Bullet Journal Basics: How to Start a Writer’s Bullet Journal
October 18, 2019
Happy Friday, writers! I’m so excited to share one of my all-time favorite tools today: the writer’s bullet journal. This planning tool took the internet by storm back in 2013. I hopped on board the BuJo train a couple years ago, and it changed my writing life.
What is a bullet journal? As any bullet journalist will tell you, it’s a planner, a diary, a to-do list––really, it’s anything you want it to be.
Mine is a combination of all of the above. It’s also where I work through writing ideas. I tend to be more creative when writing by hand, so I frequently use my bullet journal to talk myself through new ideas. I’ve also used it to start writing scenes or descriptions before, but I’m usually impatient and want to just bang it out on a keyboard.
A quick note: even if you’re not interested in using the full bullet journal system, check out Step 1 below––this is how I finally organized my writing notes.
How Do I Start?
So, how do you start a writer’s bullet journal?
First things first: don’t expect perfection. I love checking out other BuJos online and admiring their gorgeous spreads. But I’m not an artist. My doodles consist of stick figures and repeating patterns that require a limited visual imagination and a (relatively) steady hand. I don’t expect to create beautiful pages with watercolor pens and fancy lettering.
I need my bullet journal to be functional for me.
All you need to get started is a notebook and a pen. When I first tried out bullet journaling, I grabbed my favorite notebook (a really nice leather-bound one my parents had gotten me a few birthdays before) and my go-to pen. Lots of bullet journalists, including myself, recommend a dot grid notebook, but I used lined notebooks for a year and loved them. The only reason I switched was my inability to create grids for habit and word count trackers.
Okay, grab your notebook and pen and let’s get started.
Writer’s Bullet Journal Step #1: The Index
The index is my absolute favorite part of the bullet journal. This right here is what changed my writing life.
The Dark Ages of My Writer’s Notebooks
Before discovering the bullet journal, I had tons of notebooks for writing. I tried to use one at a time, but I could never find anything.
I switched to using one notebook per subject. That too, had its problems. Who could say which notebook I’d need when inspiration struck? And what about when my notes dealt with more than one topic?
My system reverted back to one notebook at a time. I tried using post-its to flag certain subjects. It only worked for the first thirty or so notes––after that, the system became too crowded to make sense of.
And then, the simple, almost obvious solution of an index popped onto my radar as I looked into this bizarre fad called bullet journaling.
Think about an index in a book. You can scan a few pages and find every place every topic is mentioned. Talk about convenient.
That’s how the bullet journal index works. Every time you write about a new topic in your rambling notes, you add it to the index and write the page number beside it. Next time you write on that same topic, you flip to your index and add those new pages. When you need to go back and refer to those notes, all you have to do is find the topic in the index and flip to that page.
One requirement of this is numbering your pages. Tons of companies design notebooks for bullet journaling nowadays, and these have the pages already numbered. But back when I used lined, non-numbered notebooks, I added page numbers in the bottom corners as I went. I’m lazy and couldn’t be bothered numbering even ten pages at a time. Adding pages as you flip to blank ones works just fine. Remember, this is meant to be functional for you.
A Writer’s Dream
What I love most about using the index for my writing notes is that I can have one entry labeled “Book” and others for each character, idea, plot, subplot, etc. That way, all my book notes can be found in one entry, but I can also look for particular subjects. I don’t always do this. Right now, I have a single entry for all my book notes. But when I was in the midst of working through those deep plot rewrites I’ve talked about before, I had several book-related topics with their own index entries.
If you take nothing else from this post, I hope you’ll at least try using an index in your writing notebooks. The planner and to-do list portions are really useful for life in general and adding word count and habit trackers, but if you’re not into that stuff, don’t sweat it! The index is all you need to take your writing notebook to the next level.
For those of you curious about the rest of the system, read on!
Writer’s Bullet Journal Step #2: Year Calendar (a.k.a Future Log)
A lot of bullet journals start with a “Future Log” (a yearly calendar). I have one in mine, but I never use it. If an event is more than a month away, it goes in my Google calendar. All you need for a Future Log is a spread of twelve months with their events listed.
As you can see, I only include six months per set of pages. That’s because I rarely use a single notebook for an entire year. Many bullet journalists like to save pages as much as possible to make their journals last longer. I tend to get tired of a notebook after four to five months and hurry through it to move on to another one. For example, I still have about one third to a quarter of my current notebook left blank, and I’m already looking at new journals. Chalk it up to impatience.
The monthly log is where my actual planning really happens.
This is where I lay out all the month’s events. I’m a huge fan of color coding since it lets me scan through and quickly assess how busy certain aspects of my life are. I use orange for work events, yellow for miscellaneous events, blue for appointments, pink for special occasions, and green for repeating events. I also keep track of our household bills and automatic payments on the monthly spread.
The monthly calendar doesn’t directly affect my writing life except that it allows me to see where I can fit longer writing bouts into my schedule.
