Take Note

I am indebted to Neil Gaiman’s writing masterclass for reminding me to keep paper and pen near at hand at all times. I knew this, but way led onto way, and I got out of the habit. And all times means ALL times. By my bedside, when tromping the neighborhood in pursuit of the daily step count, in the grocery store. Why? Because we know how the old brain-eroo works.

We have an executive mental mode for Getting Stuff Done. This cognitive approach is for solving problems, doing task-oriented work, and checking off to-dos. Then there’s the unfortunately named default mode, which is equally productive, but much quieter. We kick into  default mode in the shower, driving a familiar route (say, to the horse barn and back), and sometimes when sitting in meetings (or, um,  writers’ workshops).

In the default mode we are also Getting Stuff Done, such as bringing connections up from the subconscious (sometimes experienced as an aha!), deciding what we stand for, and making long-term plans based on our values. But default mode can be coy. If you don’t jot down the brilliant aha! or what-if, it can swim away never to be seen again. When you physically write the thought down, you signal to the brain that the concept has weight and merit, and the imagination–rather than forgetting it–will embroider on the idea further.

This carries over to the classroom, where we know that physical note-taking results in greater comprehension and retention than typing notes into a computer does. Why? Because the physical act of writing is fundamentally different from typing, and something about writing helps anchor thoughts in memory more effectively than typing does. Then too, when you write on paper, you are not simply taking dictation. You must paraphrase what’s presented, boil it down, and use your own symbols, sketches, and abbreviations to record it. You have to not merely listen, in other words, you must also think.

Writing by hand has other benefits in the classroom besides improving comprehension and retention. Students who write by hand are not sitting behind a physical device, fixated on the screen and keyboard. Class discussions evolve from the teacher-student dialogues common in computer-note-taking classes, into group-wide conversations of more depth and variety. That too, makes the material more interesting and memorable.

Many writers begin their days with what are called Morning Pages, a time to physically write about what’s on their minds or where they want their stories to go. I finish my day journaling, but I’ve fallen into the habit of journaling on my computer. I’m going to go back to handwriting those final thoughts of the day, as I did for years, just as soon as I recreate a space in my house where handwriting is comfortable (ahem). You know–a desk that isn’t commandeered by a computer?

Do your handwrite anymore? Why or why not? If you were going to re-introduce the skill, where would be a good place to start? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.


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23 comments on “Take Note

  1. I handwrite at work and at home. The majority of my time at work involves problem resolution. I keep a notebook of outgoing call outs noting date time and client. Research is required for complicated situations and I keep notes to keep the conversations on track. I enter the resolutions in a word document using my handwritten notes.
    I am a list writer too. I have a blotter style calendar for my daily lists.
    I handwrite notes on books I review too. My husband knows not to toss napkins and papers with notes on them.
    And I send cards with a short note too- an extra step to show you care!
    I think sending cards is a great place to start!

    Congratulations on Duncan & Matilda! So glad you wrote such a fabulous story for Duncan- great characters and cat n’ mouse plot.
    Hoping Della’s story is in the works.

  2. I definitely retain more people do if taking handwritten notes as opposed to typing. My handwriting has degenerated abysmally, though. Age? Or lack of use? I’m not sure which.

  3. Other than lists and instructions to myself, and the occasional card or note to someone, I don’t really do much handwriting anymore. I tried keeping a journal a few years back, but I didn’t keep it up.

  4. I hand write many things.

    I have magnetic pads for lists on my frig for grocery lists, reminders and menus for the week. One of my sisters has a grocery list FORM and check off various items as she’s making her weekly list. My list grows during the week so I can put down we need more flour or toilet paper or ?????? as I go. I find I don’t forget important things such as milk if I keep a running list. I do sit down to finish it off before I go but the the act of writing it down helps my remember-er!

    I handwrite lesson and rehearsal plans too and that helps me include what I need to be included.

    I do occasionally handwrite write a letter or thank you note and that feels good!

