I spend most of my workday at the computer (and a fair amount of my leisure time on a tablet or phone). I expect the same might be true for you, too.
It hasn’t always been this way. As a young teen, I wrote a lot by hand. All my schoolwork was done in exercise books or on paper, with an occasional typed-up assignment. But gradually, I started writing more and more straight onto the computer.
These days, far more of my words are typed than handwritten. But when I put pen to paper, there’s something different about my writing and even my thinking. I’m able to take risks and be more vulnerable—because I know I won’t be publishing the words as written. I also find that I can focus more deeply, without all the distractions of the web a single click away.
It’s not just me, either. I’ve noticed that writing by hand has been making a comeback. There’s been a surge in paper-based planners and journals, such as the Clever Fox Planner, the SELF Journal, and the Start Where You Are journal.
There are even plenty of authors who write exclusively, or close to exclusively, by hand; you can find a list of some of them here.
So why, in this era of texts and posts and digital natives, are pen and paper still so popular?
There are plenty of obvious advantages to writing onto a computer, so why might you want to turn to pen and paper?
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty distractible at the computer. It’s too easy to end up checking social media when I should be writing. And even when I turn off my internet connection, the framework of writing on a screen can be distracting: Sometimes I fiddle around formatting my subheadings, for example, or spend too much time obsessing over the wiggly red and green lines Word uses to denote spelling mistakes and grammatical hiccups.
Writing by hand means that you just have your pen and paper. You’re not going to lose your train of thought in all the fancy features of whatever word-processing or note-taking program you favor.
When I’m journaling or brainstorming on paper, I can dig more deeply into a topic than I can if I’m typing. I’m not the only writer who feels this way, either. As Melissa Donovan puts it:
I use hardbound journals for writing poetry, developing ideas, and recording my thoughts. These journals are keepers, not throwaways. […] I find that when I work in these books, writing ideas flow effortlessly. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the hardcover (it feels so much like a real book). Maybe it’s the potential in all that white space. All I know is that I start feeling creative just by looking at one of them!
Why does Melissa find that her “ideas flow effortlessly” and why do I find pen and paper so helpful for brainstorming? I suspect it’s partly because we’re forced to slow down: Handwriting engages our brains in a slightly different way from typing (think about the way in which you have to form each letter with a pen, versus just tapping a key on a keyboard).
When I slow down, it seems like there’s more space for my thoughts to develop. I find myself coming up with more ideas, more easily than if I wrote on the computer.
Although many people now take notes on their laptops, I still stick to a notebook and pen to jot down notes when I’m at talks or conferences.
This research, which suggests taking notes by hand is better than typing, explains why. The act of writing forces you to engage with the topic and summarize what’s being said, instead of simply transcribing as fast as you can. Afterwards, you’ll be able to recall more from the lecture (or talk, or conference session) than you otherwise would.
Laptops are getting smaller and more portable, but I still don’t want to carry mine around everywhere. Instead, I have a cheap notebook and plenty of pens in my bag. If I find myself with some free time, or if an idea strikes, I can grab my notebook and start writing.
I know some writers work on their phone when on the move, but I’ve never met anyone who liked typing notes on a tiny phone screen. Plus, it’s all too easy to get distracted the moment you have your phone in your hand!
Most of my writing is for a mass audience: blog posts, articles, or novels. But occasionally, I write something that will have just one special recipient—and pen and paper is great for this.
Ever since my children were babies, I’ve kept a handwritten sentence-a-day journal for each of them; I hope that one day it’ll be a special souvenir of their earliest years.
You might not want to keep a diary, but there are other special types of writing that you may want to do by hand: letters to family members or loved ones; a poem you’ve written for friends who are getting married; or even a letter to your child or yourself in the future. Typed words simply don’t have the same impact: They don’t have the tactile connection to you that handwriting has, and they won’t convey your personality in the same way.
Hopefully these reasons are enough to convince you that the pen and paper technique is worth a go, but if you’re not yet sure, you can find a longer list of benefits here.
If you do most or all of your writing on the computer, you might feel a little daunted by the idea of writing by hand.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
(If you’re writing for someone else, try slowing down and spacing your words out. Use a nice, smooth-writing pen and good paper, too.)
You might want to try out a few different notebooks to figure out what feels like a good fit for you: narrow-lined; wide-lined; no lines at all; thin or thick paper; white or creamy; or blue, purple, and glittered, even.
You may find it’s helpful to have a different notebook for each of your main writing projects, otherwise you’ll end up with your novel notes mingled in with your blog post ideas and your shopping lists.
I used to write in blue ink and now prefer black, but you may feel differently! If you enjoy color, you could even get a pack of different-colored pens and use them to highlight particular thoughts or to add variety to your brainstorming or journaling.
Stick with it for a few days—you may come to enjoy it more than you initially thought you would!
Choose a few short things to write about by hand (I’ll come onto some suggestions in a moment) and build up gradually.
You probably can’t ditch your computer entirely, so what types of writing might particularly benefit from being done by hand?
Try pen and paper for:
After using online tools like Nozbe for a long time, I went back to paper diaries about a year and a half ago. They help me focus on the big picture, the major things I want to accomplish. With many online tools, small tasks take up as much space as big ones: It’s easy to fill your list with so many tasks that you’ll never be able to get through them all.
When you write on paper, you’re limited by the physical space available (whereas with most online tools, you can just keep going). For me, this is a helpful reminder that there are only so many tasks I can actually cram into one work day!
While I’ve tried mind-mapping tools occasionally, I’ve never found anything that compares to the experience of this very same exercise on paper. I can jot down my thoughts, draw connections, scribble things out, and come up with ideas I’d probably never have uncovered any other way.
If you’re using a lined notebook for this, you might want to turn it on its side: That way, your mindmap won’t feel constrained by the lines.
I’ve never been a very consistent diarist, but when I fall into the habit, I’ve found it a very helpful reflective space. As with planning, I’ve tried journal-writing apps, but I always come back to pen and paper as the best way to work through my thoughts.
You could keep a journal about your life in general, or you could choose something specific to journal about—some people keep a journal of books they’ve read, for instance.
Another option is to keep a journal where you write a few notes after each writing session: this could be anything from a word count to noting your mood for that writing session to a list of details you want to include in your upcoming chapters.
These aren’t your only options, of course, and you might come up with something completely different that you want to write about by hand. It could be a good way to break through a block with something you’ve been struggling with. For example, I rewrote my novel’s blurb several times by hand recently and found it helpful to get away from the computer so I could focus on trying different phrases and sentences.
We’ve taken a look at the resurgence of pen and paper, and some of the great reasons why pen and paper works. We’ve covered some practical tips for making this method you. Finally, we looked at some types of writing that might particularly benefit from handwriting—planning, brainstorming, and journaling.
Changing your writing routine can feel a little daunting if (like me!) you’re a creature of habit. But you might be surprised how much your writing practice, your style, and even the way your process things changes, so give it a try and see how it works out.
What will you jot down this week?
Ali Luke has been freelancing and blogging since 2008. These days ,she juggles freelancing, blogging, novel-writing and two young children. As well as blogging for a number of large sites (ProBlogger, Daily Writing Tips and more), she writes about the art, craft and business of writing on her long-running blog Aliventures.com. If you'd like to spend more time writing, download her free ebook Time to Write: How to Fit More Writing Into Your Life, Right Now -- it's a short read, with ten practical tried-and-tested tips.