John-Paul Flintoff




96,000 Reasons To Write By Hand

Handwriting is a spiritual designing, even though it appears by means of a material instrument
— Euclid

Last year, I wrote approximately 96,000 words, by hand. Mostly I used pens, but pencils and biros laid down their lives too.

One in three British adults don’t write anything by hand for six months at a time. Our average speed is 68 letters per minute (or roughly 13 words). Fast writers manage 113 letters (20 words, not so bad) but slower writers copy just 26 letters per minute, or five words.

Assuming I’m fast, I spent 80 hours writing by hand. If I’m slow – well, it’s probably best not to work it out.

You may wonder: what kind of fool would write anything by hand when he can touch-type at the speed of ordinary conversation? And why type at all, when a relatively ordinary phone allows you to film everything, and save it to a boundless digital archive?

Answer: because time-consuming though it is, the physical process helps me to understand information, and remember it. And typing doesn’t do that.

Studies show that students who type notes tend to do so verbatim – they just drill it all down. Writing by hand is slower, so hand-writing note-takers are more selective, using their brains to digest, summarise and capture only what is needed. In memory tests, note-takers who type consistently perform worse than hand-writers.

But there’s a bigger problem with digital: it’s gone beyond being good, becoming too good, and ultimately no good.

We live in an age when almost any fact or opinion can be found online. But if that’s all we do, we leave ourselves no note of what we have learned – what we care about – to pick up and enjoy again later. And if you don’t remember a particular fact or insight, did you ever really learn anything?

Relying entirely on digital, I have realised, makes me giddy – actually light-headed. But when I hold one of my physical notebooks, I feel grounded.

I use soft-covered Leuchtturm1917 notebooks. They come in a range of cheerful colours and fit perfectly into my back pocket.

Some that I filled have curled pages, a result of all the pressure from pencils and biros. Others, filled mostly with Pilot V5 rollerball pens, lie flatter. The pens flow easily over the page and, to be perfectly honest, make the job less tiring. (Note to self: stop using pencils and biros.)

To put my 96,000 words in context: it’s longer than any of my published books. To keep on top of it all, I “tag” my notes so that I can find what I need, even long afterwards.

I won’t go into the whole process, but here’s the most important bit: every time I buy a new Leuchtturm I leave two pages at the front to fill in gradually, as I go along, with numbered “contents”. I list regular themes and topics in the back of the book, each with a different colour, and I mark the edge of pages with that colour, wherever that topic is mentioned.

Time-consuming? If I do it as a go along, I hardly notice.

I go into more detail about how I use my various notebooks in my Idler Academy course, How To Write with John-Paul Flintoff. I hope you’ll try it.


Posted: May 12, 2021

Keywords: notebooks




John-Paul Flintoff headshot, with Yours Truly written across it John-Paul Flintoff is author of six books, in 16 languages, including How To Change The World and A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech. He worked for 15 years as writer and associate editor on the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and other papers and magazines.


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