A journal is a great place to unload your emotions. But the very act of writing by hand has many powerful benefits.
When I was a teenager, I kept a thick spiral notebook in which I chronicled my daily dramas. I wrote in sloppy handwriting about how I failed to land a double pirouette in ballet class. Or how my teacher had paid more attention to my rival. Or how my mom wouldn’t let me wear nail polish.
At some point I stopped writing and those journals were dismissed as a frivolous teenage phase. A bit narcissistic and largely pointless.
But lately I’ve been seeing more and more articles about journaling. Diaries are making a big comeback.
And it made me realize how much I missed my teenage, spiral-bound friend.
I missed rushing home to throw myself on the bed and unload my insecurities into the wide-ruled pages. Nobody would ever read them unless it was me going back to squirm over my follies. But my journal was where I didn’t have to justify myself.
In an age where vast knowledge is available at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget how much wisdom can come from our own selves. And how it’s so worthwhile to organize our thoughts and express ourselves without needing to share it and say “look what I’ve created!”
A return to paper
And so I went down our main street in the humid Cairo suburbs to a stationary shop for a brand new notebook. A thick, spiral-bound paper brick that I could easily flip open and not worry about wasting paper.
My chosen notebook is practical, cheap and heavy enough to lay in my lap. I can write a grocery list on one page and a journal entry on another. Space is plentiful.
And I can take it to a cafe or out on my balcony with an iced coffee to write a few lines in the morning.
When I first wrote a post by hand, I was amazed at how smoothly the writing came.
So what’s the difference between writing by hand and at a keyboard?
There’s less pressure when you’re writing by hand. Since my handwriting is sloppy and hardly legible, there’s less pressure to make the writing itself perfect.
The print on a laptop screen looks similar to a newspaper or book. It’s too final and perfect.
But in my notebook, the page is already so messy that one more crossed out line won’t make much difference. The sheet is crumbled into a ball then my cat chases it around the room.
There are plenty of benefits of writing by hand that made me realize I wrote in those teenage journals for years because they served a purpose. They were a powerful and effective tool that improved my life and brought me comfort.
Here are the powerful benefits to writing by hand:
1. Writing by hand boosts your creativity.
Writing by hand helps you think outside the box. It gives your mind free reign to breathe and express itself outside your usual daily routine.
Your mind can replay the same worries in an endless stream of consciousness. But when you’re writing, you’re not likely to write down the same thoughts over and over.
In this way, writing by hand pushes your mind forward towards new observations and conclusions. It forces you to slow down and fish out those shiny pebbles of insight from your stream of consciousness.
And this is a proven fact. In one study, children assigned to write essays by hand were found to express more ideas than those writing at a keyboard.
2. Writing by hand improves your memory.
The act of writing something down makes you more likely to remember it.
Students who take longhand notes during lectures have better long-term memory recall. The spatial relations between what you’re writing and the act of moving your hand across the page both help you better retain information for the long term.
Recent neuroscience research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out letters. And this pathway, which gets paved deeper with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.
Writer’s cramp, or when patients lose the ability to write but are still able to perform other motor tasks, tells us there’s something special about handwriting that makes it distinct from other motor movements, scientists say.
Handwriting requires a sequence of strokes to form a letter, not just a single push of a key for one letter. And studies have shown these sequential movements activate brain regions responsible for working memory.
Researchers say a physical activity like writing by hand uses nerves and muscles in a complex way, sending sensory feedback to our brains. The more complex the feedback, the easier our brain retains memories. Tapping away at a keyboard doesn’t give our brains as much feedback as the complex sequences in handwriting.
3. Writing by hand relieves your stress, depression and anxiety.
Writing by hand slows down your thoughts, boosts mindfulness and increases calm. The act of writing increases activity in parts of the brain similar to meditation.
A lot of our frustrations and sadness come from muddled and unexpressed thoughts, which often repeat in a loop in our minds.
