who knows…) and make a note. I also have WIP journals for general practice and specific class journals but all; of them are ulined. Not sure why, but lines always remind me of composition class?? If I do have a lined journal (gift from a friend, etc) I usually gesso the pages.

  9. This is a serendipitous blog entry for me. I found my first journal last night. When I was a teenager I won a small, pink diary at a penny fair. It was lined, and had space for 4 daily entries per page. I thought it would be neat to make notes of day-to-day happenings. I was honest in it with feelings and emotions. My step-mother found and read it one day and spent a few hours writing copious notes about how diappointed and hurt she was with what I had written in there. She filled pages with sarcastic commentary that still hurts to this day nearly 40 years later. Whenever I start a journal now, all of the things I write evolve to be the voice of my inner critic, who sounds suspiciously like her.

    I have many journals, all lined and mostly empty.

    I will switch to an unlined journal (thanks to PiercedFuzzies for that potential insight!) and see if that makes a difference.

    My word for this year was FLY and I am still flapping like crazy trying to get off the ground!

    • That story sounds horrible. What a sad story! Maybe an unlined journal and a new way of approaching what you want to do in it will give you courage. I think you are brave to try.

      • Your post and the discovery of that diary has led to talk with my loving wife and that conversation led to your entry about your mother’s quilt. Well your quilt I guess. The angry one. That post was put up on my birthday. You will forgive me I hope if I take all this to mean that the universe is talking to me in a rather direct way, indirectly. Long story shortened, we are taking the old, pink diary and its freightload of hate and pain and we are going to burn it in a place far from home, while standing upwind from it. At the same time we are going to ask blessings for a new, blank, unlined journal, which I shall endeavor to fill with flights of fancy.

        Quinn – thank you for being here. You are a source of wisdom, strength and inspiration to many.

        • I think a ritual of burning the diary is an inspired one. I would be honored to send you the gift on a new, unlined journal. If you prefer to pick your own and let it speak to you, I would understand that fully. When I read stories like yours, I am overjoyed that pain can burn up and ashes can form the foundation of a new beginning. Congratulations for letting go and making a change in your life. My word for this year is “let go,” and it is a great lesson.

          • Quinn;
            I am overwhelmed by your repsonse. My emotional reaction to this wonderful offer surprises me. Tears came to my eyes and I still feel a little dizzy. This would be a gift of enormous significance and unlooked for selflessness. I apologize for gushing and accept your generous offer with gratitude. No – I do not apologize, this is worth gushing over. Thank you again, I am utterly amazed and grateful.

          • The diary is burnt. Lorraine and I built a pyre bundle of wood and newspaper, birch-bark and pine shavings, tied it together, carried it a mile from our home and set it alight. I felt as if a band of leather and steel had been loosened from my chest. Bells rang and I chanted three times, “You have no power over me!” It was wonderful. i wrote a poem and posted it on my blog. I hope you don’t mind if I link to it:

            Thanks again to you and everyone who comments and follows your blog – you have all helped me to be brave and move forward.

  10. I keep design and engineering notebooks; always quad-ruled (graph paper). Everything must be in its own little box, y’know!

  11. I can only manage to keep up with one notebook and it has to be unlined. I used to think that was because I wanted to be able to sketch or something like that bit the real reason is that the lines make me feel trapped. My writing is small. It doesn’t fill the space between the lines in the journal, and it irritates me to have all that wasted space on the page.

    Funny that until I switched to an unlined journal, I was never successful at journaling. All of my lined journals, while beautiful, we’re things I avoided.

  12. Lined journals one for writing ideas, one for the books I read and reviews of them, one for the the day to day things I do. Unlined journals for sketching and for to-do lists. I would love to see a post on Commonplace Books, Quinn.

    • I want to get some ideas together, but ever since Kaisa mention it, I’ve been enchanted. I’ve had the quote/book review journal for a while, but didn’t know it had a name!

  13. Okay….I had to look up the word “jotter”. As soon as I read the definition I thought “of course”.

  14. I am amazed that you have your journals so organized. I do have a lot of them, and many of them are empty (waiting for the right thing to use them for I guess), but while I have a couple that are for specific things, most of mine are so completely random and out of sequence that it is difficult to really ‘read’ them. 🙂

    • I used to put everything in one journal, but then I couldn’t share it with anyone, beause it was a lot of personal stuff mixed in with drawings and client material. So separating them made a lot of sense to me.

  15. Ok….do I have a condition? I cannot,and never have been able to….start a journal,notebook,diary or anything on the first page and work steadily through. I always randomly open it and write or draw or stick things where it feels right? If I have an idea I will write it on whatever is close to hand,then if I decide it’s useful later cut it out and stick it in my ongoing journal. I like to think it makes me artistic and spontaneous with a crazy over active mind….but is the reality that I am all upside down and back to front and disorganized!!!!
    I always read magazines from the back as well?xxxxxx

  16. I keep only one journal at a time, although if I run out of journal space I might go back to an old one and find an unused page.
    I prefer unlined, but am using a lined journal (a present) just now. I tend to ignore the lines if I don’t need them. I prefer a bigger page to a smaller page. But if all else fails I’ll use a page out of my kids jotter or anything else to hand

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