You’ve heard the stories. People like Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, Aaron Sorkin, even Marilyn Monroe–they all are said to have scrawled ideas on whatever they could, including napkins.
Some of the stories are little more than lore, but with the idea that great writers constantly write, they do raise the question about whether there is a “best” medium to for writers to use. And that generally boils down to a debate over old fashioned paper and laptops.
Pros of paper
From the scientific standpoint, we’ve learned that writing by hand actually does help people encode and recall information. There’s something about the combination of seeing the letters form, physically writing them out and writing at a pace that’s a bit slower that’s helpful. So in that sense, writing on paper might be better when you’ve got an idea you don’t want to forget, or when you’re brainstorming and are still developing characters and ideas.
It’s good for drafting, too, in the sense that it’s not quite as easy or quick to edit. The focus is more likely to stay on just getting the words out and setting up a solid framework.
And let’s not forget, just about every writer I know has kind words to say about the special feel and smell of a notebook that’s constructed or looks a certain way that brings joy. (I have several fuzzy unicorn ones at the moment, although I always have had a penchant for antique-looking leather.) Computer documents can be pretty impersonal by comparison.
Pros of digital
When it comes to speed, paper just can’t compare to typing. If you’re really in a state of flow and are hitting, let’s say, 75 words per minute, you can hit up to 4,500 words in a single hour. We should remember here that quality matters more than the word count overall and not focus too much on reaching daily quotas, but digital writing can help you be more prolific than you otherwise might be, and there will be times when you have writing deadlines and time is precious.
It’s much easier to edit the manuscript, too, since there’s no need to start from scratch to produce a clean draft. That can let you play with how you’re arranging ideas or dialogue, and it makes simultaneous submissions formatted according to many guidelines a snap.
You’ll also have other tools on the laptop that help your writing, such as the ability to set editorial reminders on your Google calendar or organize writing tasks with options like Trello.
A general rule of thumb
So in my view, paper is better for organizing your thoughts, initial drafting and making it easier to remember the ideas you’re working on. It can help you slow down and think about where you’re going with your story or other content. But when you are ready to flesh everything out, want to do serious edits quickly and feel a story just pouring out of you naturally, the keyboard can be your best friend.
Regardless of which medium you pick, one essential side point is how you will preserve what you’ve written. Paper is always subject to issues like mildew or fire, yet digital files, despite sharing and encryption advantages, can be corrupted and suffer from compatibility issues over time. Always have a way to back up your work, do so frequently, and never keep your backups in the same location as your current draft.
A happy middle ground
Thanks to a range of companies that focus on text recognition and conversion software/apps, it’s easy to convert paper documents or even voice recordings to digital drafts by snapping a picture with your phone or tablet. There also are notebooks and other devices that serve as paper/digital hybrids, where the product allows you to write by hand and then upload your content.
With this in mind, I’d encourage you to explore your options. You might find that paper works better in certain settings than others, for example, such as if you’re at the beach. Digital might make more sense elsewhere, such as if you’re collaborating with another writer. You don’t necessarily have to commit to one camp or the other. The only rule is that you find a way to write. And if that means going back to a napkin once in a while, so be it.
Which do you prefer, paper or digital? Do you find yourself using one over the other or in specific circumstances? Leave your thoughts in the comments!