A notebook is more than just a practical tool. It can be a source of joy, a covetable item that turns an ordinary, everyday task—note taking, journaling, task planning, brainstorming, or doodling—into a sublime experience. Upgrading from a cheap notebook to a high-quality one usually costs just a couple more cents per page (or about $2 to $5 overall), and we think you’re worth it. After interviewing experts, researching more than 80 notebooks, and writing zealously in 24 of them side by side over several weeks, we have picks in a number of sizes and styles. Any of these notebooks will provide an appreciably better writing experience than what you can get from a generic, off-the-shelf-at-Walgreens notebook.
It’s impossible to pick out just one notebook for everybody, because everyone has different preferences when it comes to size, cover material, page ruling, paper feel, and all the other little characteristics that make one notebook stand out from another. Different types of notebooks may serve different purposes, too.
So we offer you an array of great notebooks from $2 to $20: softcover notebooks with silky-smooth paper and more grippy, “toothier” paper; a hardcover notebook with all the bells and whistles; a great Moleskine alternative; a spiral-bound notebook suitable for students; reporter-style notebooks in small and traditional sizes; a budget-friendly pocket-size notebook and a stylish, rugged pocket notebook; a steno-style spiral notebook that works on anyone’s desk; and a disc-bound notebook with pages you can rearrange. You can read how we made our picks and tested them if you’d like more detail on what we were looking for or why your favorite didn’t make this list.
It’s impossible to pick out just one notebook for everybody, because everyone has different preferences when it comes to size, cover material, page ruling, paper feel, and all the other little characteristics that make one notebook stand out from another.
A few paper terms you’ll see throughout the guide:
- Feathering refers to ink bleeding from the edges of letters, versus crisp lettering.
- Ghosting refers to pen ink being visible on the other side of the paper.
- Bleeding refers to ink actually coming through to the other side of the paper or even the next sheet.
- Tooth or toothy refers to the texture of the paper or how the surface of the paper feels. The more tooth a paper has, the rougher it is; generally, toothy paper is great for pencils because charcoal adheres better to paper that isn’t super smooth.
We mention price per page when it’s notable, but our picks average 7¢ per page (at this writing). We also mention paper weight or thickness when that spec is important, but most of these high-quality pages are 80 to 90 gsm (grams per square meter); thicker isn’t always better, but all of the paper in our picks felt substantial and satisfying for us to write on. And most of the notebooks we tested had 7 mm lined ruling (close to college rule), but we note the exceptions below.
Why you should trust us
Wirecutter senior staff writer Melanie Pinola has written about technology and home-office topics for more than a dozen years for sites such as Lifehacker, PCWorld, Popular Mechanics, and Laptop Magazine. For over five years, she has tested and reviewed gear for Wirecutter, including home-office essentials such as webcams, USB microphones, and office chairs. She’s a die-hard stationery fan who uses notebooks daily for work and personal projects; it’s probably telling that almost everyone close to her has gifted her a notebook at one point or another.
During our preliminary notebook research, we consulted with and relied upon the work of experienced bloggers who review pens, pencils, and stationery. These people care far more about the performance of paper against all sorts of writing implements than most people, and they also have a wide range of papers to compare notebooks with. In particular, we traded emails with three bloggers to inquire after their favorite notebooks: Brad Dowdy, The Pen Addict, is a co-founder of Nock Co., which makes notebooks and stationery bags; Elizabeth Newberry of No Pen Intended has written hundreds of reviews of pens and notebooks and particularly appreciates paper that can stand up to a fountain pen; and Ian Hedley of Pens! Paper! Pencils! is a professional artist who also runs the pen blog search engine Pennaquod. We also interviewed (via email) a representative from the online stationery store JetPens and several notebook enthusiasts who contribute to Reddit’s r/notebooks subreddit.
The best pens and pencils to write in the best notebooks
- The Best PenThe Uni-ball Jetstream is still the best pen for most people—it’s affordable, smooth, and quick to dry, and it won’t skip or bleed.
- The Best Mechanical PencilsThe Uni Kuru Toga Pipe Slide is the best mechanical pencil for most people, thanks to a unique rotating mechanism that keeps the lead at a sharp point.
- The Best Pencils for Writing and SchoolworkWe think Palomino’s ForestChoice is the best pencil for writing and schoolwork. Made of premium incense-cedar wood, it aced our writing and erasing tests.
