Skip to content

Ten reasons why writing by hand isn't going anywhere

From knowledge retention to hand-eye coordination, handwriting has it all.

Dominik Nitsch
8 min read
Ten reasons why writing by hand isn't going anywhere
Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

When was the last time you wrote something by hand?

A note scribbled on a post-it doesn’t count. When was the last time you deliberately sat down to write something, on a piece of paper, with a pen?

Today, you can type on a keyboard, on a touchscreen, you can even just speak and the computer will write it for you — all more efficient than taking pen and paper to write something down.

There are many more instances where typing is super useful (like, when writing this post).

Still, I write by hand every day.

Maybe not my grocery shopping lists on a notepad  anymore (I use ChatGPT for that, and here’s how you can do this too).

I write in my journal every morning. In meetings every day. On thank you notes. Sometimes even on the office glass walls.

When writing this article, I went down a rabbit hole that was deeper than I could’ve possibly imagined.

Starting out innocently by googling “benefits of writing by hand”, I went down from there, reading a whole master’s thesis as well as several other papers, articles on the internet and now I feel like a semi-expert on the topic of hand writing.

Here’s what I learned. A few aspects are really surprising, but make sense when you think about them.

Disclaimer: this article is rather long, so if you only have a minute or two, scroll down to the bottom, where I put together a list of six actionable steps to use handwriting in your everyday life.

[1] Handwriting slows everything down.

You could call handwriting the “slow food” of producing text. When you write by hand, you are slower than typing on a keyboard (unless you know shorthand). By slowing down, you tend to think more actively about what you’re actually putting to paper.

And this, in turn, fosters creativity. During my daily journaling habit, where I sit down for 20–30 minutes to simply write freely flowing, I have the best ideas. You start looking at things in a different way, thinking about your problems from a different angle.

As William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well” among others, says: “Writing is thinking on paper.”

[2] Handwriting lets you easily dump information.

Whenever I can’t sleep because I’m (over)thinking things, I get up, grab my journal and quickly write down what I’m thinking about.

Handwriting like an eraser for your brain. Once your thoughts are recorded somewhere, it’s easy for you to let them go.

Journaling accomplishes the same thing. By journaling every day, I am able to dump all the mental baggage in the morning, and to tackle every workday clear-headedly. This, in turn, allows me to focus a lot better.

[3] Handwriting shows appreciation.

At my first start-up, we used to send out German teaching books. A lot of them. Every time I sent one out, I wrote a small note for the student into it.

This shows appreciation. You’re taking time out of your day to do something personal for them.

You can do the same with thank you cards. Sending someone a hand-written thank you card speaks so much louder than simply shooting them a quick email. You actively took the time to write that note, put it in an envelope and throw it into the mailbox. Show appreciation, and it’ll come back to you.

[4] Handwriting shows respect.

I always bring my notepad to meetings. While taking notes on a laptop might be more efficient, doing so by hand shows respect, in two ways:

First, you’re fully focused on the meeting, because there are no distractions.

Second, by actively taking notes, you acknowledge the fact that what is being said is important to you.

You can always track your tasks on paper and then add them to your favorite task management app later; no need to do that right away.

Plus, when you review and digitalize your notes, they will be much more concise as you’ve already mentally processed them, and it gives you another opportunity to review.

Next time you bring your laptop to a meeting, remember — it’s okay to use it for showing data, charts etc., but not for taking notes. It might take longer to digitalize them afterwards, but it’s definitely worth the time.

[5] Handwriting helps you retain memory better.

Typing allows you to transcribe things verbatim, so you can simply write down what is being said. When writing by hand, you cannot possibly write that fast, so you have to cluster and process the information while taking it in.

According to Mueller & Oppenheimer1, typing vs. handwritten note taking does not make a difference in factual recall, but makes a huge difference in applying the concepts. When typing, your brain is just “mindlessly transcribing”; when writing, your main is already making the connections and thus able to apply the concepts better.

Handwriting therefore leads to higher quality learning, the researchers say — and better retention of information and concepts.

So one quick hack to get your academic performance up — or to learn anything better — is to simply start taking notes by hand. It might just be that easy.

(We also covered this in International Generalist #7).

[6] Handwriting improves focus.

In our digital world, we’re constantly working on connected devices. I’m currently writing this article on my MacBook Air, have approximately 37 tabs open, WhatsApp Web is running, and in between researching and writing, I’m planning a vacation and chatting with my girlfriend. Not a great start to focus or “deep work”.

When you write by hand, all that stuff is gone.

It’s you, your pen, and the paper. Nothing else to be distracted by.

The ability to focus is a meta-skill, which you can apply to different contexts. Just like your ability to learn a new skill increases with every new skill that you learn (learning your first foreign language is a lot harder than your fifth, I can tell you), your ability to focus increases with every minute spent in deep focus.

Therefore, the focus you exert when writing by hand will help you in turn to focus better in other contexts — whether it is at work, during sports, meditation or even in social settings.

[7] Handwriting increases the GDP of developing countries.

