Paper versus Pixels: the Debate Goes On

In January I participated in an experiment to explore the relative merits of journaling on paper versus keyboard. The research project was spearheaded by Amber Starfire, owner of Writing Through Life, a blog and ezine devoted to the fine art of journaling. For one week we wrote by hand. The second week we used the computer, and the third week we mixed the two. 

hand writing 2 Official results have not been released, but I was a little surprised by my personal findings. From the time I received a Hermes Baby typewriter in preparation for going to college, I used a keyboard for just about everything but taking notes and signing checks. For over a dozen years I kept sporadic journal entries in ongoing documents, adding to them through the space of a year. 

Three years ago I began journaling on a regular basis, loosely following the Morning Pages model. After spending two or three weeks reconditioning my writing muscles, I fell in love with hand writing, finding deep pleasure in watching words pour from my hand onto paper. They seem more real, more immediate, more connected in three dimensions that any pixels on a monitor ever will. Writing by hand often invokes a meditative state. While writing stories, essays, blog posts, articles, and all that other stuff is still fine on the keyboard, journaling by hand has become something of an obsession. Magic happens. I feel more creative. I don’t recall my muse  Sarabelle ever visiting while my hands were on a keyboard.

But still, I’m up for experiments and try to keep an open mind. I’m aware of the advantages of using the computer. Amber summarized them beautifully in a post about journaling software. 

My experience confirmed my preference for writing on paper, for all the reasons I already knew, but it also reactivated my appreciation of computer journaling. My journals have pale golden pages as warm as morning sunshine. After recoiling from the icy white digital page, I set the page color in Word to palest pink, adding a header of slightly darker hearts. Then I downloaded a hand printing font not too different from my own and used deep violet “ink”. This combination tricked my eye and made a world of difference. My E-journal feels less like “more work.” 

However, I did not find myself drawn into the meditative state. My thoughts remained closer to the surface. This may partly be due to the crisp percussion of hitting keys versus the smooth, analog glide of gel pen on paper. Clicking versus silence. The rhythm and flow are different. Also, the keyboard and touchpad on my laptop are wiggy (I will journal in my comfy chair, not at my desk, however I do it). The cursor jumps around now and then. To avoid chaos, I must often reposition, which breaks the flow.

Focus is a concern. When I write on paper, I’m journaling. That and nothing else. I’m aware that I could type in some of what I write, but that never happens. If I use anything, I rewrite it. When I write on the computer, some tiny portal remains active, reminding me I can easily recycle parts into a blog post, email, or whatever. That keeps one eye on the window to the world. 

For me, 95% of the value of keeping a journal lies in the writing. If my journals are lost or destroyed, so be it. I cherish this break from the keyboard and need it for personal balance. But I think I will be using the keyboard to capture more thoughts that aren’t so deeply personal. I might even invest in journal software for the purpose. 

Write now: try Amber’s experiment for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Then send me an email with the results. If you already have strong feelings about this, post a comment and share them.


Sharon said...

I've had the same experience you have, Sharon. I keep both a paper/pencil journal and a computer one using Life Journal software. I like them both and use one or the other depending on my mood. Funny.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Sharon, I so love it when other Sharon's comment. As for the shared experience, what is that saying about "Great minds ..."? LOL

Amber Lea Starfire said...

Sharon, thank you for sharing your personal experience with the experiment. I'll be posting results from our 12 participants on next week, including my personal experience with it.

Like you, I had some surprises and some insights. I'm enjoying the ongoing conversation and look forward to reading the comments on this post to find out more.

Zak said...

Hey guys, I find this interesting because whenever someone asks me which I prefer, I automatically respond computer...Lately I have been taking notice of what I actually use more - almost always my paper/pencil journal! I don't know why it just feels more like writing to me! :)

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for the comment Zak. Rather interestingly, new resarch is finally appearing that validates this sense that so many of us have.

Zak said...

Have you found anything on other types of writing, not just journaling? I feel that the results could be different, say, for a novel writer as opposed to a journalist. What do you think?

Carol Samuel said...

When I first began writing my memoirs, I wrote by hand, and then typed my piece. I liked the hand writing. When I bought a laptop, I began "writing" with the computer on my lap (cup of tea nearby), having the sense of hand writing. I definitely like the time saved, the storage of my work, being able to edit my memoir, and to rearrange them as I bounce through my memoir project.
Carol Samuel, course leader of Memoirs at Osher at RIT

Sharon Lippincott said...

The research on hand versus keyboard that has shown a difference is general, not specifically about journaling. The most recent that I read (sorry, it would take considerable digging to find it) showed that the brain processes things differently in the two modes. The motor activity involved with forming letters on the page activates different brain centers. Memory is stronger. The really fascinating finding is that when we even LOOK at hand writing vs. mechanical print, different brain centers are activated.

Obviously it isn't practical to abandon digital input. But we can choose when to use each.