Is Keeping A Paper Diary Actually Better For Your Brain?

Are digital diarists missing out on some of the key benefits of longhand journaling?

Ask any digital diary-keeper and they’ll tell you that the main reason they choose to type their thoughts is because they can type way faster than they can write.

Ironically, the hand’s inability to keep up with the brain is one of the main reasons paper journal advocates say longhand is better.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, a book that has helped creatives get over fear, doubt and creator’s block for more than 30 years, insists that people write the 3 pages she prescribes each morning longhand.

“In the era of iPads and new technology at every turn, I am asked even more frequently if people really need to do their Morning Pages by hand,” Cameron writes in a post on her website.

“In short, the answer is yes.

“When we write by hand, we connect to ourselves. We may get speed and distance when we type, but we get a truer connection–to ourselves and our deepest thoughts– when we actually put pen to page.”

Sometimes it’s worth slowing down to go faster, and writing longhand might be one of those ways.

Even if you hate your handwriting.

Pros of journaling on paper:

  1. Better for your brain: There’s something about working with your hands that has a truly positive effect on your nervous system. It seems to activate the brain’s ability to soothe and heal. Of course, “working with your hands” could mean washing the dishes or making pottery on a wheel or even petting a cat. And arguably, typing is still using our hands.

    But when you write by hand using a pen and paper, different portions of your brain are activated because each letter is a different movement (as opposed to every letter being created by almost exactly the same movement when you tap a key on a keyboard). These nuances add up for reasons no one fully understands yet.

    “Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better,” says Professor Audrey Van der Meer of the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology in an article explaining how learning is enhanced through handwriting.

  2. Easy to switch between writing and drawing: Unless you’re using a specialized (and pricey) tablet like a reMarkable (which I’ve tried but don’t yet own), it’s fiddly and annoying to switch between writing and drawing diagrams or doodles. Even with a reMarkable, you won’t be able to incorporate paint and stickers, etc. So for those of us who enjoy the art side of art journaling and need the ability to switch fluidly between writing and other forms of record-keeping, nothing will ever truly replace paper (though, as I mentioned, no one said you had to choose).

  3. Captures the journey better: There’s something about re-reading old entries and seeing the variations in your handwriting or the smudges and stains or stuck-down receipts or concert tickets that you chose to include that add infinite nuance to an entry. Digital, for all its clarity and organization and cleanliness, fails to capture the process of arriving at a conclusion. If you’ve ever looked at images of famous thinkers’ journals (this is my absolute favorite coffee table book on the topic), you’ll see that the crossed out parts of their entries are often as interesting than the bits they left in.

  4. Experimentation: Once you get over your perfectionist tendencies and allow your diary-keeping to become whatever it needs to be in the moment, there can be a real exhilaration to playing with different formats, inks, paper and working with (instead of against) any imperfections. I remember I once started a kraft paper journal (brown paper instead of white with a rather distinct texture) and I freaking HATED it at first. Oh, and to add insult to injury, it was the same month that I was experimenting with a spending freeze on art supplies, so I challenged myself to see if I could find a way to enjoy it instead of resisting it. By the end of that journal, I was in love. I learned a ton about my inner critic and resistance to the unfamiliar through that journal and I wouldn’t have had that digitally.

  5. Simple to start: Almost everyone no matter how young or old or broke or under-resourced has access to a writing implement and paper. No need for a monthly subscription or pricey upgrades. No need for electricity or the latest OS or anything really; no need to overthink what platform you want to go with. You can just start and tweak as you go.

  6. Heirlooms: Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of descendants reading their diaries when they’re gone (if you’d rather hand them over to strangers, you can choose to donate yours to The Great Diary Project). I have gained so much from reading published diaries that I have specifically given my family permission to read mine when I leave this world.

Though I’m a paper diarist first, I have recently given in to the charms of digital journaling. After much research, I chose an app called Day One (not sponsored and not an affiliate) and use it as an adjunct to my paper journaling practice. It’s very new as of this writing (just a couple of weeks), so I’ll post a deeper review once I feel like I’ve given the process a solid try.

Is Keeping A Paper Diary Actually Better For Your Brain? | Are digital diarists missing out on some of the key benefits of longhand journaling? | Read more at

Cons of a paper diary:

  1. Disorganized and difficult to index: If you’re like me (and most people), you’re recording little bits and pieces of your life with no particular plan for when and how you’d like to access this information in the future. Unless you’ve got a librarian’s eye for arranging and archiving, it’s going to be difficult to find an entry three years from now. Hashtag #notsearchable

  2. Increasingly bulky: If you journal regularly, you will, over the years, fill up a fair number of notebooks. Then you’ll have to decide how to store them, transport them if you move or dispose of them – all of which take time and energy. Physical items use up space (unlike digital notebooks).

  3. Theft and loss: Almost every long time diarist has a story about leaving a beloved notebook in a taxi or losing one (or more) to fire, spilled liquids or theft. You can’t really password protect your memories and store them in the cloud if you’re a paper and pen diarist.

  4. Prying eyes: A physical notebook is far more likely to get found and read by someone in real life than an electronic journal (especially if you password protect it). If privacy is a concern, you’ll need to take appropriate precautions like hiding your journal or purchasing one with a lock.

  5. Expense: In some ways paper will always be cheaper than using electronics. If you’re a child or live in a country where the currency is weak, paper is going to be much more accessible. But if you live in the west and own a smartphone or computer for work, journaling digitally is probably going to be much cheaper than buying nice notebooks and pens and other art supplies.

I wrote a whole separate article on the (many) pros of electronic journaling (most of which end up capturing the limitations of paper journaling). In many ways, even an old schooler like me is forced to admit that logically, digital is far more practical in today’s world than keeping a paper journal.

That said, one of the benefits of today’s world is that many of us don’t need to choose. And ultimately, all the logic in the world won’t trump a personal preference.

In fact, I’ve done a whole other post on some of the tech you can try if you want to get the best of both worlds and create a hybrid.

Ultimately, the real aim is to have a practice that’s fluid enough that you can make it your own and it can adapt to your needs as they evolve. Which means it’s a good idea find a balance between sticking to the things that work for you and trying things that feel a little foreign or uncomfortable right now.

I’d love to know whether you’re a paper, digital or hybrid journaller. And how you manage the battle between novelty and consistency. Tell me in the comments.

Share this post

On the blog

Related Posts