Not long ago I was commenting to my writing group about how happy I was to have scored some serious deals on notebooks during the back-to-school sales. I like five subject notebooks with pocket dividers between each subject. I use them for everything from journaling, to taking notes for my books, to drafting entire chapters and I chew up tons of these per year. Sales are my friend.
My so-called friends made fun of me. They called me old and out-of-touch.
“There are apps these days. Use one of those.”
“Haven’t you heard of Evernote?”
“Paper is so over. Get with the modern world and use technology.”
I laughed it off, but inside I was a little hacked off. Yes, there is technology and I know how to use it and I do much of my work with it. I’m not that old. But I also find value in using simple paper and pencils, too. Especially at the beginning when a work is just taking shape.
The main reason I choose paper and pencil for certain types of work is because I think better when I’m writing longhand. The slowness of the process leads to deeper thinking and an ability to see more sides of an issue. When I’m typing, I’m going so fast that thoughts tend to slip in and out of my head without me really being able to capture them. Writing longhand forces me to slow down. I tend to follow thoughts to their ends rather than cutting them off and speeding on to the next thing.
Also, the openness of a notebook page allows me to easily jot down potential connections or plot points to come back to later. I may be writing a character sketch, for example, and have a thought about how a personality trait may play off of another character. I can just jot down a note in the margin and come back to it later. On the computer, I either have to go find and open the relevant document and place the note there, or go up to the menu, open comments or some other function and then put the note in there. Way more steps either way.
It’s also healthy to get away from technology for a while. I, like most of us, spend most of the day staring at screens. Going old-school benefits both my brain and my body. Writing at a desk uses different muscles than working on the computer. Breaking up a workday by throwing in some old-fashioned paper and pencil pushing can ease aches and pains and prevent chronic overuse injuries. And writing longhand uses different parts of your brain than does working at a computer. Since I don’t want to end up with a limited skill set, I’m all for using different sectors of my brain. There are also benefits for your eyes as it’s known that screens contribute to eyestrain and dry eyes.
There are other benefits to paper and pencil, as well.
- No electricity required. A pencil is ready to go whenever you are. It doesn’t need charging or internet access in order to work.
- Computer failure won’t kill your work. Even if you religiously back up your data, you still run the risk of an application crashing mid-use. Then you have to go back and recreate everything up to the last point you saved. And if your computer dies completely, you’re offline until you buy something else. With paper and pencil, you can keep working.
- No distractions. A computer with internet access spells doom for someone who needs to work. Games, the internet, email… the list of things to waste time with is endless. Paper and pencil forces you to commit to your work, simply because there’s nothing else to do.
- Faster and better learning. If you’re trying to retain information, writing it down is superior to computers. Your brain prioritizes written information over typed information so when it converts that information to stored memory, written ideas are stored more efficiently. Also, when taking notes on a computer, the computer sometimes gets in the way. If you’re listening to a lecture and taking notes, you sometimes get distracted from the lecture when you have to adjust some setting in the application. You can miss stuff. You’re more engaged with pencil and paper.
- It’s calming. When I’m strung out, the last thing I need is more technology. Handwriting is relaxing. It seems to tell your brain to slow down and chill out, whereas banging on a computer seems to do the opposite.
- It opens up creativity. You can doodle while you think and sometimes that opens up a new idea. You can quickly arrange ideas in unconventional ways that are a pain in the butt to create in a word processor (pyramids, outlines, columns, chains, etc.) that can lead you to new connections between ideas. You can ignore the margins and the lines and write wherever and however you need/want to.
Technology has its place. It’s great for being able to share work, manage large documents, and get things done quickly. But not everything is about speed and quantity. In the early, creative stages of a work, slowing down, thinking, and enhancing your creativity may pay bigger dividends. At the very least, you’re using different muscles and areas of your brain. And it doesn’t have to be either or; no one’s going to make you choose to use one or the other exclusively. There are plenty of ways to use both tech and paper in your life. The key is finding what works for you and making the most of it. (And ignoring those who tell you that you’re wrong, old, or stupid for choosing the best method(s) for you.)