The Paper Kind

Creative living.

Paper vs Digital: Which writing system is best?

I graduated from university in 2021 and in my final year I chose to work on projects which would help me the most in the future. As such I chose to write my dissertation on handwriting. I’m now working as a freelance calligrapher so having the chance to combine research with practical knowledge was a fantastic opportunity. My dissertation specifically looked at handwriting and assessed the need for continuing handwriting education. With technological advancements handwriting as a skill is becoming less necessary in modern society. But this research led to an interesting question. Which is better, paper or digital based writing?

Close up of a laptop screen showing part of an essay and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The answer is complicated because it would be impossible to judge all forms of writing and choose the definitive best. So today I want to take a few instances where one has the choice between various writing methods and show why one of those methods may be preferred over the other. I will go into this more later in the post. But just because I say that a piece of research shows that paper or digital writing is best. This does not mean on an individual level that a specific form of writing will work best for you. 

What Is Writing?

So one of the first things I need to do in this paper or digital argument is define what I mean by writing. Writing has taken on many forms in different cultures, as such, it’s hard to define what it is exactly. For this post, I’m using a definition written by Stephen Rodger Fisher who defines complete writing as a system that “has communication as its main purpose and consists of artificial graphic marks on a surface”[1].

I need to specify this definition of writing because there’s a good chance you think of writing in the linguistic sence. When I ask which is the best writing method I’m talking more about writing technologies. How each technology changes how we write and the form that writing takes. So with paper-based writing technologies, I’m specifically talking about pen, pencil, paintbrush, nib and ink etc. The keyboard, mouse and voice to text would all be considered digital writing technologies. These different technologies change the way you engage with writing and you can use this to your advantage.

Analogue Writing In A Digital World

Most written communication now takes place in a digital environment. Meaning that there are fewer reasons to use paper-based writing methods. However, writing is useful for more than just communicating. There are several situations where pen and paper may be preferable to a digital alternative. 

Since its creation, writing has been used for more than just a means of communication. Writing originally developed from a need for better accounting when spoken language no longer sufficed. Mass literacy has only happened in the last 100 years. Before this, very few in a community were able to write and as such were powerful figures as they could control information[2].

The Gutenberg machine made it easier for people to learn how to write and with paper in more abundant supply people could use writing as a way to store information as well as communicate using it. This distinction is important when considering the best writing method. In many cases why you are writing can influence which writing method you choose. 

The commonplace book

Several systems use paper-based writing as a way to help the writer understand information. In the past, I have written about commonplace books which use this principle. Commonplace books were intended to be used as an aid for reading, the user would add memorable quotes they had found to the book. During the Renaissance “students were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organising and arranging excerpts”[3].

Commonplace book on desk next to laptop open to book page.

This act of copying a quote would allow the user to give that information the attention it deserved, in doing so, aiding the learning process. The physical nature of the commonplace book helped with this process as the information was contained in the same place. Allowing the user to create connections between pieces of information. 

The Bullet Journal System

Bullet Journals work similarly to help with the decision making process. Bullet Journals have become increasingly popular in recent years. I have a full guide on how to start a bullet journal, but the important thing you need to understand is that the bullet journal is a system. This system gives you a set of rules which you use to manage information. The bullet journal system is most commonly used as a way to organise to-do lists, essentially functioning as a paper-based planning system. 

The physical nature of the bullet journal system is an essential component as it asks the user to write out their tasks and events. Once the bullet journal is set up, the user will write out a list of all the tasks, events and notes for a specific day, otherwise known as the daily log. They would then go through previous daily logs to find unfinished tasks. At this point, the user has to decide what to do with those uncompleted tasks, if the task still needs to be completed it would be moved (or migrated) to the new daily log[4].

Daily log in bullet journal. Paper or digital writing system debate.

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This physical activity helps the user assess the importance of each task. If the user doesn’t think the task is important enough to be written in the new daily log, they should consider if the task is urgent enough that it needs to be completed on that day. This process when done correctly helps the user in organising their tasks based on how important each task is. In turn, allowing them to spend their time focusing on the most important tasks. 

Though it would be possible to keep a bullet journal in a digital environment, it wouldn’t work in the same way as each task could be easily copied and pasted into a new daily log. It is the physical action of rewriting a task and forcing the user to pay attention to that task that makes them assess its importance. 

