Paper Isn’t Dead: Why We Still Need Notebooks

MikeachimWriting14 Comments

Red Moleskine Notebook

Red Moleskine Notebook

Paper is dead – so, goodbye notebooks? NOT SO FAST.

Ten years ago Dick Brass, Microsoft’s then Vice President of Technology Development, announced to the world that “Paper Is Dead“. He believed we’d all be reading e-books within a decade – and if Amazon’s Kindle sales are anything to go by, he was onto something. The Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism concluded that by the end of 2010, more people were getting their news online than from newspapers (irrespective of the age of the readers). If paper isn’t dead, it certainly has a nasty cough.

But that’s publishing. What about the process of writing itself? Should all modern writers be turning to their gadgets to “pen” their work rather than a good old-fashioned ruled moleskine?

Here are 7 reasons why they shouldn’t be so hasty to embrace progress.

crumpled paper ball


In a recent phone interview with Rolf Potts for The Atlantic, veteran travel writer Paul Theroux outlined his main grievance with blogging. Quality writing was ”a great labor of thought and consideration,” while in contrast most blogs looked ” illiterate…hasty, like someone babbling.” Cranky writer shouting “get off my lawn, kids”? Perhaps – but there’s a good point here, and it’s this: how often do bloggers first-draft their material? When blog posts are being squeezed into the tiniest gaps in your daily schedule, that constant pressure to publish – it’s easy to regard drafting as a waste of valuable time. Why not edit it as you go along – because life’s too short, right?

Here’s why: because, in the words of Anne Lamott, all good writers produce “shitty first drafts“.

It’s difficult to throw away a first draft when you write it on a computer. The software encourages you to rearrange, cut, paste and tinker.  And that’s why you need paper notebooks – because they force you to rewrite everything you’ve written, every single word.

Stick a notebook into your workflow, and you’ll never publish a shitty first draft again.

old notebook


All too common: a travelling writer has their laptop stolen. Less common? A travelling writer has their paper notebook stolen. Why? Because the latter is absolutely worthless to anyone except that writer.

Protect your words by storing them on something nobody wants, like a notebook – an uglified notebook, in fact.

spiral notebook close-up


This one doesn’t apply to the more techno-wizardly folk among you – but personally, I’ve never met a gadget that I can start writing into faster than a well-holstered moleskine. No thumbing the power button, no booting up an app – you just flick your notebook open and off you go. And as for speed of use, there’s a reason many professional journalists still uses shorthand

Sign carved into wood


Scribbles. Doodles. Drawing big swirly lines connecting your thoughts. Bracketing. Underlining wildly. Writing over the top (“This is rubbish, DO IT AGAIN“). Ringing words. Sketching pictures into the margins. Crossing out in self-recriminating fury!

These are parts of the creative process that you shouldn’t skip.

And they’re much easier to do on paper.

battery power of human being


The bane of a roaming writer’s life is power. If you’re relying on your phone or laptop to record your thoughts, you’re constantly dependant on its battery life. Journeys become agonised waits between recharging points. Going under 50% power is enough to break a sweat; under 10%, a full-blown panic attack. Thank heavens for solar-panelled backpack technology.

The only power source a paper notebook needs…is your brain.

(And a nice pen).

Apps on Phone Close-up


Gadgets are distraction machines, designed to tug your attention a million different directions. Not conducive to a focussed, observant travel blogging mindset, especially if you’re the type of person who has all your social media update notifications pushed to your phone (ahem, *cough*).

In contrast, there are only two things you can do with a paper notebook: write things in it, and swat things with it. Both equally rewarding activities for the average traveller.

handwriting with fountain pen


If you’re writing in a paper notebook, chances are you’ll find yourself assembling your thoughts in a very different way.

Obvious, right? It’s a different physical process, your body is doing different things, you’re aware that you can’t Cut or Paste or Delete, you’re having to turn your thoughts into marks on a page rather than pushing at buttons. It’s a different way of thinking, and there’s growing evidence that it’s good for the development of your brain.

Longhand isn’t necessarily a better or worse way of writing than using a keyboard, but it’s certainly different.

So why not test it out for yourself  – for example, by first-drafting everything on paper – and see how your writing changes?