A medium softcover notebook with silky pages: Apica Premium CD Notebook
This notebook is a pleasure to use thanks to its sturdy yet lightweight cardstock cover, excellent paper quality, and lie-flat design. The medium size can serve a wide range of purposes.$10 from Amazon
Get this if: You want a softcover notebook that is the size of a trade paperback book and has super-smooth paper your pen will glide over. If you write with a fountain pen or rollerball, you’ll probably appreciate how well this notebook’s paper shows off ink colors.
Why it’s great: Four out of five Wirecutter panelists chose the Apica Premium CD Notebook as their top or second-favorite notebook pick, saying the feel of the paper was the “best out of the bunch” and “silky yet not ‘plastic-y’ like some others.” The paper stood up well to a range of writing instruments—even demanding fountain pen ink—with little feathering and minimal ghosting.
We also liked the paper’s off-white, eggshell color—neither too bright nor too yellow—and the simple, well-spaced, light gray line ruling. The cardstock cover is sturdy, and the stitched binding is high quality, allowing the notebook to lie flat nicely. All in all, this is a great all-purpose notebook with thick paper that feels luxurious to the touch.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Apica’s super-smooth paper isn’t for everyone, especially those who are expecting a traditional paper feel as you get with typical composition notebooks. It feels more like the slick pages of The New York Times’s Sunday Magazine than the tougher paper that makes up the rest of the newspaper. Or, for another analogy, like sateen bed sheets versus jersey knit sheets.
The notebook’s old-fashioned cover design might come across as kitschy to some, but you could always customize it with a cover, which would improve the notebook’s durability.
Also, it doesn’t come with a ribbon page marker, and although it has a small index on the first page, the pages aren’t numbered. We don’t think those features are essential for most people, but if they matter to you, consider the Leuchtturm1917 in softcover.
Size: A5 (5.8 by 8.3 inches), 192 pages
Ruling options: lined, graph, blank
A medium softcover notebook with more texture: Midori MD Notebook
Because of its texture, this notebook is especially great for writing, sketching, or doodling with pencils or ballpoint pens, although it holds up to fountain pens as well.$12* from Amazon$14 from JetPens
*At the time of publishing, the price was $14.
Get this if: You want a simple, medium-size notebook with paper that’s easy on the eyes and offers tactile feedback—the rougher paper slows your writing down and makes you pay more attention to it, in contrast to slicker paper that your pen would glide across. The Midori MD Notebook strikes a delicate balance between smoothness and “toothiness,” so if you like feeling a bit more friction than you get from the more coated or vellum papers of other notebooks, this might be the one for you.
Why it’s great: The Midori MD Notebook is simplicity at its best, with a plain cream-colored cardstock cover and matte pages with light blue ruling. Three out of five testers ranked this notebook in their top three, saying they loved the pleasant tone of the paper and the notebook’s minimalist aesthetic, which makes writing and journaling as distraction-free as possible. It takes all sorts of ink but handles pencil especially well because of the paper’s slight tooth; the blank or graph versions of the Midori MD would be great for doodling or sketching. There is some ghosting or show-through on the other side of the page, but we didn’t find it intrusive.
Construction-wise, the quality of the stitching is terrific, allowing the notebook to lie flat. (Compared with other notebooks of this size, including the Apica Premium CD, the Midori MD is bound in more, smaller sections, called signatures—16 signatures versus a more common eight or 12—which makes it sturdier and helps it lie flat more easily.) Unlike many other soft notebooks, this one has a ribbon bookmark—a silky green one that nicely complements the cream pages.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Our main complaint against this otherwise lovely notebook is the dark horizontal line that runs across the middle of all the pages. While some people might use this line to divide their notes, we found it distracting and unnecessary.
This is also a notebook you might want to get a cover for, because although the cardstock feels sturdy, it’s not as rugged or as thick as other notebooks’ covers. (It comes with a thin plastic cover, but we found that more intrusive than useful.) Clear, paper, and leather covers are available at JetPens.
Although most of our testers didn’t experience a lot of smudging with most writing utensils, our left-handed tester found that this notebook’s paper smudged significantly more with a gel pen than others did.
Size: A5 (5.8 by 8.3 inches), 176 pages
Ruling options: lined, graph, blank
A hardcover notebook for journaling or planning: Leuchtturm1917 Hardcover Notebook
With page numbers, index pages, two ribbon bookmarks, and sticker labels, this notebook has all the bells and whistles and simply feels a bit more special than competing notebooks.$20 from Amazon
Get this if: You want a medium-size hardcover notebook that helps you organize and keep track of your thoughts and ideas. All of the tiny details, such as the index pages and labels for archiving, make this notebook gift-worthy, too.
