We’ve come a long way since the days of writing by candlelight with a quill pen and an inkwell. Writers today have a deluge of writing options at their fingertips, from basic notetaking apps to MS Word to brain-mapping programs like FreeMind or long form writerly gizmos like Scrivener. We can write on our laptops, desktops, smartphones, tablets – even on our watches! And being able to save our work into the cloud makes it super easy to access, write and edit from anywhere in the world without being bogged down with the clutter of notepads and physical tools? So why is it that good old-fashioned pen and paper is still the medium of choice for so many writers?

Actual, Successful Writers Are Still Using Pen and Paper?

For those non-believers out there, just take a look at some of today’s popular writers who still do it the old-fashioned way.

Quentin Tarantino

The famed director writes all his own screenplays and insists on using actual pens to craft his epic, disjointed and often dystopian plots. “I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony,” he told Mashable in an interview.

Joyce Carol Oates

Oates chooses to write everything by longhand and spends up to 8 hours a day doing so. She says: “Writing is a consequence of thinking, planning, dreaming – this is the process that results in ‘writing,’ rather than the way in which the writing is recorded.” Good point, JC. We wonder if Oates, a prolific, sometimes controversial, Tweeter also scribbles those out hand before posting to the site.

Neil Gaiman

The famous sci-fi author has written every one of his novels by hand because he likes the act of making paper dirty. We’re definitely curious.

Amy Tan

When working on early drafts of her works, Tan only writes longhand with pen and paper. “Writing by hand helps me remain open to all those particular circumstances, all those little details that add up to the truth,” she once said in an interview with The Atlantic.

The Persistence of the Pen

You would think, with so many tools quite literally at our fingertips, that pen and paper would be the first thing to go. Yet it still persists. So what is the allure of this antiquated form of writing?

It’s Better for Learning

According to Lifehacker, the Reticular Activating System that is put to work when we put the pen to paper enables us to study and retain new information more effectively. “The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on that moment – something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront.” Another study from 2012 found that brain areas that are associated with learning tended to become more active when kids were asked to write certain words rather than just studying them closely.

Cerebellum part - Human brain in x-ray view


You Probably Write Better By Hand

In a famous 1995 interview with The Paris Review, author Susan Sontag said that she wrote her first drafts up by hand before typing them out later on. She uses a felt-tip pen or a pencil and white or yellow legal pads and claims that the slowness of writing helps her compose her thoughts more clearly. Truman Capote had a similar process although he insisted on lying down while he wrote as well. The University of Washington came out with a study that claims elementary age kids who write essays with pen and paper write more than their computer-using peers and also write faster and in more grammatically correct sentences.


Distractions are Limited

Writing by hand also requires more attention and puts to use more of your faculties than typing on a keyboard or device. You don’t have social media networks buzzing and chiming in your line of vision and your hands aren’t free to check your Instagram or text messages. Writing by hand gives you a laser-like focus that can be hugely beneficial to your work.


Your Creativity is Boosted

Ideas and contemplation at the top of the mountain in Bariloche facing the sun . Need a pen and paper for your journal up here.

Writing longhand is a great workout for your brain. In fact, The Wall Street Journal claims that the act of writing will help keep your mind sharp and your creativity honed. Patrick E. McLean’s defense of writing longhand is a beautiful and poetic dissertation on this very fact. There’s something to be said for allowing words to rush out in a raw, indelible state by using pen and paper.



The Meaning of All This

All in all, if pen and paper writing is still so popular and so important to writers, what does this mean for the tech industry? Well, the pen is actually opening up new ways of digital expression and new tools for communication. Pens like Livescribe and Phree are turning the traditional act of using a pen into digital output – and making the process feel incredibly natural. Livescribe allows you to write in a notebook just like you normally would but have all of your handwriting instantly and flawlessly digitized. Phree lets you write pretty much anywhere – on a table, on your partner’s back, on a picnic blanket, and have it show up in real time on your phone screen.

However, the Livescribe pen is pretty fat  and doesn’t feel nearly as good as my Extra-fine Pilot V5 does when slides across the table; you’re also limited to writing in a special notebook, which has pages that feel glassy. And frankly, I’ve never really wanted to write on a picnic blanket – I like the spacing of lines on a page, the slick covers of a small Moleskine. The way they sound and feel are an inherent part of the writing process for me. As more and more apps and tools like these are being developed in order to reflect writer’s desire to continue challenging their brains with the act of actually writing by hand, more and more writers are turning back to actually writing by hand.

The possibilities are interesting, however. Microsoft is working on a search tool that is based on handwritten doodles and it seems like the pen is far from becoming irrelevant. In fact it is on its way to becoming the most versatile and stimulating input tool that we have – it’s just up to us to create the technology to keep up with it.