Is the pen still mightier? The pros and cons of loose leaf vs. laptop

Gale Guest-Brown of Roseville, reads over her notes at the Shut Up and Write group, which meets several times a week to free write where some people use laptops and some people write in journals.
Gale Guest-Brown of Roseville, reads over her notes at the Shut Up and Write group, which meets several times a week to free write where some people use laptops and some people write in journals.

Every December, families dust off the ballpoint pens and dig into a towering pile of blank holiday cards, scribbling personalized messages to loved ones in the hopes of spreading good cheer. The annual ritual may be one of the last vestiges of the written word in today’s fast-paced world – a dying art that experts say should continue for the sake of our mental health.

Writing on paper has a long list of benefits that have largely been forgotten in the age of laptops, iPads and tablets, said Lisa Mitchell, a Fair Oaks-based art therapist who encourages her clients to pen letters and journal entries daily. Journaling has been shown in multiple studies to improve aspects of mood and health, including reduced blood pressure and stress hormone levels, fewer physician visits, improved memory and better eye health.

“The extension of using your hand and having the freedom to press harder on the page or make the words bigger or bolder in a different color, it becomes an expressive art form instead of just words,” Mitchell said. “Sort of that whole eloquence of how can I put myself on a piece of paper and show who I am – I think that’s essential.”

But is there a difference between pouring it into a notebook and a Word document?

Katie McCleary, executive director at youth writing nonprofit 916 Ink, said yes. She tries hard to steer the children and teens she works with away from digital devices and into a composition notebook. Not only would laptop computers distract them, she said, but they also can stymie creativity.

“There’s a lot kids want to get out, and they might not know how or they might have fear about it,” McCleary said. “If they can mark the page and doodle and get going or just let their hand physically take them down their own mental thought process, there’s this quality of the writing that actually deepens.”

There aren’t many statistics about how often people take pen to paper, but a 2014 study from British printing company Docmail found that one in three people surveyed had not written anything by hand in the past six months, and on average people had not written in 41 days.

Kylie Holloway, a 23-year-old Sacramento actor and director, said her choice to write on a laptop vs. a journal depends on her mood, the writing’s purpose and the time of day. Still, she said, taking time to scribble provides her a solace she finds unachievable with the rigidity of the keyboard.

“Journaling is something I do before bed and for me, but computer stuff is for when I’m presenting to someone else,” she said. “Typing is more streamlined and linear. Journaling, I can circle around in my own thoughts. It’s a chance to clear my mind, organize thoughts, get unorganized thoughts out.”

Andy Harper, a part-time teacher and short-story writer, said he hasn’t written with a pen in so long that his hand actually cramps up when he tries. At his weekly writing group, he hunches over a bulky laptop and types feverishly.

“My penmanship is terrible,” Harper said, explaining why he made the digital switch. “I feel like the computer is a little more fluid. You can easily go back and change things. For some people that’s a bad thing – then they spend all their time changing and not writing.”

Regardless of the medium, the most important thing is that people continue to write expressively in whatever way is comfortable, be that in a leather-bound diary or on a MacBook, said Jan Haag, a professional creative writer and chair of the journalism department at Sacramento City College.

That’s especially true for people who have experienced trauma, she said, which is why hospitals and therapy groups have long relied on journaling as a tool for coping with stress.

“Talking about things is therapeutic and helpful, but writing about it and watching grief become art under your hands is a huge and inspiring feeling,” Haag said. “Translating that pain into art is one of the most important things. If nothing else, you’ve gotten it out of you and on the page so it’s not festering inside you. It’s the same thing with real joy.”

If you’re trying to decide how to take notes during a lecture, hand writing might have an advantage, according to a 2014 study from UCLA and Princeton University.

The study, co-authored by UCLA psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer, found that while hand writing and typing were equally helpful for rote memorization of names and dates, hand writing showed a significant advantage when subjects were tested for deeper conceptual learning.

“Longhand note-taking supports better learning, but laptops lead to a better external store,” Oppenheimer said in an email. “That is, people take more complete notes on laptops, they just don’t learn the material as well. If your goal is to learn something, then longhand is better. If the goal is to have a record of what was said to refer to later (or share with your team, etc.) then laptops are better.”

Still, many experts are concerned that digital tools are pulling people farther from the essential human skill of creating something by hand.

“The handwritten word is a form of that old, primitive way of being in the world,” Mitchell said. “If you haven’t created something with your hands, there’s this alienation between what you’re using and your own self-efficacy. I’m finding that the alienation of self is so pervasive because everything is so fed digitally to the younger generation. They don’t know who they are anymore.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola