In these days of electronic everything, using a pen and paper seems somewhat anomalous. However, there is evidence to suggest that going back to pen and paper has a range of benefits.
Personally, I carry a pen and paper, usually a fountain pen and a Moleskine notebook of some sort, all the time. Ironically, I am writing this in one go on a laptop. Usually, I write in a notebook first and then transfer electronically later. A lot of my writing though is done whilst out and about. I prefer to travel light and lugging a laptop or even a tablet around all the time is just not my style. Even when I do have an electronic device with me, I often still resort to pen and paper. Opening a laptop on the London tube during the rush hour is rarely an option. Using a notebook even when standing is simple.
There have been various studies into the benefits of writing so this isn’t all coming from a personal crusade or bias. A study by James Pennebaker of the University of Texas-Austin (2004) looked into the benefits of writing to heal emotional wounds. The study group generally felt better over a few days of writing down their thoughts on a daily basis. There have also been studies to suggest that writing can improve physical health as well as general happiness.
However, there are many wider benefits to writing. Firstly, unlike speech, it provides more time to describe things, events and people in more detail and in a wider vocabulary. The consequence is greater clarity and therefore better communication. It’s no coincidence that most people, given the task of addressing an audience, will prepare their speech on paper prior to delivering it.
Our stressed out lives can also benefit from writing. Again, there have been studies to show that writing has a calming influence on our brains. Indeed, I have found this to be the case. Writing can also make one more productive. Sir Richard Branson often extols the virtues of a notebook to draw up lists of things to do and to jot down ideas. Jotting down tasks for the day, it can help to remember them, put them into perspective and to prioritise them. Doing so helps us to hold ourselves to account. Whilst it can be dispiriting to see that we have not completed every task, it is also very satisfying and uplifting to be able to cross each off once completed. This heightens a sense of achievement and makes us happier. I would suggest that the crossing off effect is far greater than that of not having completed everything.
Of course, one key benefit that writing has is the ability to record and store information in perpetuity. The diaries of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys have provided us with insights into lives and moments in time that have become as important in literature as the complete works of Shakespeare. For most of us, just having a record of our own lives for future generations of our families is a wonderful thing to bequeath. Again, this can be done electronically but who knows if the technology in 500 years time will be backward compatible with today’s? I recently discovered a letter to my parents dated the day after my birth from one of my great uncles congratulating them on my birth. It was as though it was written yesterday and, were it an email today, I doubt whether it would still be accessible in 10 years time, let alone 60.
Expressing our thoughts verbally to another human being suggests we are seeking or inviting comment or judgement. Yet writing down our feelings provides the opportunity for complete confidentiality whilst also providing the opportunity to reflect and question ourselves with impunity. For many people (most men) this provides a safe way to rid ourselves of the things that might be stressing us, annoying us or frustrating us with confidence. Not everyone wishes to expose their emotional frailties to another person.
Is there a point to all this? Well, there’s no suggestion that everyone is the next Shakespeare or Stephen King but that writing does no one any harm. On the contrary, studies have shown a remarkable range of health benefits and that writing generally makes one happier. Don’t forget that, with a pen and paper, the batteries don’t run out and you don’t need to be at the mercy of wi-fi!