Why it’s great: The Leuchtturm1917 Hardcover Notebook was the favorite notebook of three of our testers, and they listed many reasons for that. Most of all, the cream-colored paper is exquisite, with a powdery, toothy feel unlike that of any of the other notebooks we tested or have used in the past. (In a pile of more than 20 notebooks, this is the one I could most readily pick out if blindfolded.) The paper took well to pencil, ballpoint, rollerball, gel pen, and fountain pens, with very little smudging and no bleeding. Most of our testers said it just felt good to write on.
We love the firm cover and the ample page count, as well as all the extras this notebook offers: two thick ribbon bookmarks, labels for the spine and title page, page numbers, index pages, and a sturdy back pocket.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Because the paper in the Leuchtturm1917 is thin, there is more ghosting with this notebook than with the other notebooks in this list. However, the ink doesn’t show through as much as it does with a Moleskine notebook—perhaps the most popular brand for notebooks of this size and type—and we were willing to overlook this issue because the Leuchtturm1917 performed so well in all other regards.
The line ruling is also narrower than in other notebooks we tested—6 mm versus the typical 7 mm. A difference of a single millimeter might not sound like a lot, but if you have large handwriting, this ruling might be too tight for you. On the other hand, if you prefer to have more lines per page, it could be a bonus.
Size: A5 (5.8 by 8.3 inches), 251 pages
Ruling options: lined, dot grid, graph, blank
The best Moleskine alternative: Paperage Lined Journal
This simple journal-style notebook offers all the basics and a better writing experience than the more popular Moleskine notebooks it mimics.$10 from Amazon
Get this if: You want an inexpensive, basic medium-size notebook with a hard cover but don’t want to sacrifice quality.
Why it’s great: We were pleasantly surprised by this $10 notebook from an unknown brand (these notebooks first became available on Amazon in 2019). I compared it side by side with a similar Moleskine notebook, and the Paperage Lined Journal paper was a significant upgrade, consisting of thicker, brighter pages that reliably handled rollerball, gel, and fountain pens with very little smudging or feathering. Wirecutter producer (and notebook and pen collector) Erin Moore noted that the Paperage felt good to hold and “seems fairly well bound,” adding that ink colors looked nice on the paper.
Although the Paperage is our budget hardcover notebook pick, it doesn’t skimp on extra details such as a silky ribbon bookmark, a back pocket that also has a secondary slot for cards, and spine and title page labels (although they aren’t as attractive as the Leuchtturm1917’s labels).
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Most of the notebooks we tested had paper measuring 80 or 90 gsm (grams per square meter)—significantly thicker than your typical composition notebook pages or cheap copy paper—but the Paperage paper was even thicker, weighing 100 gsm. This made the pages easier to flip, and it also made them feel more substantial than those of competing notebooks, but we were a bit torn about whether the added thickness was actually an improvement. Wirecutter head of photo and video Michael Hession said it felt a bit “cardboardy,” whereas I would liken it to writing on a matte business card. We think the Paperage offers a fine experience, but if you’re looking for elegantly thin paper in a hardcover shell, you’re better off with the Leuchtturm1917.
While we appreciated the rounded corners of the notebook and the sturdiness of the cover, we also noted that the cover felt a bit cheaper than those of higher-priced notebooks—less soft to the touch and with more ragged edges at the corners. But those are only nitpicky criticisms of an otherwise great notebook.
Because Paperage hasn’t been around long, we don’t have any long-term testing notes or know about the consistency of the notebook quality, but we’ll keep this factor in mind and report back as we long-term test the notebook and conduct future rounds of testing.
Size: 5.7 by 8 inches, 160 pages
Ruling options: lined, dotted, blank
The best spiral-bound notebook: Maruman Mnemosyne N194A Special Memo Notebook
*At the time of publishing, the price was $11.
Get this if: You prefer to write in a fairly large notebook with ring binding, which helps the notebook lie flat and makes it quicker to thumb through when you’re trying to find specific notes, as students and frequent meeting-notes takers are wont to do. Perforated pages are a big plus if you want to use the pages elsewhere—or if you often regret what you’ve written.
