Illustration by patrimonio, photo by Skitterphoto
Jack London said every writer should keep a notebook. “Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it,” London said. “Lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” It’s sage advice, but then again, Jack London didn’t have Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or OneNote. This week, we test the classic battle of man versus machine to see which is better for journaling.
There are a number of useful benefits to keeping a journal. Journaling can help you process emotions, harness creativity, and keep track of events and moments. And there are two basic methods for journaling:
- Writing by hand: You know how this works. You take a pen or a pencil, put it to paper, then write down your thoughts, opinions, feelings. A physical journal gives you something tangible to work with and there’s something gratifying about the feel of a paper notebook. Beyond that, though, writing stimulates and engages your brain better, making it easier to retain information. Some argue that writing by hand is a more raw, authentic experience.
- Typing: Whether you journal using Google Docs, Microsoft Word, OneNote, WordPress, Tumblr or any other medium, the act is obviously the same: you use your keyboard to get the thoughts out of your head and onto the screen. Fans of typing argue that it’s more convenient and, aside from the romanticized notion of longhand, the end product is the same.
Both options have their advantages. When you write with pen and paper, you have something tangible to give your kids someday. You don’t have to worry about getting hacked, either. However, when you type, you can create backups of your journal and, using the right tools, you can access your journal from anywhere. Plus, it’s easier to search for specific entries. Beyond the basics, let’s take a look at both options.
Writing by Hand Forces You to Slow Down
The biggest complaint about journaling by hand is it’s inconvenient. Writing isn’t exactly hard, but it’s so much easier to type, especially considering most of us spend 10 hours a day in front of a screen anyway. Plus, most of us are faster typers than writers, so journaling by hand might take a bit more time and effort.
Writing forces you to slow down, but that might not be a bad thing. One Yale psychologist told the New York Times: “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.” Citing a study published in Developmental Neuropsychology, the Times reported:
printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas
A writing by hand requires more subtle and complicated motion from your fingers than typing, it actually increases activity in the brain’s motor cortex, an effect that’s similar to meditation. This explains why journaling can feel therapeutic and why it helps with mindfulness.
On the other hand, sometimes that inconvenience can be, well, inconvenient. I have a bad habit of scribbling half-assed, messy entries into my journal just to get the task over with. One might argue, however, that I’m defeating the purpose and that’s not really journaling at all. But then I guess it depends on your purpose.
If you’re doing it to be more mindful and focused, then it’s important to allow yourself to slow down and take the time to journal by hand. If you’re just trying to keep track of your work progress, activities, or eating habits, that may be another story.
Typing Makes It Easier to Stick With the Habit
Writing by hand stimulates certain parts of your brain, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be creative or come up with ideas when you type. Plenty of great writers type their manuscripts, after all. Sure, there are more distractions on the computer, but it’s easy enough to block out those distractions so you can focus on the screen.
Convenience is the main benefit of typing, and in my own experience, I was a lot more likely to stick to the habit and pump out more words when I tried keeping a journal via Google Docs. I could also type faster, so my writing was more stream of consciousness. Rather than stop to think about how I felt or thought, I wrote through my emotions, which I actually found useful because I could visualise my thoughts on screen almost immediately. In other words writing forces you to process the information as you go, but when you type, you can skip that process if you’re proficient at typing. Also, because it was more convenient, I found myself more likely to stick with the journaling habit when I typed.
I noticed something interesting, though. When I was having a particularly stressful day or just feeling down, I actually felt more relieved after I journaled by hand than I did when I typed. I understood my emotions better when I typed, but I felt more cathartic and even happier when I wrote by hand. That might be because I associate typing so much with work and writing by hand feels less like work. There’s also research to explain why this might have happened.
In a University of Iowa study, subjects felt more positive about traumatic experiences after they journaled them, but it had everything to do with how they journaled. The key was to focus on their thoughts and feelings, not just emotions. This makes sense. When I write by hand, focusing on thoughts and feelings comes naturally because I have to stop and think about how I feel. As I said, when I type, I skipped that process. Again, this isn’t to say it’s impossible to focus on your feelings when you type — it just comes more naturally when you write.
The Verdict: Write by Hand to Get the Full Benefit of Journaling
So which method is best? It might depend on why you’re keeping a journal in the first place. If you’re just journaling to keep a record of information, typing is probably your easiest and best bet. It’s faster, it’s easier, and you’re presumably on the computer anyway, so you’re more likely to stick with the habit.
However, if you’re journaling to be more mindful, generate ideas, or work through some feelings, handwriting will probably make those tasks easier. And there’s no reason you can’t do both, either. They both serve different purposes, so why not type when you need to keep a record of info or just practice the habit, then journal when you want to slow down and focus on other things? For the full reward of journaling, though, including all those mental health benefits, writing might be the way to go.