Care and Feeding of an Engineering Notebook, Part One

I love notebooks. There’s something inherently pleasing about a well-kept notebook, the texture of pages filled with writing, the weight of it in my hands, the feel of worn edges. They’re a little magical, you know? All that experience and information bound into a single tome. I just love it.

At the heart of an engineering notebook is a timeline of work. A nicely documented notebook is not only reference-able, but reproducible, robust, and most importantly, legally admissible. A proper engineering notebook can not only help you record your work, but protect it as well, and they can do much more than that besides. Notebooks can organize your thoughts and workflow. I’ve found them incredibly helpful for turning my chaotic, branching-lightning style of thought process into a complete record and a clear path forward.

I want to teach you everything that I’ve learned about how to keep a good notebook, but there’s far too much worth knowing to fit into one blog post. Which is why I’ve split it up into three. In this first part of the series, I’m just going to cover the very basics: what type of notebooks you should use, how you should write in them, and some basic features your notebook should have (like a table of contents). In the future, I’ll get more specific, like how to make entries into your notebook, but for now we’re starting off simply.

Let’s get started!

Everything is Permanent

The core of what your notebook does is create a timeline, a record of everything you do. That includes all your successes, and all of you mistakes as well. Mistakes are ugly, disorganized, and embarrassing, but they’re just as important to your history as your successes are! To err may be human, but to fix those errors is progress.

Bindings, not Binders

Notebook Binding

I use ring binders and loose leaf paper for all my class notes. They’re useful because I can pull out my notes and spread them out when I need them, or add more pages during a lecture. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of thing we want to avoid with an engineering notebook.

If you can take a page out, that means that information can be lost. It’s better to make it as difficult as possible to remove a page from your notebook without leaving evidence that it is missing. That not only tells you that information is missing, it tells you where the information is missing from.

Pen, Not Pencil

Writing in Pen

I will admit that more often than not I prefer to use a pencil. It’s tempting to want to eliminate your mistakes, or to correct things to make them easier to read. Unfortunately, doing that is like cutting out bits of your history that you find ugly or undesirable.

While working in pen makes it much harder for you to go back and edit your own work, it also makes it much harder for anyone or anything else to do the same. No one else will be able to change your work, and no accidents can happen to change it either. Isn’t that comforting?

Of course, mistakes do happen, and we need a way to correct them. Instead of eliminating the mistake with white-out or by scribbling over it, it’s better to mark it out with a single line (so the words or numbers are still legible) and write the correction nearby. If there’s not enough room for a full correction, make a footnote and put it there.

Finally, it’s very important that if you go backwards and make corrections in older entries, you date each correction. Keep in mind that your notebook is a timeline of your work. Going backwards to change that timeline is a bad idea, unless you leave some marker to indicate when the correction was actually made.

Notebook Anatomy

One of the key features of an engineering notebook is its referenceability. By the time your notebook is full, it will contain far too much information to remember where everything is, or even to sift through by hand. Furthermore, after several years of keeping notebooks, your library will grow to fill shelves. Being able to find what you want in all that text will be important.

Judge a Book by Its Cover

Engineering Notebook Covers

The titles of your notebooks are important because they tell you about what each book contains. In the case of your notebooks, you’ll want to make them as clear as possible. In the picture above, you can see two different notebooks, one dedicated to a single project, and the other as a general notebook with many different projects in it. Both are acceptable, but the general notebook has to account for all its different projects in its table of contents (as you’ll see in a bit).

You’ll also want to keep track of each book number in each series. It will be much easier to find things when you can reference a particular page, of a particular book, in a project series with a descriptive name.

Contact information also can be useful, particularly if you’re working in a group or a company. That way if you leave the company, or misplace the book, whomever picks up the project after you or finds your book can find you.

 Creating a Useful Table of Contents

Pre-Made Table of Contents

The content of an engineering notebook happens in an organic, disorganized fashion. The trick to a table of contents isn’t about organizing the contents of your notebook, so much as it is creating a table that you can skim to find what you want.

Look at the picture above. For each entry, I have two names. First I have the overall project name. That’s useful if you have a notebook with multiple projects (which you’ll see an example of in the next picture). Second, I try and give a simple description of what I was working on when I made that entry.

Other useful things to have here are the date of each entry, and the page number. Notice how every page has its own numbered line? Even if you make one entry that spans several pages, that’s useful if you switch from subject to subject between pages. It also means that every entry will have a place in your table of contents.

This notebook was created specifically to be an engineering notebook, but you can easily make your own from almost any bound notebook.

Hand Made Table of Contents

Here is table of contents that I made by hand from a simple lined notebook. I started by counting the pages in the notebook, and numbering each line for each page in my table of contents. My table took up two pages, so I just subtracted those from the final count.

Again, each entry has two names, the project name and the entry name. You can see how I add a different entry name for each page, to describe what I covered each time. Unfortunately it got a little messy when I re-named the first entry, but that’s okay. Your notebook isn’t about making work not-messy, that’s impossible. Instead, it’s about keeping track of everything in a way that lets you quickly search it to find what you need.

Expect More to Come

This series is far from over. I’ve got a serious love for keeping notebooks, and by the end I hope you will too. They’re powerful tools, and useful for everyone from hobbiest tinkerer to engineers in a big company. There’s no one-way to keep an engineering notebook, and I’ve got a lot more to say on the subject, so keep an eye out for more of my Care and Feeding posts in the future!

I’ll see you next time!

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