Pen, Paper, Power! Five Benefits of Journal Writing
Not everyone is willing to try writing as a primary or supplementary approach to problem-solving. Those who are—even when they are skeptical at first—almost always find writing to be a powerful and surprisingly accessible means to insight, healing, growth and change.
The handwritten personal journal has enjoyed a renaissance as a tool for problem solving, life management and creative expression. It’s impossible to know how many journal writers there are—journaling is, after all, usually a solitary act—but a popular brand of blank books is estimated to sell more than 1,000,000 journals per year.[i] Considering that this number accounts for only one manufacturer of blank books, and the majority of journal writers choose spiral notebooks or composition books, the number of potential journal writers out there is staggering.
As a licensed psychotherapist and the founder/director of the Center for Journal Therapy in Denver, Colorado, the use of journals in the counseling process has been my life’s work for more than thirty years. I have worked with men and women of all ages and stations in life, with all manner of presenting problems. Even those with literacy limitations can successfully use writing.
There are many reasons to journal other than emotional healing. Here are five benefits to expressing yourself on paper.
1. Writing by hand can make learning easier.
Neuroscientists are strongly opposed to the decline in teaching penmanship, or cursive writing, in public schools, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”[ii]
2. Writing by hand can improve memory.
A research study comparing college students who took notes on laptops and those who took notes by hand found that students remembered lectures better with handwritten notes. It seems digital note-takers tend to transcribe a lecture rather than assimilate it. Manual note-taking requires discernment about ranking information according to its relative importance, allowing the hand-writers to remember core learning more readily.[iii]
3. Writing in a journal, by hand, helps you achieve the maximum benefit of journaling.
My anecdotal research as a journal therapist suggests that clients who write by hand are much more likely to have positive attachment to their journals and sustain the practice longer than those who write digitally. The handwritten journal, which is portable and accessible, is what therapists call a “constant presence.” It’s deemed by clients to be a more intimate, personal and relatable experience than writing on a phone app or computer; thus, the results tend to last longer and embed more deeply.
4. Writing by hand can have similar benefits to meditation.
In an article called “The Simple Joy of Writing by Hand,” Barbara Bash writes, “It is something about the physical act—the holding of the hand and pen—that is meditative, bringing me into the present.” [iv]
5. Writing by hand can help enhance creative expression.
According to British novelist Jon McGregor, “Pen and paper is always [at] hand. Writing on the page stays on the page, with its scribbles and rewrites and long arrows suggesting a sentence or paragraph be moved and can be looked over and reconsidered. Writing on the screen is far more ephemeral. A sentence deleted can’t be reconsidered.”[v] For decades, my own journals have been incubators for creative projects. Each time I start a new book, workshop or business expansion I use my journal to work out questions, obstacles, details, procedural notes and deadline management. I also benefit from the safe container for my own self-doubts, uncertainties, frustrations and other feelings that are part of the creative process.