A study found that writing about a stressful experience led to more therapeutic benefits than typing about the experience. It lead to greater and more honest self-disclosure.
Writing by hand is so effective in combating depression and anxiety that it’s often recommended by therapists.
4. Writing by hand improves your learning comprehension.
Students who take notes during lectures retain information better than those typing notes into a laptop.
And while writing by hand may be slower, it lets you filter information and put it into your own words. And that helps with understanding.
Pounding away at a laptop to transcribe entire passages of a lecture isn’t nearly as effective.
Writing notes on a laptop likely leads to more multitasking and distractions, which are killers for focused concentration. But research has also shown that taking notes on a laptop results in more shallow processing than writing notes out in longhand.
Three studies have found that students who took notes on laptops did worse with conceptual questions than students who took notes by hand. Other studies found that students who use laptops during lectures show a decreased academic performance and have a harder time staying on task in the classroom.
Internet browsing during a lecture, even if it’s just to quickly check a fact, is disastrous to concentration because it forces students to switch their attention back and forth.
When you’re taking notes, you’re also summarizing, paraphrasing the teachers’ words or making quick diagrams of more complicated concepts. This is much more effective for learning than typing out what the professor says verbatim.
And when you’re on a laptop you’re more likely to type out the same phrases your teacher has used, which leads to poorer academic performance.
Other studies show that even reading from a page helps us better remember the information than reading from a screen – another case for analog if you’re looking to boost your study habits and avoid the distractions of the Internet.
And if you’re studying a new language with an unfamiliar alphabet (like Japanese or Arabic), studies have shown that you’ll learn the characters better if you write them down.
Here’s how to take better notes by hand:
summarize and condense the points being made
identify the main points and any frequent or emphasized keywords
use bullet points, arrows and other signifiers
underline or use your own shorthand
paraphrase, especially when it’s a difficult concept, and say it in your own words
highlight, sketch or make diagrams to help you better process the material
practice your handwriting: evidence shows that good handwriting is related to improved academic performance
5. Writing by hand improves your prioritization skills.
If you’ve ever sat in a meeting and pounded away at your laptop, you’ve notice how easy it is to take pages of notes.
Writing by hand, however, is not as easy. So you’ll naturally pick out the main points in lectures or summarize long speeches into simple words.
This is because the sheer effort of writing by hand makes you less likely to transcribe material like you would on a laptop.
Writing by hand also lets you easier form points and subpoints, make arrows, cross things out or highlight. You can even use your own shorthand to take notes.
6. Writing by hand enhances your focus.
Writing by hand forces you to see a train of thought out toward its conclusion.
Handwriting also helps children with ADD or AD/HD, because learning cursive improves the students’ concentration.
The process of writing uses a particular part of the brain that acts as a filter to block any irrelevant information. When you form letters on paper, you’re able to concentrate better and your brain considers carefully what’s written.
7. Writing by hand makes you a better writer.
Brilliant writers have been writing by hand ever since the invention of the typewriter.
From modern-day bestselling authors like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling to the authors of 20th century classics like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Kafka, much of the world’s greatest prose was first scrawled out on paper.
Famed director Quentin Tarantino writes his screenplays in notebooks with felt pens, while prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates prefers writing by longhand – for up to eight hours a day.
Writing on paper takes effort. And you’re not likely to waste many words if only for the sake of avoiding hand cramps. Writing by hand forces you to slow down and consider each phrase more carefully.
Writing by hand also gives you a record of your progress and the edits you’ve made along the way.
Another study at Washington University found that handwritten essays were richer and more complex than those typed on a computer.
8. Writing by hand reminds you of the value of privacy.
In a world where millions share their daily lives and its most insignificant details on Instagram Stories, it’s refreshing to take back some personal expression and reclaim it for yourself.
And writing has value even when you’re only doing it for yourself. Your thoughts don’t have to go viral to be valuable. If writing eases your burdens, then that’s already enough.
