Which is faster — typing or writing with a pen?

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Which is faster, typing or writing with a pen? The best tool for writing may surprise you….

Is it better to write on your keyboard or with a pen? Clients ask me this question every week and I always give the same answer: It depends.

And this apparent non-answer is not the least bit contradictory. Consider that if you need to go to the grocery store, you could either walk or drive. Both forms of transit are perfectly fine. But if you’re in a hurry, or if you have to carry a 25-lb sack of flour, or if it’s pouring with rain, you’ll want to drive. 

But if it’s a beautiful sunny day — neither too cold nor too hot — and the store is within 20 minutes of your house and if your grocery load isn’t going to be too heavy, you’ll be better off walking. There is no single perfect all-purpose answer to how to get to the store. It depends. 

The same principle applies to writing. Even though most of us stopped handwriting the day we finished school or college — and we like to text like mad on our smartphones — there are times when using a pen or pencil makes more sense. This is because handwriting and typing affect different areas of our brains. 

I’m not going to get into the argument about whether kids should be taught cursive in school. I’ll let other people address that ball of wax.

But I will tell you that neuroscientists believe if you’re doing any of the following writing-related tasks, using a pen or pencil makes more sense than a keyboard:

  • Taking notes
  • Mindmapping
  • Thinking and planning

Why?

Taking notes by hand leads to better memory recall. It sharpens our critical thinking and it gives us a better conceptual understanding of the material. In a paper published in the journal Psychological Science in April 2014,  US researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer argued that note-taking with a pen, rather than a laptop, gave students a better understanding of their subject.

The study focused on more than 300 students at Princeton and the University of California, Los Angeles. The researchers concluded that students working with a pen on paper rephrased information as they took notes, which required them to understand and summarize. Those using keyboards, however, took a greater volume of notes, which allowed them to avoid the task of summarizing.

I know this issue faced my son when he earned his university degree in music. As someone who is both dyslexic and dysgraphic he had no choice but to take notes on his computer. He sailed through his practical courses like “musicianship” and struggled mightily with ones like music history, in part, I’m convinced because of the way he had to take notes. 

Another benefit of writing by hand is that it helps you avoid distractions. If you’re locked away from your smartphone, tablet or computer, you’re going to be unable to spend time on email, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Your notebook does not have wifi!

Finally, however, the biggest benefit of writing by hand is that it will put you in what scientist Barbara Oakley @barbaraoakley (she wrote the foreword to my book Your Happy First Draft) describes as a “diffuse” state of mind. 

I think she’s right and for this reason, I’ve always eschewed software when I mindmapInstead, I use an artist’s notebook with a pencil. Mindmapping in this way puts me into a relaxed and meditative state of mind, which is perfect for thinking. (And, by the way, I like to walk when I’m thinking about what I need to write. Pen AND laptop are both imperfect tools for that task. Instead, I take my cellphone with me so I can easily dictate notes to myself.)

On the advice of journalist and writer Clive Thompson, @pomeranian99, I’ve started using expensive Blackwing pencils as my pencil of choice. Thompson argues that writing notes by hand is vastly superior to taking them on a computer. He also says that writing by hand works better for what he describes as “big picture thinking,” by which he means planning for articles or stories we want to write. 

I even follow his recommendation to use the Kum double-long-point pencil sharpener. (Having a top-quality sharpener — which isn’t the least bit expensive — is a joy!) 

But even more importantly, I accept Thompson’s evidence that when it comes to writing, typing is vastly superior to using a pen. If you want to see a short speech in which he made this argument, go view, How The Way You Write Changes the Way You Think. It takes only 10 minutes.

Typing is far superior for writing he says, because our brains are like super computers affixed to our necks. Ideas rush along, like cars on a freeway, and typing allows us to keep up better and avoid “bottlenecks.” Most interestingly, he says: Increase people’s typing speed and you’ll increase the quality of their writing. 

Although this sounds counterintuitive, scientists did exactly that when they took a group of students who didn’t type. Following a writing test, they gave part of the group typing instruction for several weeks and then retested them. Amazingly, the simple act of knowing how to touch-type (typing without looking at the keyboard) improved their writing scores by some 40%.

Concludes Thompson: There’s no such thing as one perfect tool for writing. Instead, it’s important to define exactly what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to absorb information, a pencil is best. If you want to produce it, however, a keyboard should be your best friend.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 19/15.

*

My video podcast last week described how to find an agent. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

*

How do you decide whether to use a pencil or your keyboard? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 29/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!