Friday, September 3, 2010

12 Reasons to Ditch the Pen - Why it's no longer mightiest against the sword

The time has come to mourn the death of the pen which is quickly being replaced with digital writing tools like laptops, cell phones, iTouches, iPads, etc. etc. etc. Just like those who mourn the paper we hear similar rumblings when it comes to the passing of the pen.
  • But I love the feel of the pen on the page.
  • Taking notes (an outdated skill) with a pen helps me understand what I’m hearing.
  • I need a pen to capture my thoughts, the keyboard just isn’t the same.
My advice: Get over it and join the 21st century so you can be relevant to yourself, your colleagues, and most importantly your students.

Why? Because...

Ditching pens allows you to do more, do it faster, do it more efficiently / effectively, and most importantly share it with an audience.

12 Reasons Writing Digital is Mightier then Pen and Ink

1- It’s faster
  • The average human being hand writes at 31 words per minute.
    • I haven’t hand written in years so probably am slower than this.
  • With training (1 semester class) a human can become a beginner touch typist at 40 wpm and with a second class about 70 wpm.
  • Touch typists can learn to type 50 - 60 wpm with their thumbs in a month.
    • I type 60 wpm according to my self test.
2-It’s easily editable
  • Copy, paste, organize and move text seamlessly.
  • Never have to recopy.
3-It’s instantly and easily shareable with others
  • Simply share your writing with others by sending them the link to your writing or emailing them an attachment.
4-It’s easily editable by others
  • Once they have your writing they simply use their keyboard from wherever they are an can edit your writing.
5-It’s more efficient
  • It kills me when I am in a meeting watching someone hand write notes that they will later spend an hour typing up. Save an hour and type the notes. Then leave work an hour early or take a long lunch :-))
  • It also kills me that people see I have a computer and say, “you take the notes.” No thank you.
    • Bring your own keyboard. I don’t take traditional notes so you won’t understand what I write and if you hold me back to traditional note taking methods am not effectively able to make meaning of what is happening.
6-It allows you to get to the thinking faster (Thanks Pamela Livingston for this one)
  • With a keyboard you don’t need to waste your time figuring out spelling and grammar. You can thumb or type at the speed of thought without ideas getting lost in the process because you are provided spelling and grammar suggestions as well as synonyms when you “just can’t think of a word.”
7-It is with you wherever you go
  • If you use your Smartphone or Laptop for writing you’ll have your work wherever you go. You can replace, “I’ll get that to you when I’m back at the office going through my files.” with “Here ya go.”
  • If you’re like me and type everything in Google docs, your work is with you even without your own laptop, accessible instantly on the computer of whomever is requesting the document.
8-It lets you get rid of the clutter
  • I remember the days of notebooks, binders, and folders that over took my small (by outside Manhattan standards) New York City apartment. I finally moved them into a storage unit that I pay for monthly five years ago. Since then I stopped using paper so I’ll never need more storage space and my apartment is free from that clutter.
9-It lightens the load
  • No need to carry all those little notebooks, binders, and folders that are crowding your briefcases and backpacks. It all neatly fits in your digital device. I always get compliments on my beautiful and sleek bag that I travel with. I never have a need for more because my writing is digital.
10-It is searchable
  • When you write digitally you never have to sort through pages of notebooks, papers, or files. Just enter in the document name or keyword. Poof, you have what you’re looking for. I particularly like to do this when travelling. In my blackberry I have the name of the cities I’ve travelled to and notes about them. When I go back, I just type in the city and wa-la, I have all my notes.
11-It enables you to share ideas and make meaning
  • One of my favorite ways to capture important ideas is through the use of Twitter. I share ideas or questions via Twitter which also feeds to Facebook. My friends and followers answer questions, extend the thinking, and in the process help me make meaning of what it is I’m capturing. Rather then death by paper, my note or idea becomes a Global conversation.
12-It enables you to publish easily
  • When I record my ideas digitally I can instantly publish them in any number of mediums i.e. this blog, a wiki, Google doc, etc.
There you have it. 12 reasons to ditch the pen and go digital and it’s friendly for the environment too.


  1. Hey Lisa, thanks for the post. I'd suggest that (hand)writing does, actually, represent a different kind of communication. It's more personal and less public, and it's sometimes useful.

    The slowness, the romantic-ness, the interest in taking notes (which is not outdated; I'm creatively inspired by these affections are certainly misplaced if we're talking about workplace writing or PLN-making or sharing what we know. Pixels are better for all of that.

    But two nights ago at dinner, I annotated a conversation with a friend on my placemat with a blue marker. I kind of fell in love with someone else for making me a hand-drawn/written postcard. It's just a different kind of - perhaps more intimate on purpose - communication. I don't think your list of 12 and the 3 bullets above it are mutually exclusive.

  2. @Jenkins

    You make great points. For personal interactions there are times pen and paper do make more sense. Additionally, the kind of hand(writing) I am referring to does not touch upon drawing/sketching etc which sometimes is better done via electronic means and other times, especially for intimate communication, is best done by writing.

    I do disagree that digital writing is always less personal then that of pen and paper. I’ve had deep, intimately personal, passionate and meaningful communications digitally and have been able to do so and make such connections only because of the opportunities provided by the digital world.

    As far as my supposition that note-taking is outdated, I was hoping someone would bite on that. I was interviewed about this for an ed piece coming out in the NY Times (stay tuned for a post on this) which dives into this more deeply. To clarify in part, I mean that “traditional” note-taking is outdated. That is to say capturing the regurgitation of a speaker on paper. Instead we should be making meaning of what the speaker is saying, much like is done in the brilliant link you sent. There’s no reason why the speakers notes shouldn’t be provided to the audience/students in advance, and then listeners can get past the simple recording of words (there are endless free and easy ways to automate the process) and move to the making of meaning.