Why it’s great: The paper in the Maruman Mnemosyne N194A Special Memo Notebook was one of our favorites, particularly when we were writing with a fountain pen. Its vellum-like smoothness made gel and fountain pen inks shine, with crisp, non-feathery edges. Compared with similar spiral notebooks—including our previous full-size notebook pick, the Black n’ Red Business Notebook—the paper is thicker and less smudgy, with very little ghosting and no bleeding.
The notebook’s page ruling and format are unique. Rather than a simple lined ruling, the N194A has a large header at the top for date and title and then divides the rest of the page into thirds via darker lines. The format seems designed for more organized note taking, but we’re ambivalent about the page divisions. We did love the notebook’s consistently effortless page perforation and its durable binding.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The poly cover feels strong and protective, but it’s not for everyone and perhaps not as durable as it looks—Wirecutter senior staff writer Kimber Streams disliked the plastic cover and found that it scratched easily from another spiral-bound notebook.
The notebook also comes with a yellow cardstock cover page that describes features of the notebook in Japanese. Like most things that are a matter of taste, we didn’t all agree on the value of that yellow page:
Size: B5 (6.6 by 9.9 inches), 150 pages
Ruling options: lined, dot grid
Large softcover notebook pick: Apica Notebook CD15
At 7 by 10 inches and with just 66 pages, this notebook is perfect for dedicating to a single project or class.$7 from Amazon
Get this if: You want a lightweight notebook with fountain-pen-friendly paper and room for lots of notes on each page.
Why it’s great: Though it lacks the “Premium” designation of Apica’s other notebooks, the Apica Notebook CD15 sports similar high-quality, super-smooth paper. The main differences we found between it and the Apica Premium CD Notebook are that the CD15 has a brighter white color and a thinner, more flexible cover. The latter allows you to fold the cover and pages over, which is helpful in a notebook this size.
In our tests, ink flowed nicely across the paper, which had a subtle sheen. The ruling on the pages is slightly different than typical notebooks: In addition to a project number and a date prompt at the top of each page, dark blue indentation rules—lines with tiny ticks about every half inch—appear at the top and bottom. Although we didn’t really use them, they could be helpful for people who want to space their writing a certain way, such as programmers who use a lot of indents when formatting code. Otherwise, the pages’ college rule (7.1 mm) should suit most note-takers.
The CD15 stood up to constant handling and folding—it’s durable enough to toss in a backpack or other bag. Because it comes in a few different colors and doesn’t have a ton of pages, you could dedicate several of these notebooks to different projects and keep them neatly organized.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Like the Apica Premium CD Notebook, the slick feel of the paper and the old-fashioned cover design of the CD15 aren’t for everyone.
Size: 7 by 10 inches, 66 pages
Ruling options: lined
The best steno notepad: Maruman Mnemosyne N166 Steno Pad
Get this if: You want a medium-size notepad that’s easy to flip through to refer back to your notes. Steno notebooks might seem like a tool of a diminished trade, but even if you don’t plan on using the two-column layout, they’re still quite useful for taking notes during a call, making to-do lists, and writing a lot of text without giving up much desk space. Because it’s top-bound, leftie writers should find this notebook easier to use than other notebook formats, too.
Why it’s great: The Maruman Mnemosyne N166 Steno Pad had the best-quality paper of all the steno notebooks we tested. As in the other Maruman Mnemosyne notebooks we considered, the paper is smooth and thick yet slightly translucent—a little like vellum. Inky pens (rollerball, gel, and fountain pens) glided across it nicely in our tests, and it offers enough tooth to make writing on these pages with a pencil or ballpoint pleasant.
Compared with other steno pads—though, to be fair, there aren’t that many notebook makers still producing steno pads these days—the N166 proved to be the most elegant in design and construction. While other steno pads (including our previous pick, the Field Notes Steno Book) have dark, distracting lines, the light blue-gray lines of the N166 sit in the background—guidelines rather than dictators for your text. That’s especially important if you don’t intend to use the notebook for its two-column organization. Perforated pages mean you can neatly tear out your notes without jagged edges.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: We couldn’t find much to dislike about this steno pad, but if you prefer toothier paper or one with darker lines, the Field Notes Steno Book would be a better choice for you. It’s more expensive, though, and it lacks page perforation.
As with the other Maruman Mnemosyne notebooks, the poly cover and yellow cover page of the N166 might not be to everyone’s taste.