University Lectures

Taking notes in a lecture is one of my favourite examples to bring up when discussing this paper or digital writing debate. I like this because there have been many studies done on this specific topic and the technically correct answer does not match the preference of many students. Taking lecture notes is a difficult skill. You wouldn’t think it’s especially difficult but when you break down what is going on it’s quite complicated. The person taking the notes needs to listen to the lecture while assessing the importance of all pieces of information. Decide which is most important and write it down all while continuing to listen to the lecture.

Research has found that handwritten notes lead to a better understanding of the content of a lecture[5]. Handwriting may take longer than typing on a keyboard but overall it produces better results. Some people have argued that all lecture notes should be taken by hand. From my research, it appeared that some colleges and universities insist on handwritten lecture notes. This is almost understandable when you consider how distracting social media can be, I won’t lie, I’ve browsed Instagram when I was supposed to be listening to a lecture. 

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However, these opinions (and to an extent the research) forget the person. Yes, taking notes by hand is better, but there are many reasons why a person would be unable to take notes by hand. In my second year of university, I was given a dictaphone so I could record my lectures. I was not the only person who was given this option for health reasons. Dystonia (also known as writer’s cramp) can get increasingly worse as a person writes, causing their writing to become less legible. Not that you *need* to have good handwriting, that’s a whole other blog post.

However, this shows that numerous ailments would prevent a person from being able to take handwritten notes in a lecture. Though the research shows that handwritten notes are technically the best. The benefit which comes from analogue writing needs to be weighed against the needs of the writer. In this instance, a paper-based form of writing may not be appropriate. 

How Has Digital Media Changed Writing?

You will notice up to this point I have largely avoided talking about digital forms of writing. This is because the subject gets complicated. A disadvantage of the mouse and keyboard is in the ways they restrict how you can write. If the reason for your writing is to communicate with another, through a tweet, email or novel the keyboard is perfectly sufficient. I would argue in these cases a digital form of writing is most appropriate. I went to an art school and as such, decided I would write the final hard copy of my dissertation on a typewriter. As one does.

I did this because it helped with the argument that I was trying to make. That we choose the writing technology most appropriate for the type of writing. With this specific example, I proved why we don’t use typewriters anymore. They’re cumbersome, slow to use and have no undo function. Something which is quite important on the final draft of a 6000-word dissertation. It is easy to see why most students chose to write their dissertation using a word processor instead.

Laptop sitting next to vintage typewriter on desk. Paper or digital writing systems.

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Despite digital writing methods having a clear advantage it is interesting to see how society still can’t get away from pen and paper. Stylus pens have been in use since the 1990s and are now a major input device for smartphones and tablets. Many of the developments in stylus technology aim to recreate the feeling of writing on paper. The iPad and Apple Pencil are probably most well known for this.

One of the main advantages of the Apple Pencil is in its likeness to the real thing. Some have assumed that the humble pen would be replaced by a digital equivalent. Developments in stylus technology show that society has a deep connection with analogue writing techniques. However, this does not mean we are ready to move on from the pen. 

Finally

I could go on longer with this argument, there are many parts to it I’ve left out. It also feeds into a final question; what will happen to handwriting in the future? Fortunately, we know the answer to this by looking at history. The Gutenberg machine changed the role of the scribe as they were no longer needed for writing books. The camera changed fine art because painters were no longer needed to create a realistic depiction of a scene.

However, calligraphy and Realism still exist despite new forms of technology which can do the job faster. I’m working as a calligrapher despite many people arguing that a typeface does the same job. And hyper-realism has become increasingly popular in recent years. Just look at CJ Hendry if you don’t believe me. 

All that to say, pen and paper is going nowhere. If anything we have more freedom than ever before to choose the writing technology most appropriate to the style of writing. In fact, choosing a specific technology is a statement in itself. In the digital age, a handwritten letter means more simply because an email would have been easier. I hope if anything this post will make you think about how you choose to write. As well as what you’re writing. It can be fun to choose an unexpected writing method. 

As always, thanks for reading. 

Other Resources

[1] A History of Writing by Stephen Rodger Fisher (2001)
[2] Languages and Literatures: Cuneiform Civilizations. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWF4y-mdLtw
[3] Commonplace Books at Harvard. Available at: https://tm.durusau.net/?p=54869
[4] The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Caroll (2018)
[5] ‘The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking’ Psychological science, 25(6), 1159–1168, doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581.

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Hello!

I’m Emma. I am a designer, calligrapher, and content creator, sharing my love for paper goods. Expect pens, pencils, and some really fancy paper!

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