Notebook Versus Laptop

hemingwayI work in a tech company where most of the employees hover around the age of thirty. They grew up with computers. They are experts in Apple devices. They live and die by technology. I come in as the oldster with a fondness for paper. I want paper files, paper documentation, and paper notebooks to help me think through problems. I get chastised regularly for the trees I kill. I’ve searched my soul to see if I could live without paper and decided I couldn’t. I’ve made my peace with that.

I do, however, use a laptop to write my novel. I can’t imagine such a massive undertaking being done with pen and paper alone. I need my laptop. I need Scrivener. I would be a disorganized mess if it weren’t for my specialized writing software.

However, there is something delightful about finding a particularly appealing journal with the pages inside a specific weight and feel. Even better is finding a pen to go along with that paper. I once bought what was what I thought going to be a fantastic journal, but pulling the pen across the pages did not give me the same joy as using my Pentel RSVP fine point across the pages of my Moleskine. The paper was too smooth. I then happened upon a promotional pen that was almost as pleasant to use as my Pentels. I tried it in the journal with the too-smooth pages and oh! the delight. It was a perfect match of paper and pen. Sadly, the journal had already been relegated to the task of containing all my dog training woes and successes.

I know of writers who still write long hand in journals, on yellow legal pads, on whatever, and I find a certain appeal to that. It’s much easier to carry a pen and a pad of paper around, handily at the ready whenever the need to jot things down strikes. It’s less conspicuous then a laptop if the urge to write hits in a bar or a store or in the middle of walking down a crowded sidewalk. There is the romantic vision harkening back to the days of Hemingway carrying his Moleskine wherever he went and look what he produced. But as much as I like paper, I do find a joy in feeling the keys of a keyboard under the tips of my fingers. Plus, my writing has gotten quite sloppy over the years, and there are many times I can’t read my own writing. I would hate to scribble down the perfect scene only to find that I couldn’t decipher it.

But when it comes to problem solving, when I need to figure out a character motivation or work through the point of a scene or figure out what my protagonist will do in a particular situation, I turn to pen and paper. I think better with paper. I’d rather brainstorm on paper than on my laptop despite having a great brainstorming software called Scapple. Is it because I’m older or is there something else going on?

Turns out, something else is going on. Studies have been done on brain function while writing on a laptop versus writing by hand. Here is one on note taking by college students. The results show that the writing by hand is a more complex task, requiring more from the mind and the body thereby improving cognitive function. Typing on a laptop encourages a certain mindlessness.

What if I’ve been doing it all wrong? What if by writing on my laptop my mind is not fully engaged in what I am doing? Would I be a better and smarter writer if I turned to pen and paper? Maybe so. One writer made the conversion. With the support of two long-hand-writing friends, he wrote his next novel on paper with positive results.

I’m just not sure if I can do the same. I’d like to do what I do at work and blissfully disregard the lives of trees and write my story on paper. I’d like to be at my cognitive best when I am writing. But the mere thought of such a huge project being compiled on paper is just too daunting. For now, I’ll keep using my laptop for my novel while collecting paper at work, but maybe, just maybe, I will try to write a scene – just one – with my Pentel RSVP and Moleksine. Then I’ll try to reduce those stacks of paper at work.


  1. I remember watching my father cut and paste with scissors and rubber cement glue. Much as I find my computer daunting, I can’t imagine being without it. However, I do take notes on yellow paper.

  2. Karen Wilk

    Kelly, so good to know I’m not the only one. There is an immediacy to writing longhand, and the fact that all corrections remain like scars on the page. Transcribing from notebook to laptop takes an extra level of rewriting, especially when, like you, I can’t always decipher my own handwriting. I’ve stopped at random stores to buy a notebook when I was inspired but paperless and buy them in bulk during the back to school sales so I’m never without. I couldn’t do that with laptops. Thanks for the article

  3. I like to write out scenes in longhand first then transfer to my laptop. Mostly that takes place in chunks, like when I’m sitting at the bar waiting for the rest of my Salt+Radish Writing group to show up. ;p I do find that there is a certain life that is infused in the handwritten that translates better to type. Maybe this year during our writing retreat I’ll do more by hand first then transfer over.

    It’s also good to keep me from randomly searching stupid stuff on the Net!!

  4. Bob Fernandes

    I do all of my first drafts (including my 850-page first novel) with pen and paper. For me it’s a standard 5-subject college-ruled notebook and a blue, medium point BiC. And, like Karen Wilk said, a level of rewriting is accomplished during the typing process afterward. I couldn’t imagine typing a first draft into a laptop. Nope. Give me my notebook and pen and my lapdesk and recliner. Then I’m good to go.

  5. Kimberley McNamara

    There is something about a piece of paper and writing instrument. While I recycle so much my private trash and recycling company employees roll their eyes at the sheer volume, I could not and would not be able to write without paper & pen. Any piece of paper will do in a pinch. Sometimes I am like Lorelai Gilmore when I stumble upon postits/receipts in my handbag or console of my car with cryptic messages to me (the writer obviously without enough paper) which read “too window dressing” “smoothing skirt” “braid, tattoo…” – a bit of dialogue? props for my characters? and or interior monologue? And then there is my laptop and Scrivener and my iPhone with it’s voice memo ease or voice to type feature in the notes/email sections which I also use. I need sign posts or bread crumbs scattered then collected and put into an electronic folder to form my writing. But I need the paper to first nurture the little fiction seedling along side my daydream doodles of pine trees, flowers, mugs of coffee (I distract easily) that fill the margins of my pages. Hopefully I find my way out of my doodle maze with the seedling still intact so I may plant it in the electronic screen of my laptop. Thanks for sharing Kelly.

  6. I am a dedicated list-maker, and the only lists that work for me are the pen and paper kind. A friend recently introduced me to the bullet journal, and it has made a huge difference in helping me stay more organized and on task more than ever. Any longer form writing, though, I pretty always do on the computer. Thoughts and ideas enter and leave my head so fast, and since I type faster than I write, I stand a better chance of actually capturing things if I type. It also allows me to edit as I go, write little notes to myself that I can follow up on, etc. (Semi-unrelated but interesting, though, is how different things look to me in the word processor versus in wordpress. I’ll write something, it looks finished, then I load it in and preview it, only to discover more edits and changes that need to be made. I can’t figure out why, but it happens every time.)

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