I noticed an interesting Twitter exchange yesterday and the two people were talking about how they both absorbed information better when they read it from a paperback or a hard copy of a book as opposed to the digital versions.

This got me thinking and I did what I generally do in these situations: Began to research if it was indeed true.

While there were plenty of sites that popped up in response to that query, these two were what stuck with me the best:

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens by the Scientific American
9 Incredible Ways Writing By Hand Benefits Our Bodies And Brains

We live in a digital age.

Notebooks and journals are slowly becoming the refuge of a tiny part of the populace that still believes in writing things by hand.

Print newspapers have given way to news in your pocket or the palm of your hand in the form of a smartphone.

Books are jostling for space with their e-book counterparts in the shape of Kindle and e-book readers.

I have nothing against tech or the digital revolution. From blogging to giving me content at my fingertips it’s transformed my life as a work-from-home individual.

But that part about information retention was actually nagging at me, because I think it is true.

To explain what I mean, let’s do a tiny experiment.

Open up a folder on your desktop or an e-mail folder on your browser or a list of bookmarked articles. Find a folder that has information you’ve saved for later. Done?

Now, read through at least 10 of those files or articles in the next hour.

A few hours later, highlight the points in a Word Document on your laptop.

You’d be interested to know that you’d have absorbed about 10% of what you’ve read. (I admit that’s a random number. Don’t come yelling at me saying I was off by 3.75% or whatever).

Instead, if you were asked to remember a poem that you’d read in childhood, such as ‘The Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth, I can guarantee that you’d remember things like the following:

It was a full-page, two-page spread in my school textbook. The top half of the first page was covered by a gorgeous illustration of a field of yellow daffodils and the sun streaming down on them. The first two paragraphs were on page one while the rest of the poem was on page 2. Lines that stay with me even without looking them up are ‘A host of golden daffodils’, ‘When all at once I saw a cloud’, ‘And dances with the daffodils’.

You see?

The mind’s eye is so much more capable of recalling vivid details when you read something on paper, as opposed to on a screen. That Scientific American article I linked to above explains why, in more depth.

So, if reading is better when it’s on paper, what if it’s the same when it comes to writing?

When I worked on my thesis on the poetry of e.e.cummings back in 2000, I recall writing out the entire thesis first by hand. It involved numerous rewrites, scratching out and crumpling sheets in disgust. Typing it out came 6 months later, when it had to be printed and bound for submission to the university.

I wrote so much that I am baffled when I think about it now.

I admit I type faster than I write these days. But that’s because of two reasons:

  1. I am more used to typing now, than writing.
  2. My handwriting sucks, way more than you could imagine.

But here’s the truth. I LOVE writing by hand. I write every single day, even if it’s just to-do lists and tasks for the day and tiny notes in my journal.

What this has shown me, however, is that I need to write more, especially if I want to learn something to remember for the long term.

I’m frankly a bit annoyed with myself, for letting the digital world take over my ability to think and recall things with clarity. For letting me think that information at my fingertips is a good substitute for actual, deep, creative thinking.

And the only way to change that (okay, two ways) is to spend time reading and re-reading things deeply and writing things down by hand to help me remember the most important ideas.

12 thoughts on “Why I am returning to writing things by hand

  1. Most of my writing by hand happens as part of personalized gifts, like cards and letters. While writing a letter once, after a mere 4 lines, my hands started to hurt. That is when I realized that how out of touch I am! While typing is still greater than writing in life, I try my best to write by hand as and when I can. Grocery list, menu for the week etc.

    Your handwriting is priceless and childlike and I mean it in the truest sense possible <3

  2. Oh I still write by hand . And a lot of it. Infact I am terrible when it comes to my keyboard speed and end up having way too many typos. I write a personal diary regularly. I write out my tasks for the day apart from my shopping list.

    All that I require is a smooth nibbed pen 🙂

  3. Dear Shy,

    Such a relevant post and much needed in todays times. We are losing the art of writing to the digital word, and it’s a sad state of affairs. I’m so glad that even though I didn’t mind reading from the Kindle, I stuck to my paperback and hard bound books. Makes the experience so much more real, and love the wafting fragrance of the paper.