    I also agree with your point about a hand-drawn / written postcard. That extends simple capture of words on a page and there is indeed something romantic about a piece of paper potentially traveling across the globe to reach a loved one. But…for many other purposes, I’ll stick with my keyboard ;-p

    Thanks for bringing up some smart counterpoints and extending the thinking on this.

  3. For the most part I agree, but doing Physics and Math problems without pencils and scrap paper is still a little cumbersome.

    So we can ditch the pen, but still need pencils for now.

  4. @Mr. Hay,
    Look what happened when Math teacher Eric Marcos ditched the pen/pencil paper. He took Math to a whole new level doing much of what I describe above when he and his students used Tablets for Mathcasting. You can read about how that works here

  5. Hi Lisa, following your article I've decided to digitise my current paper-based materials to reduce my home clutter.
    I was wondering, for those of us who don't own a smartphone or have a laptop permanently stitched to our hips, what other tech. options would you recommend? If I could know of the available options I could go ahead and reduce my written notebooks.
    Once again, thanks for this thoughtful post, which I've shared with my Twitter friends.

  6. Hi Lisa,

    Excellent article and I agreement on all the benifits of digital writing. Remembering the last meeting I was in with someone making classical notes and others sharing lots of printer documents, it's time for change.

    Peter van Loevezijn

  7. @Greg,
    Most any device that has a keyboard will do, but I do believe that requires stitching a laptop, netbook, or smartphone to your hip. For me, my Blackberry is a fantastic tool that allows me to do most of what a laptop allows me to do while I'm on the go. I prefer a touch keyboard to one on a screen as typing speed is important to me.

    @Peter van L.
    I couldn't agree more! Why are we copying down what the speaker says. The speaker should be handing out notes to participants. If we want to capture the experience there are numerous ways to video or audio tape for free...or why not simulcast for others to join who are not able to commute using a webcast or UStream?

  8. Even fourth graders are ready to ditch the pen. No more sloppy copy to copy again! However, virtual reality for young Scholars is not the same (yet) as seeing your work on the classroom wall. So, we still print, and hold, and hang, and admire our final products.

  9. There is a big debate about digital vs paper in higher education right now, but it's more about receiving information (rather than writing) in digital form. eBooks are less wasteful and potentially less expensive, but students are divided in their opinions of whether they want to go paperless, and eBooks might even be less useful for students. Is this just a cultural throwback to paper? We've got a post on this topic over at one of my blogs, at

  10. For me, personally, i like to take notes by hand. I feel that I write faster than i type, and it means more to me to write it (see it, write it, say it). I am a spatial learner, so being able to draw pictures or graphs quickly to go along with my notes is very valuable to me.

    Often when I have an assigment that I need to read online, I end up printing it out so that I can take notes on it or highlight it, and it's easier for me to read and comprehend that way.

    I do agree, however, with your point about being able to spell check and share the notes, and especially reducing the clutter that so many papers causes.

    Thanks so much for your enlightening article!

  11. @stacyast, you are making me feel guilty for not having the time to write a post that is in the works that explains how you can annotate work digitally in ways much more powerfully then you can on paper. Until then, I'll give you a few nuggets. Anything you read online can be annotated and what is so much more powerful online is that your annotations can be shared globally if you'd like them to be. That turns to connecting and conversing. Powerful! A great tool for that is Diigo. If you don't use it, start now. You can annotate on any digital program though and when doing so digitally you open many more doors.

    As for your thoughts about pen vs keyboard speed, if you invested a small amount of time upfront you could keyboard or thumb at least twice as fast as you write. It's well worth the time upfront for the lifelong payoff.

  12. Um, am I missing something? In 3 you tell us that electronic note-taking is easily sharable with others, in 4 you tell us that it's easily editable by others, but then in 5 you tell us "I don’t take traditional notes so you won’t understand what I write". Which is it? Useful for sharing or not?!

  13. @Mary, good question. Electronic note-taking is definitely easily shareable with others, but I'm not a secretary or note recorder. If someone at a meeting wants that, they can assign someone to that task, but I would not be a good choice. Better yet, if they want a record they can audio or video record and just automate the process for anyone who want to go back and review what was discussed.

    What I do at meetings is very personal to me and doesn't take the form of traditional notes. Rather than explain in abstract terms, here's an example.

    A great resource for education may be shared. I place that in my "Tech to Investigate" file on my computer or blackberry. A must-read book may be shared. I put that in my "Books to read" file. I may be asked to contact John Smith about his thoughts on a particular learning platform. No sooner is that said, then I've emailed John Smith. We may be asked to find out if people prefer one vendor over another. I send out a Tweet or post a Classroom 2.0 discussion and can shoot an email out back out to the team or post a round up before the meeting is over with thoughts and feedback. Someone may say we should collect and share everyone's contact info. In less then a minute I can create a Google form and share a tinyurl link with the group. And...I'll have all this information posted in a logical way on a wiki page so that everyone can access it after they've left the meeting.

    Unlike traditional meeting and note taking methods, my meet time is work time and instead of leaving with "To Dos" I'm already done.

  14. Totally with you! My students have a wikispace each and that's their workbook. (well that was my plan) Parents started moaning about my teaching techniques. Not relevant they screamed!! Sometimes you wonder why you bother being a teacher... But... just got awarded a grant and now my students will have an ipod touch each. Principal is backing me so now its time for learning