The Benefits of Handwriting

UPDATED: May 24, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 23, 2017

A professional contact giggled when I jotted down her phone number in a little notebook instead of entering it directly into my phone.

“How quaint,” she said.

I blushed for my old-school ways, but I also knew that by doing it this way, I was putting her number alongside other notes relevant to our discussion, which would make it easier to find while I was working on that job—or even years in the future. And I would be able to find it even if I forgot her name or dropped my phone in a puddle. That notebook is a permanent record.

Related: Why You Should Keep a Journal

In college, while many other students tappity-tapped (distractingly) on computers, I took class notes by hand. The pages of my notebook were not very artistic, with words running every which way, stars and arrows and underlines and, yeah, some doodles. Doodling seemed to help me think.

And when I belonged to a writing group of journalists who met weekly for creative writing exercises, we all wrote longhand. We found that the words flowed differently from the way they did in our professional work, which was more efficiently accomplished on computers. We were less meticulous but more fanciful. Sentences unspooled, rather than clattered, onto the page.

Perhaps that’s why J.K. Rowling, who couldn’t afford a typewriter when she started writing the Harry Potter series, has continued spinning her tales in longhand. Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates are also partial to pen or pencil and paper. So was Truman Capote, who wrote lying down.

Cursive writing seems to be fading away as schools began adopting the Common Core curriculum, which does not require teaching the skill. Some people believed that keyboarding was more important for children to learn, and more efficient for learning to write. But we’re slowly rethinking this. In 2016 Alabama and Louisiana mandated teaching cursive writing to kids, bringing to 14 the number of states requiring proficiency in cursive writing. The New York City Department of Education produced a handbook for teachers on teaching cursive writing for the 2016-2017 school year, though the subject is still only encouraged, not mandated.

In an age when almost everything we do involves a keyboard and screen, research makes a strong case for pen and paper.

The benefits of writing by hand start young. Research from France published in a journal of experimental psychology, Acta Psychologica, found that children ages 3 to 5 whom were taught their letters either by writing or using a keyboard did better on letter recognition a week later if they had actually formed the letters with their own chubby hands.

Another five-year study of children in grades one through five by educational psychologist Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington concluded that printing, writing cursive and using a keyboard engage related but different brain functions. She also found that children write more, and more quickly, when they write essays by hand rather than on a keyboard.

“Writing is the way we learn what we’re thinking,” Berninger says. “The handwriting, the sequencing of the strokes, engages the thinking part of the mind.”

Taking notes by hand also seems to have benefits that are lost in keyboarding. For a study published in Psychological Science, researchers Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, showed research participants a TED Talk and told them to take notes—half of the participants on a laptop, half writing by hand. Then the researchers tested them on the information in the lecture.

What they found was that while keyboard users and hand writers remembered facts, such as dates, equally well, hand writers had a much better grasp on conceptual questions.

Taking notes on a computer is definitely faster, but because of that, people who are using a keyboard tend to copy what a lecturer is saying verbatim—basically transcribing speech into notes. Whereas taking notes by hand is slower and requires us to be selective about what we write.

For this reason, we convert lectures into bullet points, mapping out the important concepts. When I took tests, conjuring up an image of my notebook page of arrows, stars and underlines often helped me locate the answer to a question. When it comes to notetaking, speed and quantity do not enhance learning. Slowing down, processing and reframing information into your own words (or pictures) is more helpful.

This finding held even when the researchers instructed laptop users not to transcribe everything the lecturer said verbatim. Those participants still wrote considerably more words than the hand-writers. And the results remained the same when the researchers allowed the students to review their notes before testing.

And those doodles I claim help me think better? Might not be my imagination. Research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that doodling might help us stay tuned in when things get a little dull.

Psychologist Jackie Andrade of Plymouth University divided 40 test subjects into two groups, doodlers and non-doodlers, and had them listen to a boring 2 ½-minute voicemail message. When participants were then treated to a surprise pop quiz about the message, the doodlers were able to remember 29 percent more of the information than the non-doodlers.

Researchers can’t say definitively why this is, but it could be that doodling, like fidgeting, helps us stay focused when our minds are ready to shut down. Doodling also might relieve some strain on the brain when it’s been concentrating for a long time, allowing it to muscle through the effort a little longer.

So evidence is accumulating that despite all of the modern means we have of recording information, dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s longhand has benefits for writing, learning and retaining information. Sometimes the quaint ways make sense. 

Related: 22 Ways to Become a Relentless Learner

Sophia Dembling is the author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.