Pen and Paper Vs. Notes Applications: Here’s How to Tell Which Is Right for You

take note

For some people, this is a simple question with an obvious answer. Their handwriting is atrocious, so much so that they can’t read it themselves. Even if they prefer using traditional pen and paper, the question is academic. They have no choice but to find another medium for taking notes if it is important to them that they be able to read them later. 

Believe it or not, there is a caveat to be considered. Some people have amazing retention just from the act of taking the note. It does not matter if they can never refer back to the note. The fact that they wrote it by hand in the first place is enough to ensure they retain the information. It seems this might be a more difficult question after all. 

There is really nothing simple about taking notes. Everyone is told to take notes in school. But few are actually taught how to do it, as if taking notes is supposed to be second-nature. It isn’t. And we are not going to solve that problem in this piece. For those who already know the importance of taking notes, here are a few insights as to which type of notes will be best for you:

Why Not Both?

Thanks to enhancements in digital input methods, your favorite notes app allows you to capture both handwritten and typed notes. That means you don’t have to choose. Or does it? I argue that even when you have the choice of multiple inputs, you still need to have a primary input for your main note-taking. It is likely you will want to type most of your notes and use handwriting to annotate those typed notes. Handwriting is also great for taking margin notes. Highlighting, underlining, and circling is also easier with a pen than a keyboard.

There are other ways to use a hybrid approach. You can handwrite all of your notes and use text for pasting quotes from other applications like a web browser. You can even do all your notes in handwriting and convert that writing to text. This functionality is built into some systems, but requires specialized equipment to make it happen. The thing to note about this hybrid approach is that it is still all digital using an app. Digital inputs offer more flexibility. 

Personal and Secure

While software tools can help your team remain productive, they lack the personal touch of something crafted by hand. There was a time when your notes were your business. No one could criticize you for your poor penmanship or spelling. When not taking notes, you could still look busy by doodling in the margins. Some of the best ideas started out as margin doodles. 

With pen and paper, notes were also more secure in that you could easily discard them when done. Shredded notes cannot be subpoenaed. It is relatively easy to lose a notepad. But someone has to have physical possession of it to know what’s in it. When you take digital notes, your musings can be accessed remotely by people a half a world away. That sounds like a win for paper. You also don’t have to worry about your pen and paper being unusable in direct sunlight or running out of battery at an awkward time. There is something to be said for kicking it old school. 


The factor that probably tips it in favor of an app is easy collaboration. If everyone is writing handwritten notes, it is harder to share. First, your penmanship has to be good enough for everyone in the group to be able to read it. Second, you have to make physical copies for sharing. Third, you have to watch for spelling errors. Fourth, you can’t work on a single document simultaneously. Fifth, handwritten notes are hard to edit. None of these are issues when using a good notes app.

Pen and paper were great tools for their time. But we are living in a different age. At minimum, you are going to always need a notes app for hybrid use cases. You can get away with not ever using pen and paper to take notes. Because of all that is enabled with apps, kids will likely not be required to bring pen and paper to school in one or two generations. They will be required to have a tablet or laptop. 


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