    I do write. Maybe not the way I did in the past, but I make my to-do list, plan my work, take notes, write my gratitude pages, sometimes a journal. So I’m glad I haven’t lost touch with this precious habit. I even like writing notes to dear family and friends on special occasions, and sometimes otherwise.

    And I write with an fountain pen. Yes, not the refillable, ink pot one, but the one with a changeable refill, and I love it. It is one of my most precious treasures.
    Recently, I was in a training workshop for twelve days in the forests and I wrote with my hand, like there was no tomorrow. Very liberating indeed.

    I notice the younger one really resists writing, especially when she it is revising her school work. I can’t stress enough, the importance of writing to be able to memorise the course, before the exams. But I guess they are a digital generation, though she isn’t too much into gadgets yet.

    Trust you to do the research and churn out such a valuable post. Thank you so much.

    Love and hugs xox

  4. I agree completely It is true for sure because that’s how I studied in school. Only if I write things down I could remember them. Also we remember more if information is depicted in the form of art or a diagram. It’s great that you are getting back to writing by hand. Something I am trying to do as well.

  5. That’s true! I have a space crunch at home when it comes to books. So, sometimes, I buy books on Kindle as e-books. However, if I find they are valuable and that I’d re-read them or that I would want to remember what I read in them, then I buy a paperback. That’s how I bought Deep Work by Cal Newport. I also write down all the points that I read in the book and those that resonated with me. This way the book is embedded in my brain and becomes a part of me.

  6. Totally agree Shy! I almost always hand write complete drafts of my blogposts and later type it with edits on my blog. I also love copying out favourite quotes and lines into a lovely Alicia Souza book I reserve for just this purpose. Funny how the mind works at retaining some stuff and going blank with others! Maybe the brain is still hard-wired to old fashioned things! ? Btw Daffodils is a fav I’ll never forget!

  7. The only things I write by hand are shopping lists or grocery lists and leave notes for the kids. And then I lament over how awkward my handwriting has become. Earlier I used to take meeting notes by hand but now it is in a word folder. Like you said, I type way faster than I write. Perhaps, we would retain more if we wrote. That’s an interesting theory. Somehow, I don’t see myself going back to writing any time soon. Even the two journals I have are gathering dust. I feel very sad in even admitting it here, but I just don’t feel motivated enough to write with pen and paper. 🙁

  8. I admit I am more of a digital writer now. It’s rare that I pen down things so I have started with a journal. Just to keep a better track of things and be more organised though it hasn’t helped much coz my phone is a menace. 🙁
    The ease of opening a page and reviewing things, plus it is light on the eyes.

    Though I don’t think I will go back to actively writing but I like paperbacks too much to stop reading from paper.

  9. Yes, and that’s the reason I have maintained 2 diaries. One for my personal notes: thoughts, letters to myself, pouring my heart out. And the other one is for everything regarding my blogging, work.
    I write by hand everything — monthly plans for my blog, my goals, the areas I need to work on, my progress, the courses I need to do..in short, everything! And I remember it all much better. In fact, I remember what I wrote in that diary 2 years back when I was planning Metanoia. ?
    So, yes, we NEED TO WRITE, whatever generation we may belong to!!

  10. I completely agree. We can recall those poems and pages Bette than the articles read in the morning. I am proud to say that I write everyday, a lot. I finish at least one notebook a month. My husband complains that I am seen writing on my journal but nothing on the blog or anywhere else. Writing by hand gives me clarity and sanity and it has nothing to do with neat handwriting. 🙂

  11. He he cannot help it. It’s now hard-wired into my psyche, that need to research something. 😀

    I completely relate to that ‘lost practice’ bit by the way. But I really want to write, even if it means it looks like crows’ feet. In any case the only person who needs to read the tripe I write on paper is me. So I think I can live with that. 😉

  12. It’s so like you to get down to research :-). It’s true though, I’ve read this over and over again that writing by hand aids memory apart from a bunch of other benefits. Unfortunately I’ve lost all practice. All I do by hand are shopping lists. I’m slower, like you, and I find my hand cramping if I need to do extended bits of writing. Such a sad state. Must practice more if I need to keep my brain in order.

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