9. Writing by hand helps your deep and critical thinking.
Writing by hand is slower and this lets your mind think more thoroughly over what you’re writing down.
It helps you expand your thoughts and form connections between ideas. Writing by hand helps you see the relationship between abstract concepts and helps you solve complex problems. It allows you to slow down and process your thoughts.
10. Writing by hand slows down your mental aging.
Your brain, like any other body part, grows weaker when it’s not used fully. Writing regularly by hand keeps your mind sharp and lets you stay curious.
A study has shown that reading books, writing letters and keeping mentally active protects the brain in old age. When you’re mentally challenging yourself, you slow down cognitive decline, researchers say.
Some physicians recommend handwriting as a cognitive exercise for baby boomers who want to keep their minds sharp.
11. Writing by hand eliminates distractions.
Laptops and computers, with their multiple tabs and notifications, can be a playground for distractions. And while there are programs that shut all of that down, the temptation is still there.
A paper notebook is a distraction-free zone where you can forget all about your email for awhile.
Writing on paper takes you away from the Internet and from other people’s opinions to focus on yourself.
12. Writing by hand combats dyslexia.
Dyslexia is caused by a disconnection between the auditory and language centers of the brain. And writing by hand helps join those centers together.
Students with dyslexia struggle with learning to read because their brains associate sound and letter combinations inefficiently, says language specialist Marilyn Zecher. Learning cursive helps with this decoding process because it boosts hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and other brain and memory functions.
Although cursive is becoming increasingly rare in public education, it’s still often a powerful therapy for dyslexia.
13. Writing by hand stimulates your brain and helps it develop.
Cursive is important for cognitive development because it trains the brain to use different parts of the mind for different functions. Children learning cursive use fine motor skills and visual and tactile processing abilities that help their cognitive function.
When handwriting is cut from the school curriculum, it often generates controversy from the teachers who know all about the benefits of learning cursive.
Learning to write helps children pay attention to written language. And it’s been shown those who have good fine-motor writing skills in preschool do better later on.
Handwriting quality is linked to better writing and reading skills. Writing by hand makes you a better reader and improves letter recognition.
Handwriting uses more of your brain and integrates thinking, movement and sensation.
14. Writing by hand improves your hand-eye coordination.
The hand-eye coordination is different for every letter and connection between letters, so your movements in handwriting are constantly different. And that’s more mentally demanding than hitting single strokes for each letter on a keyboard.
When you’re writing by hand, you’re challenged to think about what you’re doing. If your mind drifts it’s nearly impossible to form a word on paper.
15. Writing by hand improves your self expression.
If you’ve ever been at a loss for words, then you know how frustrating it is to get your viewpoint across.
Writing by hand helps you avoid that tongue-tied feeling. It teaches you how to flesh out your thoughts and consider them carefully.
Why not typing?
Writing by hand is slower and gives you time to consider your phrases. Writing by hand gives you some leeway to express yourself badly and do it better next time. Because unlike a computer screen, a handwritten page is less final – you can always cross out words and treat the page as a rough draft.
Even if your field is less creative and more analytic, studies have shown that writing by hand helps you communicate complex ideas.
When you write regularly by hand, you gain confidence in your own ability to express yourself. It’s easier to talk about your feelings when you’re well-versed in methodical writing.
So much frustration in life comes when you feel misunderstood. It’s frustrating when you’re unable to pinpoint what’s wrong – let alone express it.
But the more you write, the more you get to know yourself. And then you’re able to better express your thoughts to others because you know how to express yourself in writing.
Writing by hand gives you time to come up with the right words, and this facilitates self-expression.
16. Writing by hand makes your notes and letters special.
Nobody has ever treasured a printed-out email in a box of keepsakes.
Handwriting is unique to each person and this makes handwritten notes and letters so much more personal than email.
It’s why so many Christmas cards, birthday greetings and wedding invitations are still written out by hand. Such messages are prized because they’re more intimate and unique.