Why Writing on Paper Matters in the Digital Age

Bullet Journal
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Nothing can replace the experience of writing on paper, so why seek out a digital replacement?

Last month, I faced a predicament: How should I organize and manage all my projects? I’m a freelance editor; I have to organize my client work smartly, otherwise I won’t finish the work on time and get paid. I manage several projects with multiple clients, and sometimes I get overwhelmed.

I looked at my schedule and my to-do list scattered across four apps on my phone and a half-used notebook on my desk. I went through my stuff to organize it, and it dawned on me that I had a problem: I spent too much time playing with organization apps and programs in an attempt to perfect my productivity, but I didn’t spend enough time actually being productive.

Bullet Journal
A page from a bullet journal (Photo credit: Stephen Oldham)

Why Analog Works for Me

I can’t explain why, but I feel a closer connection with the words I write when I put pen to paper. It’s linked to the physical presence and intimacy of the pen and paper, the materials I must manipulate while writing. Typing on a computer—or worse, a smartphone screen—turns my words into 1s and 0s encased in glass. You don’t feel the groove the pen made on the page while the ink dries. You can’t see your handwriting get messier as you write faster to get the words down before they dissipate into a fog of other thoughts. With paper, you don’t have to learn keyboard commands or root through window menus just to say what you want to say.

For those reasons, I’ve started writing almost everything on paper first before moving to digital, and I will continue to do so.

How I Work

I’ve spent years trying to create the perfect life organization system. I’ve tried versions of the main systems: cheap and expensive planners, the GTD method, to-dos on a whiteboard, timeblocking—none seem to work for me. Part of the problem is that these systems do not provide enough flexibility for my needs. I get distracted by the system or the app and I don’t face my issues with motivation or time management.

I decided last month to tackle my main issues head on and go back to square one, and that’s when I moved everything back to my trusty notebook.

Despite plenty of progress in digital organization systems, I like the idea of going back to paper to organize. Some studies reveal that writing on paper helps us better retain information, in part because writing out ideas slows us down and forces us to pay close attention to the words we write. And anyway, taking a break from screens, if only for a few seconds, isn’t a bad idea.

I thought to myself: What if I put away my devices for a day? What could I accomplish? A lot, I discovered. I am able to strip away the distractions and get a clear head about my daily and weekly tasks when I turn off anything connected to the cloud.

One Analog Solution: The Bullet Journal

In my search for a new paper-and-ink organizational system, I found one method that works best for me: the bullet journal method developed by Ryder Carroll. Bullet journaling is “an analog note-taking system for the digital age,” as Carroll describes it, and that sums it up well.

Bullet journal (YouTube)

Briefly, bullet journaling is designed for logging your daily and monthly tasks, events, and notes using a series of “bullets,” such as the simple dot (•) for a note, a circle (○) for an event, and a checkbox (◻︎) for a task. (I also use my own bullet [»] to indicate a journal entry.) You can also develop your own “signifiers”: stars or exclamation marks to give items context (for example, “priority” or “idea” or “save for later” markers).

The point of the bullet journal is to plan out projects and daily items on paper because too much of our daily stuff sits next to app notifications, games, and other distractions. It keeps me from fussing with app settings or, as I’ve done in the past, to use an app’s lack of functionality as an excuse to avoid doing work.

So Much for Planning, What about Writing?

I need a space away from my computer to plan and organize, but what about my writing projects? I make sure I write something every day (though often it’s not worth showing). I’ve kept a journal for years, but last year I went completely digital with my writing and wrote all journal entries and rough drafts in Scrivener. It seemed OK, but I soon realized how much I missed writing on paper.

Once I adapted the bullet journal method, I found I was writing more. I had missed the feeling of writing on paper. There are no distractions in a blank notebook—no need for a WiFi signal or power cable.

I take time at the beginning and end of each day to write in my journal. I put my phone on silent and turn my computer monitor off, then I open a blank page in my notebook and write until I reach a stopping point. I’m not afraid of making a mess on the page; my writing doesn’t feel final as it does when I stare at my word processor’s blinking cursor and a plethora of formatting options. Rather, I’m faced with my bad handwriting, a cramped hand, and the reality that my words, though important to me, aren’t complete. It’s this remove from zero draft to finished product that is too easy to ignore in an age when anyone can publish anything.[1]

Feeling the pen against the pages is elemental—a closeness with words you don’t get when typing on the computer. Writing drafts on paper allows me to think slowly and process every word.

But What About Digital?

I wouldn’t advocate for a purely analog existence. Digital tools make life easier, and some are too good to ignore. But be mindful of the tools you use, otherwise you might end up managing the apps more than you’re managing life.

Tools like Evernote and OneNote help bridge the gap between analog and digital. You can use Evernote or OneNote’s scanning system using a smartphone or tablet to make your handwritten notes searchable, handy for when you want to move disparate notes to a central location or if you need something accessible everywhere.

I use Evernote’s scanning system on my smartphone: I snap photos of pages I need, then Evernote “scans” those pages as documents and notes that I can then categorize and name. I can reference those notes whenever I don’t have my notebooks with me. These apps can also work as a digital archive or a second backup of your paper stuff in case of a disaster. You can also buy notebooks that connect to cloud services; for example, Moleskine makes an Evernote-connected notebook, and the Whitelines Link notebooks integrate with your choice of cloud service.

These tools allow for an analog life that’s augmented by digital technology. It doesn’t have to be all or none when it comes to working with digital tools.

Bottom Line: Do What Works for You

If you want to see an example of how people use notebooks to get stuff done, I recommend /r/notebooks on Reddit.com.

Also, check out how I drafted this article in my bullet journal; I’ve linked to it on Evernote.

  1. I use “zero draft” instead of rough draft, which I think I stole from writing teacher Peter Elbow  ↩
Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.