Size: A5 (5.8 by 8.3 inches), 140 pages
Ruling options: Gregg ruled
The best reporter notebook: Leuchtturm1917 Reporter Notepad
May be out of stock
Get this if: You want a small, hardcover notepad with paper that’s a joy to write on. The Leuchtturm1917 Reporter Notepad has everything we love about its larger siblings, just in a palm-sized format.
Why it’s great: This notepad might be small, but its diminutive form contains a lot of features, including perforated, numbered pages and an index page, a large back pocket, labels for the spine and cover, an elastic closure, and—most important—fantastic paper quality. Because its small size means it’ll typically be used for note taking on the go, we don’t expect most people to use a fountain pen with it, but the ivory-colored paper did hold up to all types of ink in our tests. It has that powdery feel that’s unique to Leuchtturm1917 notebooks, providing a lot of feedback as you scribble, whether you’re using pencil or pen.
We think that the notepad’s high-quality construction makes it worthy of setting aside for ideas big or small, or for quickly logging precious moments. The hard cover makes it easy to hold in one hand for writing without a table nearby.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: As with the paper in other Leuchtturm1917 notebooks, ink does show through the Reporter Notepad’s pages, on the other side of the sheet.
Although it’s about the size of a large smartphone (like my Galaxy Note 8), the Leuchtturm1917 Reporter Notepad is too thick to fit comfortably in most pockets except for jackets or coats.
Size: 3.5 by 6 inches, 188 pages
Ruling options: lined, blank
Softcover reporter notebook: Field Notes Front Page Reporter’s Notebooks
This stylish reporter pad is lightweight and has toothy, thick paper.$15 from Amazon
Get this if: You’re interested in a notebook this size for taking notes one-handed, fitting it in a large pocket or small bag, and stashing receipts or business cards inside the cover—and you’re willing to splurge on high-quality paper.
Why it’s great: TheField Notes Front Page Reporter’s Notebook has bright white paper with a classic matte feel—great for those who like writing in a notebook that gives a lot of tactile feedback. Using even the wettest, inkiest pen we tested for our guide to pens (the Uni-ball Vision Elite), we had a hard time creating a smudge or bleed-through with this notebook.
The spiral-ring binding and thicker paper (70 pounds or 105 gsm—the thickest of the notebook papers we tested) make page turning much less of a nuisance than with other reporter notepads we tested. The overlapping cardstock cover keeps the double-ring spirals from catching or getting warped in your pocket or bag. And the pocket on the back cover, though open on one side, can serve as a convenient spot for any scrap you need to hold on to until you get back to your office.
Like other Field Notes notebooks, this reporter pad has a distinctive, charming design that makes you feel like you’re going on an adventure, even when you’re just taking notes at your desk.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: On a per-page basis, this notebook is the priciest we recommend (11¢ per page, versus an average of 7¢ per page; the Leuchtturm1917 Reporter Notepad is 8¢ per page). If you’re an actual news reporter, scrambling from one interview to the next and then flipping through a day’s worth of notes on deadline, we don’t think paying as much as Field Notes wants for its pad is worth it. Save this notepad for perhaps more precious notes you might want to refer to in later years.
The cover on the Front Page is thin cardstock—not as sturdy as what you get with other notebooks, and more prone to getting bent or frayed. It also makes the notepad flex a bit more when you’re holding it with one hand and writing with the other. Finally, the partially enclosed back pocket can lure you into thinking it’s a totally enclosed and safe pocket, but cards or notes will fall out at certain angles.
Size: 3.75 by 8 inches, 70 pages
Ruling options: lined
Disc-bound notebook for maximum customizability: Levenger Circa
Get this if: You want the flexibility of a binder but in a more grown-up, professional notebook format. The Levenger Circa is more of a system than a notebook, and Levenger’s sampling kit, which has junior- and letter-size paper, comes with a $40 gift card, so you can further customize the notebook after trying it out.
Why it’s great: A disc-bound notebook not only lets you move pages to a different section but also allows you to add pages and accessories of different sizes. That means you can add tab dividers, narrow pages with to-do lists, pouches to hold cards or small supplies, and more. I’ve used several disc-bound notebooks over the years, including Staples’s Arc and the Martha Stewart–branded Arc system, and I think the Circa has the paper that stands up best to rearranging. It’s perfect for taking notes on different projects and then grouping them together in separate sections. Levenger also offers the widest range of accessories and style options for its Circa line—from leather covers to discs (in more than a dozen colors) to punches (to make any paper fit into the Circa notebook). Page refills are available in all sorts of ruling as well as special formats like agenda planners.
The sampling kit comes with 60 sheets of paper in junior (5.5 by 8.5 inches) and letter (8.5 by 11 inches) sizes, as well as dividers, a task pad, translucent covers, and discs to create two notebooks. That should give you enough of a feel for a disc-bound notebook system without requiring too much investment in it. The paper is a thick (100 gsm), toothy, matte white stock that takes all sorts of ink well.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Prices for the paper refills are on the high end of the spectrum, on a par with the cost of Field Notes notebooks. You can expect to spend about 9.5¢ per page for the junior size or 11.5¢ per page for the letter size. A binder with loose-leaf paper would definitely be cheaper but would offer a poorer writing experience.
The translucent covers that come with the sampling kit aren’t as classy or handsome (in our opinion) as those you’ll find on our recommended hardcover notebooks (or even many softcovers), but they add to the customizability of the notebook, since anything you put as the first page will show through as the cover design.
Size: junior (5.5 by 8.5 inches) and letter (8.5 by 11 inches), 120 pages
Ruling options: lined, grid, blank
Best pocket-size pick: Muji Passport Memo
*At the time of publishing, the price was $2.
Get this if: You want to carry a small, simple notebook everywhere, for a price that doesn’t inhibit your note taking.
Why it’s great: The Muji Passport Memo proves that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a quality notebook. Its cream-colored pages are silky smooth, with no bleeding (unless you use a Sharpie) and not much ghosting to be concerned about.
The stitching is strong—the little notebook held up to multiple folding and unfolding and bending tests—and the thick, coated cardboard cover withstood water spills. The 48 pages provide just enough to cover a trip, an assignment, or some other use without making you feel like you wasted paper if you don’t completely fill it. The Muji Passport Memo is about half an inch shorter than similar pocket notebooks such as the Field Notes Memo and the Clairefontaine Basics Life Unplugged version, which makes it a bit more lightweight and a better fit for more pockets.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Although the notebook easily lies flat when open, getting it to lie flat closed after you’ve used it is nigh impossible. We wish it had an elastic band to keep it from flopping open at our desk, but that’s a minor annoyance.
The dot grid is very light—you have to really look for it to see it. Basically, the experience feels like writing in a blank notebook.
Size: 3.5 by 4.9 inches, 48 pages
Ruling options: dot
An upgraded pocket-size notebook: Field Notes Memo Book
Field Notes Memo Book
This Field Notes book offers a great combination of paper quality, durability, and a range of page and cover choices.$10 from Amazon
(pack of three)
Get this if: You want to carry a small notebook everywhere, and you prefer toothy paper and a range of cover styles to choose from.
Why it’s great: The Field Notes Memo Book is not the cheapest pocket notebook you can buy, nor is it filled with the most luxuriously smooth paper available, but it is the best widely available way to treat yourself to a better writing experience. Aside from the Muji Passport Memo, our testing and surveys have showed that the Field Notes Memo Book is the best-performing notebook that actually fits in a pocket or bag without feeling like a second wallet. In a previous test with nearly 70 Wirecutter staffers, we found that this notebook feathered and smudged the least even with heavy inks, and many testers liked the light-brown ruling and cover details. Field Notes also offers ruled, graph, blank, or (in editions like Pitch Black) dot grid paper, and a wider variety of stylish editions than most notebook makers offer.
The Field Notes comfortably fits flat in many men’s pants, shirt, or jacket pockets. Women’s pants, notoriously unforgiving, can possibly fit this notebook in a back pocket, though it will stick up and may not be comfortable. (“Less comfortable than my wallet and more comfortable than my phone,” wrote one tester who wears women’s jeans.)
As with the Muji Passport Memo, the 48-page length of the Field Notes feels like the right amount for covering a three-day conference, documenting a week-long vacation, planning a novel, scribbling a few weeks’ worth of grocery or to-do lists, or just jotting down a number of random thoughts.