But, I do include a habit tracker in every monthly spread. It includes all the things I strive to make daily habits, and one of those is writing (which, for me, doesn’t include blogging––I’m tracking my work on my book here).
If I spend even twenty minutes writing my work-in-progress, I count that as a day I wrote. My goal in this spread isn’t to reach a particular word count or a certain number of minutes or hours. It’s just to prove to myself that I can take time to write every day. (I prove it some months better than others 🙃)
My monthly log also includes a to-do list. These are things that need to get done within a month’s time but don’t necessarily have a deadline.
The weekly log is where I get a more detailed view of my life. I’ve used several weekly spreads in the past, but the picture above shows my current one.
Weekly spreads (or, if you have a lot of events per day, daily spreads) work well because of the different bullet points used. Tasks get a regular bullet point:
Events, completed tasks, and notes get different ones. This allows you to quickly write down a variety of items. You can also add the priority symbol next to any bullet.
x completed tasks
These are the basic bullets laid out by Ryder Carroll, the bullet journal’s creator, and they’re the only ones I use. Other popular symbols are “!” for inspiration and an eye for items that need more exploring.
As you can see from the above spread, I usually group my events under their day. I usually have a growing to-do list for each week, so I give this a fair amount of space in its own section. This is also where I add short notes throughout the week.
Migrating + Scheduling
For me, one of the best things about this system is the concept of migrating and scheduling tasks.
> migrated tasks
< scheduled tasks
Case in point, I often take tasks from my to-do list at the bottom and add them to a particular day. But until I complete the task, I don’t want to X out its bullet. Instead, I can just write the scheduling symbol over the original bullet. That way, when scanning my tasks, I know that this one is incomplete, but I have a plan to get it done.
Migrating is also a wonderful way to keep away the “lack of accomplishment” blues. My to-do list sometimes (read: every week) gets so long that I don’t have time to finish all my tasks. So, at the end of the week, when I have six to ten items I didn’t finish, I simply write the migrate symbol over the original bullets and move the tasks to next week’s list. Now, when I look over my list, I don’t feel like I failed. I just know that plans changed.
There’s another perk to migrating: you can delete tasks. Sometimes, I write down a task that seemed important at the time, but a week later turned out to be frivolous. When I’m migrating the previous weeks unfinished tasks, I cross out the line of the unimportant one and forget about it.
What I Use
Like I said at the beginning of the post, I keep my writer’s bullet journal relatively simple. There are a couple of supplies I’m really picky about, though: my pen and notebook.
There’s nothing particularly fancy about the pen I use. It’s a pretty common Uni-ball Signo 207 gel pen with a micro point tip. I’ve used this pen for years (seriously, I cringe writing with anything else). The Signo is durable, long-lasting, and pretty cheap––because pens get lost all.the.time and I don’t want to replace an expensive one. Plus, it’s a pleasure to write with.
As for notebooks, I’ve used several different kinds before. For the first year, I used these leather-bound notebooks from Barnes & Noble. I love the feel of a really luxurious notebook. But as habit trackers and new spreads that really needed grids caught my attention, I switched to dotted notebooks.
The first one I used was this ring binder notebook. I liked being able to move pages around and tear out grocery lists, but sadly, the index system I love so much broke down because of that flexibility. I switched back to the comfort of a lined notebook. It turned out that my short stint with the dotted notebook had ruined me for lined ones.
So, I turned to the official bullet journal notebook. That’s what I’m using now, and I love it. The notebook also has three ribbon bookmarks, which I use to keep my monthly log, weekly log, and next blank page easily accessible. The index pages are already set aside at the front of the notebook, there’s an easy guide at the back, and it lays flat. Bonuses: it has a pocket on the inside back cover and an elastic band to keep it closed.
My only complaint? It comes in just three colors, and I only like one of them––the Nordic Blue I have now. Remember when I said I get tired of notebooks after just a few months? Yeah, I’m not sticking with one notebook color forever.
For my next notebook, I have my eye on this one. It’s the famed Leuchtturm 1917 notebook so many bullet journalists love. Leuchtturm also makes the official bullet journal I’m using now, so I already know the quality is great. And it comes in tons of colors. I’m eyeing the Port Red––holiday vibes, anyone?
Highlighters are also a must for me. Color coding helps me make sense of overwhelming to-do lists and monthly spreads. I’m not picky about highlighters, though. I’ll use anything that gets the job done!
Final Thoughts on the Writer’s Bullet Journal
I hope you found this quick guide to bullet journaling useful! And like I said, if you have no interest in the system as a whole, give the index a try. It helped me organize my writing notes quickly and easily.
Indigo Typewriter is taking a vacation next week. I’ll be on a massive cruise ship with no internet, so I won’t be able to post!
In the meantime, if you missed this post on setting development, check it out before we come back to talk about source cultures for developing fantasy worlds. And be sure to subscribe at the bottom of this page so you don’t miss it when Indigo Typewriter returns!