Care and Feeding of an Engineering Notebook, Part Two

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I told you I’d be back. I hope you’re ready, because I’m excited to write some more about engineering notebooks! Engineering notebooks are an amazingly useful tool. If you’re a casual tinkerer or a professional engineer, you can benefit from keeping a notebook to document your work and organize your thoughts.

In the first post, I told you what types of notebooks you can use, and how to write in them. I also told you how you can keep your notebooks organized so you can find things again later. In this post, I’m going to show you a couple of ways you can make entries in your notebook, and how to legally protect your ideas. I’ll also show you some good habits to have when filling your notebook, and I’ll explain why they’re good habits to have.

Let’s get started!

A Veneer of Professionalism

Actual work is messy and chaotic, and that’s the way it should be. Creativity branches like lightning from thought to thought, idea to idea. Trying to constrain that to some preconceived system can stifle the creative process, when it should be helping it. That’s why everything in this section is like a veneer of professionalism painted over our weird, confusing thought processes, in order to make them a little more manageable when dealing with the bigger picture. It’s not intended to restrict it, just wrap it up nicely and put a bow on top.

Start With the Head

Header 1

Every time you start a new page, not just a new entry, you should start with the header. Your header will connect that page back into your organization system, listing the entry title, what project it is a part of, what page it’s on, and even what book it’s in. Think of all this information as a backup. If the page gets torn out, you can find exactly where it fits again using the header.

As you can see above, I have the project name (“Engineering Notebook”) and an entry name to describe what this entry is about. Usually I won’t try naming my entry until after I finish writing it. Sometimes my work takes me in different directions than I planned, and I don’t know what’s going into an entry until after it’s made.

The other thing your header does is help place your work into your timeline. Including your name associates the work with you, and the date shows where that work fits into your timeline.

Header 2

Here’s an example of a different header. This notebook contains multiple project ideas, the project name is more important than the entry name.

It’s also worth noting that because this notebook does not have pre-numbered pages, I have to number each page by hand. I personally don’t number each page ahead of time, because that’s tedious. Instead I just number each page whenever I make my header.

A Note on Dates

Randal Munroe made an XKCD comic on this topic a while back.


Personally, I think numeric dates are needlessly vague. That’s why you’ll always see me using the abbreviated name for each month, instead of the number (i.e., 4-Sep-2015).

Tracking All Those Random Interruptions

Timestamp Example

Work gets interrupted. It always happens. Your boss finally gets back to you about that thing you wanted to talk about, your co-workers are having a conversation that relates to a project of yours, or maybe you just have a tangential thought that you just can’t let go until it’s written down somewhere. If you’re in the middle of working in your notebook, how can you keep notes on these interruptions without losing what you were working on previously?

Personally, I’ve started using time stamps to solve this little problem. Every time I start on a different part of my work, I’ll note the time in the margins. This is especially handy to deal with these random discussions that happen often in my office. Treat them like a little digression from the normal flow of work, put them into your notes, and then pick up where you left off afterward!

As a side note, you may notice that I choose to use a 24 hour time, instead of the usual AM/PM. I feel like this removes ambiguity, but it’s just a personal preference.

All Great Artists Sign Their Work

Signature Example 1

Remember way back when I said that your engineering notebook would be “legally admissible”? This is where that comes in. By signing each page, you’re attesting that you did the work presented there, and not someone else. Adding a witness’s signature backs up your claim.

Now, you can’t get just anybody to sign as a witness, there are rules. Otherwise you could have some random stranger sign for you, and that’s no good. Your witness has to not only be of sound mind, they have to read your work and understand it.

Signature Example 2

Now, all this is nice and formal, but it would be a little tedious if you’re just working on a little side project of your own. More often than not, I’ll only worry about getting my own signature on a page. That gives me a little extra protection in case the project turns into something lucrative.

As for how often you’ll want to sign, I will make sure there’s always at least one signature per page, usually at the very end of it. Say I have one entry on the front side of a page, and another on the back, then I’ll sign both sides, but if my one entry spans multiple pages, I’ll only worry about signing one side of each page.

Side Notes and Good Habits

That pretty much covers it for the basics of keeping a notebook, but there are a couple more topics left that I want to touch on. These aren’t as critical as the other sections, and you can pick and choose how you want to handle them, but I’ll give my thoughts on them and let you decide.

Stow All Loose Documents and Keep Your Tray Table in an Upward, Locked Position

Loose Document Inclusion 1

Unfortunately, you can’t do all your work in an engineering notebook. Eventually you’re going to need to include a graph, a table of data, maybe a 3D render or something. You don’t want these documents getting separated from your notebook, so you’ll need to give them a page of their own, and attach them to it in some way.

The picture above shows a graph in an older notebook of mine, from before I started doing all this research. As you can see, it’s stapled at the top, and that’s okay but it’s not great.

Loose Document Inclusion 2

This is a more recent inclusion. It’s pasted into the page with a gluestick, with a caption at the bottom of exactly what I pasted in there. That way, it’s harder for that diagram to fall or be torn out, and if it does, I’ll know what was there.

Waste Not, Want Not

Notebook Pages Front and Back

Most every guide on keeping an engineering notebook that I found requires that you use both sides of every page. There are a couple reasons I can think of for this. First, it’s efficient, you’re getting the most number of pages out of your notebook that way. It also means you can look at two pages of documentation at once. If you start an entry on the left-hand page, you can continue it on the right hand page, and not have to flip back and fourth constantly.

But that’s not my preferred style.

Notebook Pages Front Only

Personally, I prefer to use only one side of the page in my notebooks, and there are some very practical reasons for this as well. The biggest one, for me at least, is comfort. I find it cumbersome to write on the left-hand page, and my handwriting suffers. The most practical reason, however, is robustness. If you only have ink on one side of the page, it’s not facing another page with ink that can bleed over. It also means that if you lose a page, you’re losing only half the data that you would otherwise.

Which style you choose is entirely up to you, just make sure you’re consistent! Don’t switch back and forth, and if you do, make sure to mark out your blank pages with an X.

Leave No Blank Spaces

No Blank Spaces

Of all the rules I’ve encountered, this is the only one I really don’t understand, but I can think of a couple of possible explanations.

I think it falls under the category of preserving your work’s history. If you leave a blank space at the bottom of your page, that space could later be filled with information that you didn’t have until much later. By marking that space out in some way, you’re preserving that lack of information.

Filling a large chunk of page with an X feels to me like a waste of space to me. There is a way to fill that space, but it may not be the best choice for most applications.

Another Method of Filling Space

Above, you can see a page from one of my early notebooks. Instead of creating a header for each page, I simply started each entry immediately below the previous, and dated it in the margin. Mixing entries like this could get complicated when including a table of contents, and it’s nice to have that page separation between entries. I didn’t have a table of contents in this notebook, I didn’t know how to keep one at the time (or even that I should have), so I adopted this method of marking my entries.

I’ll Be Back

That concludes the practical parts of keeping an engineering notebook! Honestly, at this point you can (and probably should) go and try starting one yourself. That doesn’t mean I’m out of things to talk about though!

Since I’ve started keeping notebooks for my own work, I’ve found a couple of methods I keep returning to in order to organize my thoughts. Now, just because these work for me doesn’t mean they’ll work for everybody, but they might give you some ideas that you can adapt to whatever workflow works best for you!

I’ll see you next time!

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