What Makes Digital Handwriting so Popular AND Healthy?


You’d think that as tech advanced, old ways of doing things would fall out of use. But that hasn’t been the case with writing by hand. Writing by hand with a digital device (sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t) is popular.

In a world where digital tools have out-moded our organization tools of the past (like paper planners, calendars, and notebooks) in the name of better functionality and efficiency, is there still a place for writing by hand?

When digital devices started moving into our daily lives, typing on a keyboard was the way you entered information for storage. Some devices began offering a stylus to use as a digital “pencil” but they had limited capabilities and many glitches. As tech has improved, so have the tools for digital writing. The Apple Pencil is one, and so are digital notebooks, journals, planning tools, and handwriting-to-text capabilities.

It would seem that in a world of technology, using a pencil would be going backward. But when the Apple Pencil hit the shelves it was instantly popular with buyers. If we can simply use keypads to type information into our iPads, why are we buying a digital pencil?

Turns out there are plenty of reasons why. Some are preference and some are science, but they’re all compelling and tell a story about people and how our minds work, and why writing things out by hand is still important to us in an age of digital technology.

Why is the Apple Pencil so successful?

The Apple Pencil is more than just a stick that leaves a line behind it when you drag it across a surface. It’s more than just a pencil, and it’s more than just a stylus. The Apple Pencil gives you the ability to do what you already know how to do—write—but you’re not limited to writing only. Functions have been built into the pencil that allows it to work with apps and programs on your iPad, meaning you can select, drag, open apps, markup PDFs, screenshots, and images, and so much more. It’s a pencil, but acts as an extension of the device you use it on. This blending of the familiar with the new is what has given the Apple Pencil it’s popularity among users.

And did I mention it’s pressure-sensitive? What does that mean? The thickness and darkness of the line it draws is determined by how much pressure you use when you write with it, just like with an actual pencil. This function (along with palm rejection) has made the Apple pencil wildly popular among artists who can use it to draw their art on an iPad and have it in digital format. Artists can also take advantage of the quick custom color settings, different size and texture brush tips, and most importantly, no lag.

Why using the Apple Pencil helps make transitioning to tech easier

Another reason, besides the quality and functions, that the Apple pencil has been so successful is due to familiarity. Let me explain. While it’s obvious apps and digital tools have more usable functions to help a person completely organize their work, tasks, thoughts, budgets, schedules, and projects, learning to use technology comes with a learning curve that stops many from giving it a try. But when you add something new to something you’re already familiar with, it makes learning the new thing easier.

A concept in psychology called the mere-exposure effect, or the familiarity principle, says that people tend to prefer the things they’re familiar with versus an alternative that is something new. This preference for the familiar means that people will naturally gravitate toward an electronic device that looks and works like a pencil.

This can make using the Apple Pencil beneficial when learning to use apps and digital devices. The pencil is familiar. Writing by hand is familiar. To try a feature in an app, you can just tap with the tip of the pencil. The digital pencil combined with a tablet opens the door to learning and using technology that may have felt too overwhelming to try without it.

The familiarity that comes with using an Apple pencil naturally lends itself to other digital writing tools, like digital notebooks and journals, bullet journals, calendars, to-do lists, and more.

And just to highlight how attached we are to the familiar, I’ll tell you a little story.

I love digital tools. I love to try out new apps and find ways to integrate them for optimal use. But the one thing I wasn’t impressed with was digital handwriting. Why? Well, before the Apple Pencil came along, there just wasn’t a tool that was good enough to do the job. But that’s not what this story is about. It was writing on a slippery screen that I hated most.

Now surely, this wasn’t enough to stop me from trying to write on my tablet. Well, almost. Instead, I did what I usually do. I tested and tested and tested different screen protectors that claimed to make writing on the surface of a tablet better. Nothing I tried gave me that “paper” feeling I loved and was so familiar with.

Then I found the Paperlike screen protector and all that changed. The Paperlike gave me that slightly rough paper-like texture I was looking for, and changed my writing experience on a tablet from bad to good. The Paperlike screen protector has become a central accessory in my digital lifestyle (so much so that I was invited to write an article on the Paperlike blog). The Paperlike screen protector is another tool you can add to your iPad to make writing by hand a familiar and pleasant experience.

We’ve talked about some of the reasons digital handwriting is popular, but what could make it healthy? Read on to find out.

