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The Hidden Rewards Of Notetaking By Hand

I remember taking a course on cursive writing in elementary school. We would practice our penmanship on those papers lined blue-red-blue. My teacher was particularly attentive to the capital letters, advising us to take good care not to go beyond or below the blue lines. She also monitored the curves of our handwriting, grading us […]

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I remember taking a course on cursive writing in elementary school. We would practice our penmanship on those papers lined blue-red-blue. My teacher was particularly attentive to the capital letters, advising us to take good care not to go beyond or below the blue lines. She also monitored the curves of our handwriting, grading us on precision. It seemed like a waste of time to have to take a class on a skill we already knew — writing in block letters conveys the same message as in cursive, right? Why did we have to further finesse the way we toss around the alphabet?

Things would make more sense in senior high. We were given frequent writing assignments in both my English and Filipino language classes, handwritten assignments using formal stationery, a fountain pen, and black ink. By this time, I had already earned my stripes as a junior writer, having contributed several articles to the school paper. I enjoyed the writing process but was a stickler for cleanliness. I hated creased paper. I detested erasures. And I hated, more than anything, bad handwriting. Good thing I took my penmanship class seriously even if I had questioned its value in my early life.

High school notetaking, as I recall, was mere photocopying of my teacher’s notes, in manual form. I just wrote everything down exactly as it appeared on the blackboard. If the teacher’s penmanship was difficult to decipher, I did not bother writing anything down, totally missing the point. I learned through copying, not processing.

This was not the case in college, when legible notetaking became the norm rather than the exception. Professors rarely spoonfed their students with their ideas in chalk form. They spewed them out like confetti. It was up to us grasshoppers to grasp whatever we could and write them down immediately.

My early professional life was the pinnacle of my handwriting journey. I had the honor of speechwriting for a Cabinet minister, a brilliant Harvard-educated social worker who I looked up to immensely. But I had to earn the title “speechwriter” first, and to do that, I had to work as her executive assistant. I had to be by her side, jot down her instructions on which the future of our country rests, and prepare messages on the fly. That job took the job of notetaking rather seriously, and it was good practice for an unexpected future career in political writing.

As I reflected upon this seemingly ordinary and virtually ignored habit of notetaking by hand, I realize now its benefits to my growth and well-being, and hopefully yours too. They are not always visible, but they exist.

It allows me to focus

When attempting to follow someone’s train of thought, we need to listen and to concentrate on every word. We look out for factoids that add value to the work we do. We do not need to write down everything that is being said.

Contrast that to writing on a word processor, where the temptation is high to type the message as is and to just nitpick later. The process is indeed useful for fact-checking, but automatic note-taking deprives us of the nuances, the part of the message that we really need to hear. It is also tempting to rough check when notetaking via a computer, especially one that has access to the Internet, which can be easily browsed to quickly verify bits and pieces of the stimuli and lead us to further distractions.

I pay more attention

Concentration from writing by hand enables me to pay more attention to the subtler details. The professor’s intonation suddenly changed — could this be a trick question? The Foreign Minister is giving my boss the blank stare — does he agree with the proposal? I had never worked as a professional journalist, regrettably, but the notetaking process forces you to act like one. Deep processing happens simultaneously as you write.

I grasp the information better

We tend to write what we understand to be true, false, conditional or otherwise, and get back to it for clarity at the right time. So in the process of on-the-spot notetaking, it helps to understand faster, and the best way to do that is to simply dump everything and use whatever tools are available: shorthand, cursive, diagrams and sketches. Random thoughts on paper will make sense when you connect the dots later. Some folks use a stylus, but I long for peace of mind when you know your notes are not reliant on a fully-charged battery.

I remember things

The fundamental purpose of notetaking is to remember outstanding data amidst the constant barrage of information. What I recall more easily though are the notes I wrote down on paper. I remember how I wrote it, if there are numbers, or if I made a checklist. Even if I do not remember right away the exact figures, I know what the page on my notebook looked like when I wrote down those notes. It then makes it easier for me to browse through the pages and look for a familiar pattern.

It is liberating and relaxing

There is something serene about processing things on paper and letting the pen do the talking. It is liberating to unload those thoughts that have festered in our minds, usually thoughts we do not intend to share with anybody.

Abraham Lincoln, for instance, is known to have written hot letters. Doris Kearns Goodwin explains: “Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.” He’d pile all of his anger into a note, put it aside until his emotions cooled down, and then write: ‘Never sent. Never signed.”

I write my “hot letters” when necessary in a journal, together with all the highs and lows of finding my place in this world.

It stimulates creativity

And finally, writing by hand at a pace much slower than using a word processor makes room for increased creativity. Neil Gaiman, one of my literary idols, told Tim Ferriss on his podcast that he wrote his novels by hand using a fountain pen and a notebook.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, he says “I started with Stardust: It was (in my head) being written in the 1920s, so I bought a fountain pen and a big notebook and wrote it by hand to find out how writing by hand changed my head.”

“And it did, it really did. I was sparser, I would think my way through a sentence further, I would write less, in a good way. And when I typed it up, it became a very real second draft — things would vanish or change. I discovered that I enjoyed messing about with fountain pens, I even liked the scritchy noise the pen nib made on the paper.”

“So I kept doing it. Sandman: Dream Hunters and American Gods and Anansi Boys and The Graveyard Book were all written by hand. The last two-thirds of Coraline was also written by hand.”

Learning this from the master of the literary craft was quite a revelation. It makes a lot of sense given my experience with notetaking by hand. But it does not mean total neglect of technology and its many benefits. I personally am still inclined to use it more than the pen. But I do intend to go back to basics more and to intentionally find opportunities that harness the longhand, in the hopes of rediscovering more beauty in the mundane.

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