Handwriting teaches literacy. Writing and reading skills correlate closely. Therefore, the more you write, the better you will become at reading.

I assume you, dear reader, are fully capable of reading and writing; but for many people in this world, this is not the case.

Being able to read is the key to education. How will you retain information if you cannot read it properly nor record it?

You probably won’t  retain much of it.

This means you also won’t:

  • be able to work in a lot of jobs
  • get access to proper education
  • be able to do a lot of basic functions of everyday life

And while we think that in developed countries, everyone has these abilities, it’s simply not true.

In Germany alone there are 7.5 million people (!) between 18 and 64 who are “functionally illiterate”, according to this article (alternative source). There are roughly 50 million people in Germany between 18 and 64, so that’s a whopping 15% of the population. But nobody talks about it — it’s a taboo topic.

In the whole world, there are 774 million people who are illiterate (how that is distinguished from “functionally illiterate”, I don’t know).

Take a second to think about what that means — all those people aren’t able to receive proper education, to work and create value. Many problems in this world could be solved by simply being literate. One bright spot is that at least the younger generations are mostly literate, but this is still a problem worth solving.

Writing by hand goes a long way towards solving illiteracy.

[8] Handwriting saves lives.

Bad handwriting literally kills people. I’m borrowing a lot in this article from Saara Helkala’s master’s thesis2 — there she quotes a report that back in 1999, approximately 7,000 patients in the US die every year because of bad handwriting.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals (my first startup builds the bridge between unemployed nurses in Southern Europe and German hospitals yearning for more personnel), I can attest to that.

Luckily, thanks to digitalization, a lot of these issues have disappeared today, but there is still a lot of handwriting going on in hospitals.

7,000 lives taken because your handwriting sucks?


[9] Handwriting improves hand-eye coordination.

When you write by hand, you’re exerting force on an object in a very accurate manner. You’re not doing the macro-motion of throwing a ball, but making tiny movements in order to draw circles on paper.

According to an article by Mark Mont-Williams3, this has a high impact on hand-eye coordination and related activities, such as playing ball sports, using cutlery or tying shoelaces. While this may be of limited usefulness for adults, it’s highly important for children’s development (and for anyone trying to pick up a new sport).

[10] Handwriting has great UX design.

I believe that things with a great user interface survive better”, Finnish neuroscientist Minna Huotilainen says in Helkala’s thesis.

Which better UX could you imagine than pen&paper? Simple. Easy to use. Always accessible. Highly flexible. It’s pretty flawless.

Therefore, handwriting probably won’t come totally out of fashion, especially since it’s been around for thousands of years.

Enough theory. How can you use all this information to your advantage in your daily life?

Here are a few adjustments that you can make today.

  • When learning something, don’t take notes on your laptop — do it by hand instead. It’ll increase your quality of learning as well as your ability to apply conceptual information. And it might just make your grades a lot better.
  • In meetings, take your notes by hand and digitalize them afterwards. Your meeting partners will thank you, as will you when you catch that one thing you would’ve totally forgotten about.
  • Send a hand-written thank you card every now and then. It takes 5 minutes, but may mean the world to the recipient. And might make the difference between churning and retaining a client.
  • Start a daily journaling habit. It doesn’t need to be 20–30 minutes, it can also only be 5. Because you will realize that once you start writing, you won’t stop after 5 minutes, when the ideas start flowing. It’s an awesome creative process, and I get a lot of benefits from it.
  • Put a notepad by your bedside and when you can’t sleep, simply write down what’s going through your head. This will help get your thoughts in order. And a good night’s sleep is the world’s best medication.
  • Get a high quality writing toolkit. I use a Karst Stone Paper notebook and a Lamy pen, but any high quality journal and pen will do. I really like the feel of the stone paper, it’s so smooth. Bonus: the pages are water-proof and cannot be torn, so it’ll last for a lifetime.

Writing by hand is an underused skill.

That is not to say that typing is bad, quite the opposite — it’s a great tool for many purposes, just not for every purpose.

At the end of the day, that’s what writing by hand is too : a tool.

It has its applications, but there are also cases where it’s not very useful. Use it, but wisely.

Until then, here’s a written thank-you note from me for you:

Photo (and handwriting) courtesy of the author.

Dominik Nitsch

Proud generalist: Entrepreneur, Athlete, & Writer.

Related Posts

Members Public

👨‍💻 IG#33: How to work full-time and still have a life

Working full-time hits hard. But there's a life outside of work - and there's a way to fit everything into your day.

👨‍💻  IG#33: How to work full-time and still have a life
Members Public

🌿 IG#32: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Athletic Greens

How a brilliant marketing ploy gets thousands of people to consume a drink that tastes like taking a bite out of a soccer field.

🌿 IG#32: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Athletic Greens
Members Public

🙅‍♂️ IG#31: How to Say No (& Set Boundaries Gracefully)

Decline invitations and opportunities without being a dick.

🙅‍♂️ IG#31: How to Say No (& Set Boundaries Gracefully)