Finally, the Field Notes site offers a great array of versions beyond the basic Field Notes Memo Book, with some 16 covers and variations available as of this writing. Some are simply gorgeous or unusual covers, while others introduce unique features. You can find notebooks that are waterproof, made for to-do lists and goal tracking, made with super-premium paper, and more. If you like these kinds of little surprises, and you take to Field Notes’s form and paper, you can sign up for a four-quarter subscription, which gives you four packs of Field Notes notebooks at a reduced price compared with buying them individually and also nets you a few other freebies.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Field Notes paper represents a notable upgrade from the notebooks you probably bought for school or most memo or legal pads you might use, but it’s not the best paper in all respects, and the Memo Book costs more on a per-page basis than other notebooks this size. Many Wirecutter testers preferred other notebooks for their paper feel and ghosting performance.
Size: 3.5 by 5.5 inches, 48 pages
Ruling options: ruled, graph, plain
What about Moleskine?
Moleskine is the first name most people think of when they think of a “fancy” notebook. Most prominent among them are the Moleskine Cahier Journals. But after comparing the Moleskine offerings with the other notebooks we tested, we think you can do much better. In a Moleskine, the ink from anything that’s wider or wetter than a standard ballpoint spreads quickly into the page, where the edges of your letters will feather, and it shows through (ghosts) strongly on the other side. Users of fine-tipped gel or rollerball pens can pierce the pages with the tips. Standard Moleskine notebooks can work if you stick to one style of pen, but they cost more per page than most of our notebook picks—and you usually get to use only one side of each page because writing shows through on the other side so easily.
Most experts we read and consulted agree. “You shouldn’t be buying it,” writes Elizabeth Newberry of No Pen Intended. “[T]here are too many other good options on the market that don’t have the ink challenges Moleskine does,” says Brad Dowdy of The Pen Addict. These challenges include ghosting, feathering, and an utter intolerance for any wet ink, be it gel or fountain. Some stationery blogs go out of their way to suggest Moleskine alternatives. Moleskine offers many varieties, some with higher-quality paper, like the Volant, but often at prices the same as or above those of the notebooks we tested for this guide.
How we picked
If you just need paper to write on and want to save the most money, use any paper you can find. But if you write every day and need to keep your thoughts organized—especially on a specific project—having a good notebook can be a lifesaver.
The notebooks we tested and picked for this guide are designed to be pleasant to write in, nice to look at, durable, and worth the price for your plans, tasks, thoughts, lists, and reminders. They average about $9 per notebook and 7¢ per page, which we think is reasonable for something you might rely on daily.
We combed through the favorites of experts and co-workers and searched deep into the inventories of Amazon and JetPens. Sorting and filtering for price, plus the sizes and rulings that people find most useful (grid paper has its place, but most people prefer lined rulings), we narrowed a list of 81 possible contenders down to 24 test candidates.
How we tested
Over the course of about two weeks, I wrote on several pages in each notebook using a variety of writing utensils: pencil, ballpoint, gel pen, rollerball, and fountain pen. I took notes about each notebook’s design and construction, as well as the feel of its paper, looking out for issues such as bleeding, ghosting, or feathering. Then I selected 10 notebooks that represented a sampling of each major brand and sent them to four other Wirecutter staffers—all notebook enthusiasts—to test. Wirecutter producer Erin Moore’s partner, who is left-handed, also helped us evaluate the smudginess of each notebook’s paper.
Judging notebooks with similar characteristics is hard, especially when you might like the paper in one but prefer a different format, such as a steno notebook versus a hardcover journal-type notebook. To help divorce the paper from its shape and binding, many of our testers cut out pages from each notebook and wrote the same thing—a passage from Kant, a poem, or other famous and well-loved words—to compare the papers side by side.
After writing in each notebook over the course of a week, using the same pen or pencil in each, the testers filled out a survey selecting their top three notebook picks as well as their least favorite. They also provided the reasons for their selections. In (rough) order of importance, we rated the notebooks based on:
- the feel of the paper under pen and pencil
- bleeding (ink passing through to the other side of the paper)
- feathering (ink seeping from the edges of letters)
- ghosting (pen ink visible on the other side of paper)
- pen ink smudging
- look and design, including perceived durability
After the results were in, joyful paper nerding ensued in our Slack channel:
Our picks are based on our panelists’ rankings, on expert advice, and on my individual testing of the other notebooks that I didn’t send to the panel.
Many notebooks we don’t recommend for most people are still great options for the right person. We’ve highlighted reasons you might consider the following notebooks in addition to our picks.
The Rhodia ColoR Premium Notepad was our previous medium-size notebook pick, but we decided to test Rhodia’s Webnotebook instead this time since it has a more classic book-style format. We still like the Rhodia ColoR’s excellent, smooth paper, and we recommend it if you want a notepad in this size that isn’t spiral-bound.