Writing helps with healing

Expressive writing about past negative experiences has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, help with recovery from traumatic surgeries, and even boost the immune system.

Several studies looked at the effect expressive writing has on helping people process trauma. These studies had participants use expressive writing about the traumatic or unhappy event, along with their thoughts, feelings, and observations. After several days of consistent writing (15-20 minutes duration) the participants were found to have significantly better psychological outcomes than those who wrote about neutral topics.
But what was even more interesting was the fact that these people also showed an improvement in immune function after the writing exercises. The researches in these studies believe that repressing painful thoughts and feelings compromises the immune system and processing these feelings by writing them down helps improve immune function.

Another study, funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health, looked at whether writing about your feelings could reduce worry and help you perform more efficiently at an upcoming stressful task.

In the study, associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, Jason Moser, and his associates, had 2 groups of chronically anxious college students complete an 8-minute writing assignment before beginning a stressful task. Half the group wrote about their deepest feelings and thoughts about the upcoming task, and half the group wrote about what they did the day before.

The researchers measured each student with an EEG as they then completed the stressful task. The expressive writing group actually used fewer brain resources to complete the task than the group who wrote about their previous day’s activities. “Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get “burned out” over, their worried minds working harder and hotter,” Moser said.

You don’t just get benefit from writing about your worries. Studies also show increases in happiness when we journal about the things we’re grateful for. No matter how you look at it, writing about our feelings seems to be beneficial.

Digital writing makes using a digital journal for expressive writing easier and more convenient because of the flexibility digital tools offer. This is one of the reasons why Digital Journals are so Popular and useful. They come in different formats that can be used to record thoughts and feelings, from a notebook page to a bullet journal. You can also customize your own digital journal to have the features you like best.

When thoughts are journaled digitally, not only do you get the benefits of writing about your feelings, you also get to keep those thoughts and feelings stored in a digitally secure format. When used with a note-taking app, your digital notes can be kept behind a password inside the app and a password on your device.

Writing is good for connection

There is no denying the difference I feel when I receive a handwritten note from someone versus a typed note. Now, this is not to say I don’t appreciate typed notes. I do. I send text notes in the form of emails and other communications every day. They’re great, and they serve a purpose. But a handwritten note feels more personal. Handwriting has a personality of sorts; it’s a little window into the person who wrote the note.

Writing by hand causes you to slow down and compose what you want to say carefully. This careful thinking comes through when you send your message which makes it more meaningful to the person who’s reading it. How many of us have had the experience of hastily typing and sending an email without thinking through the message carefully, and then regretting it later? I know I have.

Writing personalized notes can make you feel happier (remember the section on expressive writing?) and more connected to the person you’re writing to. And what about the person receiving your note, how do they feel?

There was a study in 2018 that attempted to show the value of handwritten thank-you notes. Participants wrote the notes and then predicted what the reactions of the recipients would be. The letter writer’s consistently underestimated how surprised and positive the recipients would feel. In other words, they didn’t think the thank you notes would mean as much as they did to the recipients.

Given that handwritten notes can mean so much, and we’re talking about digital handwriting, how can we get the best of technology and handwriting when sending out cards, thank-yous, and invitations?

There are services and companies that recognize the importance of a hand-written note. These companies will print cards, invitations, even assets for campaigns, in a handwriting font to increase the feeling of connection and intimacy.

Just remember, even though you’re a part of the Paperless Movement community, don’t let that stop you from sending out a handwritten thank you letter on a real piece of paper to strengthen your personal connections.

Writing helps you achieve goals

In a task-driven, productivity-focused group, goal setting is a big deal. We set goals that are important to our success, so we want to know what will give us an edge when it comes to actually accomplish our goals.

One of the tips you’ve probably heard before is if you want a better shot at reaching your goals, write them down. Well, it turns out there are some studies to back that up.

Two recent studies had findings in favor of writing down goals. The first study by Dr. Gail Matthews included 267 people who were broken into five groups and then asked to identify and analyze their goals, commit to specific steps they’d need to take, and set up some accountability. Those who performed all the steps had a 76% success rate. Dr. Matthews said, “My study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing down one’s goals.”

The second study by Mark Murphy showed that people who wrote very vivid descriptions of their goals were 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals. Murphy attributes the success to 2 different types of storage that happen when you write goals. External storage, which helps when you physically see the goal you wrote and are reminded of it, and internal storage, or encoding, where you plan and analyze what you write and move it into long-term storage in your mind, or encode it. Since you generated and encoded the goal, you’ll have a better chance of keeping it in mind.

