Why I Write Notes by Hand (And You Should, Too)

There are a variety of arguments for why students in classes and individuals in meetings should take notes by hand. Those arguments range from the pragmatic — it’s too easy to distract yourself (and others) while using smart phones, tablets, and/or laptops — to the cognitive — there is more/better brain activity when we write by hand. The arguments have appeared in prestigious publications like Scientific American, The New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. All of them, I think, make good sense both intuitively and rationally. (And they are all linked below.)

I would like to add another dimension to why I take notes by hand and why I think you should, too, and it comes down to this: don’t limit yourself to a single mode of thinking. I don’t know how your brain works, but only if you are the most linear of thinkers, and one narrowly confined — by some weird birthright (or curse) — to only ever thinking in words, are you going to be able to capture your thoughts strictly with, well, words. I find I sometimes need to diagram, and even if I don’t do much more than put words in weird text blocks connected by lines and arrows, I am still able to indicate more complex kinds of relationships — various forms of subordination (like multiple branches) or parallelism — quickly than I can if I only use words:

Notes with Additional Relationships

Consider, too, that sometimes all you have is a diagram or some other kind of image in your mind. You certainly could use words to describe it … eventually. But, perhaps, your first impulse is to “see” it in its totality.

Field Notes with Diagram

And then there are the times that you can’t “find the right word” or the word is “on the tip of your tongue.” Why force yourself to find a word, especially in the middle of a class or a meeting where you may not have time to figure it out? Why not draw or doodle or whatever; allow yourself the opportunity to capture your thoughts in some other fashion, and then, later, when you are putting your notes away for the day, as I have advised elsewhere, you can find time to discover what it was you were trying to say to yourself — this works especially well if you use paper with wide left margins.


Originally published at johnlaudun.org on August 19, 2015.

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