Words and writing matter.
In the opening chapter of the Scriptures, God speaks, and a cosmos bursts into being (Genesis 1:3). When he constitutes Israel as his people, God speaks and writes, and a covenant is born (Exodus 31:18). John described the incarnation of God in Christ by declaring, “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). It is by words that our souls live, and it is because of words that souls die (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 12:36-37). In the words of George Will,
Everything humane depends on words—love, promise-keeping, story-telling, democracy. And baseball.
From an eternal perspective, what’s important is not the format of these words but the meaning that the words convey. When it comes to our capacity to recall the words we hear and read, however, the way that we write has a profound effect on how much information we recall.
My Journey from Paper to Pixels and Back to Paper Again
Throughout high school, college, and my first seminary degree, I kept handwritten journals, and every note I took in classes was penned by hand. In a box in my basement, I still have dozens of spiral-bound notebooks from those years.
Then, in 1999, I purchased my first laptop computer. For several years following that purchase, I began to treat pens and paper as relics from the past. I typed everything and handwrote nothing, priding myself in my movement away from primitive practices such as writing by hand.
But a half-dozen years later, the battery in my second laptop computer began to age, and I ran out of power a few times while I was at a coffee shop. As a result, I was forced to handwrite my sermon notes. Each time that happened, I noticed that I relied less on my notes while preaching, and my proclamation flowed more freely and naturally as a result. Now, throughout the past decade, I’ve found myself writing more and more by hand and even migrating into the realm of fountain pens and hardcover notebooks. Now, the first draft of nearly everything I write—even book manuscripts—is handwritten, then tagged and scanned into Evernote so that I can access what I’ve written from any web-connected device.
To Remember It Well, Write It By Hand
Recently, research has begun to verify what I experienced anecdotally as a pastor: retention of handwritten content is greater than retention of typed content. As a result, I’ve begun requiring this same approach in many of the classes I teach. Here are a few of the articles that I provide to students who wonder why digital devices are outlawed in my classes:
- A Learning Secret: “Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”
- Can Handwriting Make You Smarter?: “After just twenty-four hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’[d] transcribed.”
- The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: “Even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.”
- Take Notes By Hand: “Not only do laptop-using students not perform as well academically, but also they’re less happy with their education.”
- Handwritten Notes Lead to Better Learning: “Handwritten notes involve more thought, re-framing, and re-organization, all of which promote better understanding and retention.”
How do you record information most frequently, by handwriting or by keyboarding? What are the advantages and disadvantages in each one? Are some forms of writing better suited for one format compared to the other?
An earlier version of this post was published in 2017.