Digital journals can help with the goal writing process by:

  • Giving you a way to write down and store your goals, and a way to retrieve and refresh them.
  • Helping you see your goal each day by placing it on a page you visit regularly. Seeing your goal written in front of you each day strengthens your commitment to it.
  • Giving you a space to draw diagrams and pictures to create a more vivid description of your goal to help you internalize it. I have a space in my digital journal to add a doodle or image that can act as a reminder of what that page was about. This is a great way to integrate an image with your goal in a digital journal.
  • Letting you easily create your own goal board, or vision board, using your own handwritten goals and a combination of clip art to give it an added dimension of reality to your brain.
  • Using reminder functions to remind you of your goal at regular intervals, and alert you to scheduled specific steps you committed to take to achieve your goal.

Writing is good for students

Today more schools are moving from paper books to curriculums that are housed on an education hub and accessed by the teachers and students through a mobile device. Combined with the internet for research, there isn’t much need in schools anymore for a paper and pen.

But, as we discussed in my eBook Paperless Note-Taking Like a Pro, some teachers and researchers started to notice that the more students typed their notes versus writing them by hand, the more distracted they were, and the less they remembered later.

Researchers Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted studies to test if students would retain what they learned better using typing for keeping notes or writing the notes out longhand.

After several experiments, the researchers concluded that the students who took their notes by hand had a better understanding of concepts and better recall. Taking notes longhand forced students to go slower and be more selective as to what they wrote down. The act of slowing down and being selective meant they processed and reframed the information rather than just typing down what they heard word-for-word.

A different study using functional MRI scans showed that different brain areas in children were activated during handwriting letters versus typing letters. This led the study’s author, Karin H. James, to conclude that a previously documented “reading circuit” was activated in reading and letter recognition only after writing the letter by hand, not by typing or even tracing the letters.

Finally, a study conducted by Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington showed that children they observed in 2nd through 5th grades composed words more quickly by hand than with a keyboard, and they also expressed more ideas when they wrote longhand.

When asked to come up with ideas for compositions, the children in these groups with the best handwriting also had greater areas of brain activation in areas associated with working memory, reading networks, and writing networks.

Research on how writing by hand affects learning, recall, and brain development continues to be done year upon year. A simple internet search brings up large amounts of evidence that writing by hand helps us learn faster, read better, and generate more ideas, than typing alone. Digital writing tools can give students of all ages the best of both worlds when it comes to access to technology combined with the tools for writing longhand digitally.

After all of this, we can see that even though technology continues to advance, writing by hand is still very important to us for the reasons listed above, and maybe, even more, we haven’t yet realized.

Digitizing your handwritten notes

We spent all this time talking about why writing things by hand is loved, important, and valuable, and how we can do it with today’s digital tools. Even though we have access to tablets, Apple Pencils, and note-taking apps, we can still end up with paper notes that we’d like to integrate into our digital note-taking and storage system. So how can you take your paper notes and digitize them?

  • Type them or write them manually. If your notes aren’t terribly long, you can just transfer the information manually into your device. Use the type function or the handwriting function of your favorite note-taking app and manually transfer the information.
  • Use a scanner app with OCR on your smartphone. A scanner app with OCR (optical character recognition) allows you to take a picture of the notes you want to import, and the OCR will convert the notes to text. This can then be uploaded into your favorite note-taking app.
  • Scan your notes with a traditional scanner. Some scanners come with an OCR on board, and some don’t. If you don’t have an OCR you can purchase one separately or take advantage of the OCR inside your favorite note-taking app. Handwriting to text conversion is a feature we’ve covered in blog posts like, What’s the Best Note-Taking App?

Using a note-taking app for handwriting to text conversion has come a long way recently and is one of my favorite ways to convert notes to text. The latest figures show that deep learning using neural networks has brought text recognition to 99.73% accuracy. Wow, I must admit, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The success of handwriting apps, the PaperLike screen protector, and the Apple Pencil, shows us that writing is important to us. And the research proves that writing is good for us. I believe that technology is here to make our lives better and accentuate the best of who we are, and I see handwriting continuing to play an important part in a paperless future. By combining the best parts of writing by hand with the latest in digital note-taking tools, we are certainly getting the best of both worlds.


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