  5. I am not a writer, such as you. Unfortunately, life seems to get in the way of jotting down my thoughts, especially since there is not always a convenient spot to write down my thoughts. Most all of my thoughts happen when I an driving or in the shower. Plus, I don’t have a moment to call my own unless I am on the toilet (my husband recently retired and is like my shadow, now). My toilet time is perfect for reading and not so much thinking. So, if I were to be able to jot down my thoughts, the bathroom would be the place to do so. 🙂

  6. Yes, I handwrite many things. I do text my young folks, as that is their preferred form of communication, but once in awhile send a handwritten note in with a package. I constantly handwrite lists. I keep a paper calendar where I make notes of things to do, keep track of when I have done things and when the first daffodils bloom, etc. I still write paper checks. If I have a big project, I organize the different parts on separate pieces of notebook paper. I print out important emails and receipts and file in paper folders. Yes, I still handwrite and use paper!

  7. While I don’t keep an actual journal, I do keep a small calendar in my purse where I jot down appointments, things out of the ordinary like concerts, shows, lunches with so-and-so, etc. I also have a larger appointment calendar on my desk that is for professional stuff rather than the more personal calendar I carry around with me. This is handwritten, and I don’t think I’ll ever completely get away from that. For book reviewing, I always jot down my notes by hand while reading, then later use them to write up my thoughts in a word doc.

  8. Not only handwrite, but indulge in broad nibbed fountain pens, beautiful bottled inks, & pretty notebooks & journals. Lap desks that rest across the arms of my chair (Levengers) make it comfy.

    There are excellent, reputable online stores like Goulet Pens, Fountain Pen Hospital, Vanness Pens, Anderson Pens & Jet Pens are just a few places to indulge starting out without dropping huge amounts of money.

  9. My husband and I were at an event at my daughter’s high school recently when one of her teachers (late 40’s) wanted to take some notes and started patting his pockets. The room was divided between those 45 and up who also started to look for a pen/pencil and the younger crowd that pulled out their phones. I occasionally use my notes app but almost immediately forget what I have noted, if I write it down I have a decent chance of recalling it later.

    I love the convenience of email but I would love hand written correspondence to make a return if you are starting a campaign. But as cursive is no longer required to learn in grade school, you may need to start there.

  10. I handwrite all the time – mostly lists, for shopping or ‘to-do’. But also notes in cards for birthdays & holidays. In January I had a medical problem & didn’t have the strength in my hand to hold a pen/pencil, so my writing was unreadable (even by me) – that was horrible. It bothers me when I read that schools aren’t teaching cursive writing any more – I hope they at least teach how to do a signature of their names – that’s still required in various places.

  11. Through my 50-year working life, I kept a journal. While striving for daily, I required at least weekly entries. As the decades passed – through empty nest to grandchildren and great grandchildren; career advancement and promotions, my journaling became more faithful and expansive. Unfortunately, as retirement neared, my hands grew less willing to hold a pen and I have of necessity switched to dictating my entries. My granddaughter’s retirement gift to me was a lovely journal and several gel pens in interesting colors. I miss pen and paper and I’m hoping I can find a desk or other surface that will allow me to resume my earlier habit and make use of her gift.

  12. I still wield a pen, though not a gorgeous fountain pen as I would prefer. I take notes a lot, but it’s mostly for doctor’s appointments (to document my Mom’s visits mostly) and telephone calls with “customer support” (and, yes, I put that in quotes because there’s not nearly enough supporting of the customers these days). I also have taken over writing the checks and addressing envelopes for my Mom since she has trouble now. I write a note in the Christmas cards I still send every year. I have never been a journaling person and when I had to do it during my college freshman expository writing courses, I often did a bunch of entries in the last few days before I had to turn the darn thing in. I note important events on my calendar, but it’s done online and then put into a Microsoft Word file that I print at the end of the year and put in a notebook as the closest to a “diary” that I get. I am appalled by reports that schools aren’t teaching cursive anymore since that is still my favorite form of handwriting.