Originally at
Images: seanmcgrathTatinauk, turinboySeanMacEnteeB RosenEric__I_Evince42 and OMFGmatt.
  • I just spent 18 days in Crimea with very little power and wifi and I did a ton of writing in my notebook.
    My first draft was 100 pages by hand; my final – 60 pages split between 24 installments about Crimea.
    I just LOVED sitting at a sea-side cafe, drinking wine and scribbling without the distractions of the internet.

    • 100 sides – that’s seriously impressive.

      How does that compare with your writing online – was that way more writing than you’d normal do in that space of time? And was that writing a different style to your into-the-computer writing?

      • I stayed within the same general semi-travel genre, but I was able to think about my travel experience as a whole, the big picture, and structure my entries as chapters of a full Crimea series (19 = for 18 travel days, plus an “aside’), rather than one-offs. There is a clear intro and a [slightly less] clear closing. Because I had time before posting (I just began, this week), I was able to move some chapters around in order to improve the narration.

        In terms of volume it was insanely more – for the last 3-4 months my 10-16 hrs/day job has kept me posting mostly pretty photos of Moscow :) Writing was one of the objectives of this vacation. Mission accomplished!

  • As life would have it, by injuring my hands I went back to handwriting all posts and thoughts, and it truly did change my process, my work-flow, and ultimately the quality of my writing. Great post Mr. Sowden. :)

    • I was wondering how that was going. How do you think your writing has changed? Do you find yourself writing more, or less? Is it more lyrical, more factual…?

      And – thanky. :)

      • It’s more lyrical certainly, the words flow from my head in a more poetic manner when I hand write. Then I dictate it into text and through that I change more in the speaking process, and ultimately I edit and finalize on the screen. The three stages mean each word is revised and chosen using different parts of my brain and my thinking processes, and I like what comes from that a lot more at the end. :)

  • I couldn’t imagine life without a notebook.

    Sure, I love my gadgets and technology, but at the end of the day I can do everything I need with a pen and paper and I like it that way. I have yet to find any technology to replace this fully.

    GREAT read.

    • Thank you. :) Praise indeed.

      And yep, that’s the issue, I think. Kindle is doing so well because it’s tech that is successfully capturing one great aspect of paper books: you can read them in direct sunlight. As soon as Kindles can be leafed through like books (and maybe smell a bit like them as well), BOOM, everyone will be using them. I think the same is true of notebooks. When the tech successfully captures the scribbly, scrawly handwritten nature of a good notebook, paper will be in serious trouble…

  • PS – I am Russian born and bred, and here massive hand-written essays and research papers were required all the way through high school, so I was always more comfortable with pen and paper than I am, even still, with a keyboard or a touch pad.

  • There certainly is something about feeling the shape of each letter and forming words through your whole body and down into a tangible notebook, than tapping on nondescript keys where the symbols appear to pour over an edge and into a void –
    I also have a slight fear that technology and its platforms are changing at such a fast rate that all this digitally recorded gumph will be unreadable in a few years hence once we move onto the next platform? You know a bit like how do you now watch a video cassette?

  • Charlie

    Yes! I’ve been telling myself lately that I have to stop being so reliant on my tech for writing, mainly for the reasons you list above. Writing on paper also gives you more freedom on where you write, it’s easier to take your notebook on a hike or even to the park on a sunny day. My problem is that I struggle to write on paper for a sustained amount of time before my hand cramps up as it’s more used to typing, which, come to think of it, is a sad state of affairs!

  • I find the act of writing longhand frees me to let my thoughts progress from fragments to sentences. In a notebook you can think in lists, phrases, pictures, scribbles, etc., etc. If you want to capture the moments, keep ’em everywhere. Also, unplugged writing lets you focus on thinking, not sharing. I’ve developed a series of 20-minute, travel-inspired, notebook writing prompts called “mind trips” to jump start the creative brain. Find them at

  • Jane Galbraith

    I couldn’t agree more.
    I’ve just finished a post *I may even let it leave home soon*.How to organise my notes?
    The only reason I wrote it was because my main article. How to get out of an inspiration slump was impossible to write without a whole section about the importance of writing om paper.
    I write my first few *yes* drafts on paper then my next *oh lets just say I don’t know we’ll go for 10 on the pc…..*
    ……There is the problem right there stop the machine messing it up, leave it to the paper boys a!nd girls.

  • I grew up in India in the 90s, semi-communist Bengal to be specific, which decried computers well into 2001! One thing I thank the state for–letting me keep my notebook habit. My brain does work differently and I don’t have OCD. Erm, sorry, trees.