The Power of Paper

There’s a magical tool that allows you to focus right in on any problem. Or you can broaden it out and use it to explore the inner workings of your mind. It has endless possibilities and applications. I’m talking about paper of course.

Recently, I have found myself using paper and pen more to work out first drafts and even second and third. In my opinion, there is no finer tool for getting your thoughts down and exploring them. In this increasingly digital world, paper has not died off as many have predicted but has stuck around and even got stronger. A modern office will still have notepads and biros as well as computers, despite the apparent redundancy. A paperless office is rare and probably not desirable.

My spider doodles haven't changed since I was a kid.
One of the NaPoWriMo Poems I wrote this year. The scrappy writing, crossings out and doodles are all part of the charm. Here’s the completed version.

I’ve been trying to pin down why exactly I have been writing my next book in small, cheap notebooks, despite it taking much longer. I think that added time is part of the reason. I can type a lot faster than I can write using a pen, so writing longhand forces me to slow down and think about each word. If I then think what I’ve written is any good, I have to type it up. In doing so, I examine each word again giving my work an extra pass of scrutiny. It was invaluable while I was writing a poem a day in April for example because it allowed me time to edit the poem and really think about the words I was using. I probably wouldn’t have scrutinised it as closely if I had been just typing. The slowness allows for extra thought and rewriting, which is always a good thing.

But this slowness has another benefit. The simplicity of a blank page allows you to focus more closely. There are not endless distractions from the internet, emails pinging in or new music to listen to. There is only the page. I’ve written before about how I like to spend time offline and the blank page is a perfect companion to that. Sure, you could just use a distraction-free writer 1 but physically putting the nib onto the page and scrawling symbols allows for another level of concentration. I find it allows me to block distractions easier and get more into a flow state of writing.

There’s a freedom to writing by hand as well. You might be constrained by the lines but there are infinite possibilities to the blank page. You can doodle in the margins or write yourself notes. You can draw arrows to move things around or cross entire sections out. I find once I’ve typed up a document, I can see the errors much more clearly if I print it out, then go through it with a pen and physically cross things out. This marginalia is not just incidental to the writing and editing process but is a fundamental part of it. You can see how an idea evolved and when you were working on it, then go back to an earlier version of a line if you can still read it under the scribbles.

This is to say that paper is the best tool I know of for exploring your own mind. The freedom and focus, as well as the slowness of the medium, allow you to see your own thoughts more clearly. You create a map of your head, line by line, whether you mean to or not. I have notebooks dating back fifteen years, that when I open them, I am transported instantly back to that time. I can see my thoughts and feelings in the ink.

There have been attempts to replicate paper in a digital form. Apple pencil for example, or fancy writing tablets. None of these has been particularly successful in my opinion, as they are trying to complicate a medium that’s strength is its simplicity.

None of this matters of course. If you write better on a computer then, by all means, go for it. If a typewriter is more your style, then no one is stopping you. But I think the tools we choose ultimately end up affecting the work we produce. When most people are trying to work faster, and when the world expects everything instantly, there’s a real value in slowing things down. Paper is a brilliant tool for concentrating on the work. It’s also a way to discover thoughts and feelings you didn’t know you had.


If you want to read more, here ‘s Elizabeth Spiers on ‘Keeping a notebook in a digital age’, An article on digital distraction and how it’s bad for creativity in The Walrus and an argument in the NYTimes that our love affair with digital tools is over.

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  1. I heartily recommend Focus Writer if you’re looking for one

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