  13. I spend a great deal of my work time helping kids gain the coordination and control to write legibly. I am frequently telling the story of the research that showed writing supported learning and memory. That is when I think they are old enough to understand!! I love these kids! They are so much fun! And it is such a rush to see them succeed and be so excited about it!

    I do all of my note taking by hand. The biggest bummer of my job is that I have to spend so much time documenting what I do, who I do it with, and exactly what time I did it! All of this has to be done on a keyboard by the way because It is all submitted electronically.

  14. Grace, I’m typing this to you on my computer, but I handwrite almost everything else, including the novels I write. My children laugh at me for my handwritten shopping lists and for the little handwritten notes I leave around the house reminding me of this or that, but they work for me! Hope you get a nice space cleared out soon!

  15. I really don’t do a lot of handwriting anymore. I write out ‘to do’ lists – often both handwriten and keyed into my phone’s “notes” app. We have weekly pack meetings that I hand write for everyone to refer to during the week and later if necessary, There are a few other work related things I write out by hand, but for the most part, I use the comeputer for communication and record keeping – even if I need a printed copy to be available. I type faster than I write, and people can read it better than my hand writing. There’s also the fact that it is much easier to have a legible copy of something I type up rather than hand write.

    If I were taking classes again, I would take notes by hand for sure. I learned long ago that I retain information better when I write it out.

  16. I always have paper and pen handy, because even if it’s just a list that needs to be made, I like to write it down. I seldom use Notes on my iPhone, unless it’s something I need forever, like our Netflix password 😉 . I find that the act of writing it out makes it more memorable, more real, more important somehow. Thoughts, ideas, calls to be made, whatever is on my mind, gets written on scraps of paper or in my tiny notepad. I have a friend who keeps a pad of Post-It Notes in her pocket at all times. She can rearrange pages by importance, delete them without issue, or add them to the wall behind her desk. I think she’s brilliant!

  17. On good mercy, yes. I have been used as a pole in the question, “how much do you like notebooks, on a scale of ,’hate then,’ to ‘Anna?'” Which is to say that writing longhand is a great love of mine, and I keep multiple notebooks. Morning and evening pages bookend my day, and almost all of my initial drafts are in longhand.

  18. There’s something also very soothing about writing something by hand. It’s also a form of energy, a certain release. I’m somewhat of a stationery hoarder – I like journals, pens and the works. I mean, I even think that there are certain pens that bring out the best in handwriting (and there are those that just simply ruin it). I use longhand for almost everything: notes at work; grocery lists; authorization letters. The past few years, I’ve been getting into not-so-expensive fountain pens, and there’s just something very distinct about using one for inner-most-thoughts journaling using fountain pens and special paper. I’m trying *never* being without a pen and paper again.

  19. Yes I do write a lot by hand. Morning pages, Trinities (brags/gratitudes/desires), all my creative ideas for my business, conference and webinar notes. In different notebooks and journals and (too much!) loose leaf paper.
    I use different coloured pens, and underline, circle, adding arrows and doodles. I do a lot on the computer but my most creative ideas come when I am putting pen to paper.

    I am concerned for my nephews, who in elementary school, are not being taught to write in script but only separate, block letters!! How much will they lose? How are their brains being moulded to use mostly a keyboard and how will this impact their creativity?

    • I do all those things too! One of the most common jokes in the retirement community is that one day we will be able to write rude things about the younger generation on the bathroom stalls and they won’t be able to read them! LOL

  20. I have kept a handwritten diary for over 30 years. Thank you for the insight that actually writing something down helps cement it in the memory. I used to keep copious notes in college and since I never reread anything, it must have worked since I passed everything.
    As a spiritual director, I have found there are few things more effective than journaling. Putting your true self on paper is challenging but important and the first step in letting other people see who you are.

  21. I had a gratitude journal for a miserable time 20 years ago when my corporate job was overwhelming and I felt like I was neglecting my family. I like the idea of hand-writing one again because today, the only things I write by hand are thank you notes. I think hand writing, especially in cursive, will soon be a lost art and as I age, I’m sure “use it or lose it” applies.