Notepads versus Trackpads: Should Writers Use Pen-and-Paper or Modern Writing Software?


In today’s world, nearly every writer uses some form of writing software.  In fact, I’m using Microsoft Word – a word processing software – to type this right now.    But for people who are professional writers, word processors are just the beginning.  There is an entire world of software aimed to make writers’ jobs easier by helping to organize notes, link ideas, track characters and plot lines, and the like.  Scrivener is one of the most popular currently, but many options exist.

However, is there something being lost when we transfer from old-school note cards and handwritten outlines to hyperlinked files and being able to make changes with one flick on your computer’s trackpad?

Today, I’m going to compare the benefits of going fingers-to-keyboard versus those of the traditional pencil-to-page method.

First, physical (hardcopy) methods:

Let’s start with the old-school method of plotting, writing, and revising, which includes anything non-electronic: things like handwritten drafts, charting plots with note-cards on the floor or wall, binders and notebooks filled with notes and outlines, etc.   Technically, we could probably include using a typewriter in here, but let’s stay focused on what could be done with a good ol’ paper and pen/pencil.

Benefits of Paper and Pen/Pencil:

  • Paper and pencil can be easily transported for convenient writing anywhere (they can even fit in a pocket!)
  • Cheap and easy to access
  • Hard copies are not subject to accidental deletion, computer crashes, or other technological disasters
  • Handwriting forces the brain to slow down, which can mean deeper thought, better connection with your words, and greater recollection of what has been written
  • Simplicity and a very shallow learning curve. While some software – like Microsoft Word – is fairly simple, others require quite a bit of manual-reading and/or large time investments to master (like Scrivener).  But pencil and paper requires only that you know how to form letters, and maybe not even that, since you could always make notes by sketching pictures if you chose.
  • Freedom to organize your ideas in whatever way makes sense to you – be that linear outlines, pictures, thought maps, note cards, bulletin boards with images or the string method – as opposed to being limited by the features offered within your software program.
  • Easy to save older versions and back copies – just keep the notebooks somewhere to refer back to later
  • You can take them up into a tree with little effort and no risk of breaking them if you drop them (This might seem random but it was very important to me as a young writer! I spent a lot of time writing in trees.)

Now, let’s examine digital methods:

For digital methods, I’m including anything that uses electronics, such as a laptop or desktop with writing software, or a tablet or phone with writing apps.

Benefits of Computer & Software:

  • Quicker and neater to edit or change (as opposed to having to draw a huge X or a bunch of scribbles through entire sections of a paper or tearing out pages from a notebook)
  • Ability to save earlier versions and back copies in FAR less space (No more bookshelves full of used spiral notebooks!)
  • Possibility of sharing files over long distances with ease – if you want Aunt Mildred to review your book, you don’t have to mail her a copy; you can email instantly
  • Security of protecting ideas – you can password protect files to avoid others reading before you’re ready, and the digital timestamps of the file’s creation provides an instant proof of copyright
  • Speedy writing. You can type literally thousands of words per hour, and usually without your hand spasms!  You can also do a better job of keeping up with your thoughts, avoiding the pesky Oh man, I was mid-sentence but I forgot the rest of what I was going to write! scenario… or at least making it happen far less
  • Cool features. Microsoft Word offers Track Changes (very handy for editing and revising) and even simple things like spell check, which can make life as a writer quite a bit easier.   Scrivener and other writing programs take this to an even higher level, offering the ability to instantly search through notes and drafts, to link ideas between files using hyperlinks, to include images, videos, and web links in your drafts or on your note boards, and more
  • If you can’t physically sit down to write, you can even write on-the-go with a voice recorder and any one of many dictation software programs
  • You can use file organization to sort your writing where it can be easily found, rather than having to dig through papers or flip through notebooks to find what you’re looking for
  • It may be harder to carry a laptop into a tree, but digital files mean accessibility of your writing ANYWHERE with things like Google Drive, the Cloud, etc., even from your smartphone

We’ve looked at the benefits of each, and many of the downfalls of each are implied through the comparison.

So here comes the big question.

Which is better: old-school or new-school?

You can decide for yourself, but here is my position:

Neither.  Or both.  However you want to look at it.

I am a big believer in maintaining the old-school methods.  I carry a pen and small notepad in my purse, I often handwrite my notes and outlines, and I love to draw thought maps or use note cards on bulletin boards to organize my thoughts.  I even relish the feel of a hardback book in my hand, and I love touching and turning the physical pages.

But I also do the majority of my drafting, writing, and revising right in Microsoft Word, I read tons of e-books on my phone because I can carry them with me anywhere with ease, I love listening to audiobooks on my phone while walking or doing housework, I take notes with voice recorders and/or my phone’s memo pad, and I like to use writing software to organize my notes and research.   I have experimented with Scrivener and many others, and I enjoy a lot of their features.

For me, the choice comes down to mostly what step of the process I’m in.   If I’m just at the very beginning of sorting out a concept, I often jot down random ideas on whatever’s handy, be that a sticky note or the notes app on my phone.   I’m a very visual person, so if an idea is especially complex, I will often handwrite my notes so that I can spread them out on a table, highlight and color code them, cut up and rearrange them – whatever I need to do to get a grasp on my ideas.  In these early phases, handwriting my notes often helps me to slow down and focus, quieting the fury of all the ideas flying around in my head.

But once I have a basic concept, I switch almost immediately to Microsoft Word.  I’m a heavy outliner, so I type up outlines and notes in Word and then color-code, delete and rewrite, drag and drop… I just keep reworking it until it clicks.  And then I use Word to type my drafts, which I save consecutive versions of under unique file names, and I organize my drafts in files so I can always find what I need quickly.  I also have all my files backed up automatically to Google Drive, so I don’t have to worry about losing them and I can access them from anywhere.

And yet, partway through my process, I usually find myself drawn back to the physical methods to work out kinks or complex aspects of the writing.  I use note cards on a bulletin board, I print out drafts and mark them up, and I sometimes even sketch out or draw scenes, maps, etc.     There is a way in which my brain processes when I can physically hold something in my hand that doesn’t always work the same when I’m looking at a screen.

My suggestion to new writers is this: try everything.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Research, learn what works for different writers, and if something sparks your interest, give it a try.   The methods of writing are nearly as variant as the writers who use them, and you won’t know what works best for you unless you explore the possibilities.


Coming Next: Free Scrivener Alternatives!

If you’re interested in trying out writers’ software but are hesitant to invest the money purchasing one, don’t miss my upcoming blog post.

I spent hours upon hours researching some of the leading FREE options for writing software and reviewing them (complete with screenshots) so that YOU don’t have to!   I’m in the final phases of compiling all my notes, comments, feature comparisons, and screenshots… so look for my “Free Scrivener Alternatives” post sometime in the next week or two!


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