Paper or Digital: Which Is Better for Writing?

digital paper
Background photo created by freepik –

You’ve heard the stories. People like Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, Aaron Sorkin, even Marilyn Monroe–all are said to have scrawled ideas on whatever they could, including paper napkins.

Some of the stories are little more than lore. But they do raise the question of whether there is a “best” medium for writers to use. 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 writing on paper might be better when you’ve got an idea you don’t want to forget. It also could come in handy 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 loves the special feel and smell of a notebook. (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. Remember here that quality matters more than the word count overall. Don’t focus too much on reaching daily quotas. But digital writing can help you be more prolific than you otherwise might be. Plus, there will be times when you have writing deadlines and time is precious.

Editing also is easier. 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. It also makes simultaneous submissions formatted according to many guidelines a snap. The ability to do a search or find and replace saves time, too.

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.

Preservation matters

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, despite sharing and encryption advantages, digital files 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 between paper and digital

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, explore your options. You might find that paper works better in certain settings than others, 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. If that means going back to a napkin once in a while, so be it.