Baronfig’s Vanguard is an elegant notebook with off-white pages and sturdy yellow stitching against a warm gray cardstock cover. The toothy, matte pages have a premium feel. However, these medium-size notebooks (they come in packs of three) each have only 48 pages. In notebooks at this size, we prefer more pages, even if we’re dedicating one notebook to a project. If you want a lightweight, medium-size notebook, however, the Vanguard is worth a look.
We tested the Code&Quill Compass Reporter Notebook and appreciated its thick (100 gsm) paper, which has a unique ruling: dot grid on one side and indented rule on the other. But we found this hardcover notebook too bulky to write easily on when holding it with one hand. The company offers notebooks in other formats, though, so if the ruling appeals to you—it seems ideal for coders and creative types—take a look at its other offerings.
The pocket-sized Word notebooks have high-quality paper (similar to that of Field Notes) and come in a variety of interesting cover designs, but the pages have bullet point guides, so we think the format is more suitable for task planning or bullet journaling than for general note taking or other uses.
The Clairefontaine Basics Life Unplugged (medium) and (pocket) notebooks were previous picks for this guide. We dismissed them this time around because of their wide (8 mm) ruling. Although the paper quality was excellent (especially for fountain pens), it reminded us too much of grade-school composition books, and the wider-than-average ruling can waste paper space if your handwriting isn’t large.
The Black n’ Red Business Notebook, also a previous pick, was our panelists’ least favorite notebook by far this time around. It had the smudgiest paper of the notebooks we tested, and we disliked the overall aesthetics, including its thick gray lines, the cheesy motivational quotes on the divider pages, and the obtrusive black markings in the page corners (which are there so you can scan the pages with the company’s smartphone app to digitize them).
Field Notes’s Steno Book is still a fine notebook, with a sturdy cover and great paper. The Maruman Mnemosyne N166 Steno Pad is a better value, though, costing 7¢ per page versus the Field Notes pad’s 12¢ per page. The Field Notes steno pad also lacks perforation, and we found its lines to be too heavy in comparison with those of the N166.
The Rhodia Webnotebook wound up as one of our panelists’ least favorite options because of its cheap-feeling cover and pages that felt too slick and waxy. This was a surprising disappointment because we love the paper quality in the company’s ColoR notepad.
We dismissed several cheap notebooks that ranged from 2¢ to 3¢ per page—the Blueline Steno Notebook, the National Brand 1 Subject Notebook, and the National Brand Steno Notes—because their paper was very thin and flimsy. If you just want the cheapest scrap paper, one of these notebooks would be fine. Similarly, the Tops Reporter’s Notebook, which costs 7¢ per page, offers merely mediocre paper no better than what you’d find in a dollar-store notebook. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for these notebooks—they simply weren’t what we were looking for.
In previous testing, we eliminated the following notebooks:
Ampad Gold Fibre notepads promise luxurious paper in their name, but in our tests their paper was the smudgiest among all the steno pads we tried. The paper also didn’t feel as smooth under a good pen as you might expect for such glossy, smudgy paper.
Clairefontaine’s 1951 Clothbound Notebook in A5 size is quite affordable and available in a number of colors, but as in Clairefontaine’s other notebooks, the binding is quite thick and stiff, so pages are pushing on you from the other side on certain pages. In addition, after a few writing sessions, we found that the spine had notable creases and some glue separation. The same limitations apply to another clothbound notebook we tested, the Fabriano Soft Touch, although it looks more modern; the Fabriano survived our bending a bit better and costs more.
The pages of the Portage Professional Reporter’s Notebook let ink pool on top—especially at the end of characters or in other pools or blobs in two-stroke characters—which led to notable smudges. Perhaps more important, pages didn’t always reliably turn over the top of the notepad smoothly or without small tears, which is a serious matter when a notepad is meant to be used for quickly scribbled notes.
Steno books from Tops had paper that didn’t feel smooth under a pen, had the stickiest pages for turning over the top, smudged a lot, and had such thin covers that they were difficult to hold in one hand.
Some notebooks we considered came highly recommended but were unavailable to test because of stock issues at the time of testing. These include Write Notepads & Co. Pocket Notebooks and Nock Co. DotDash Pocket Notebooks (from the company co-founded by The Pen Addict blogger Brad Dowdy