Why I use pen(cil) and paper

I’m a millennial and a programmer. Why do I still use pen(cil) and paper?

A conceptual sketch as I developed my current research project

I start every new research project the same way: by sketching it out with pencil and paper over as many sheets of paper as I need.

Outlines with headings and subheadings are great, and I always produce those for research projects as well, but the sketches have to come first. I need the expansiveness to spin off my ideas in every direction before I subject them to the linearity and order of an outline.

There are many mind-mapping programs available to accomplish this, such as Scapple and Miro. The problem with any software, though, is that what you can do with it is limited by the developers’ vision of what mind-mapping is meant to be. If your preferred method breaks outside the bounds of what the software is made to do, then you’re inherently constrained. I want my brainstorming to be unconstrained.

Of course, paper has its constraints, too. It’s not searchable or linkable to other documents. But once I take a picture of my sketches with my phone and digitize it, the text becomes searchable, and I can tag it and link it with other documents. Personally, I use Microsoft OneNote to organize my many pictures of pen-and-paper sketches.

Personally, I benefit from kinesthetic memory as well, so I’m more likely to remember the ideas I came up with if I physically sketched them out. The hands recall.

It’s not for everyone, but for me, nothing beats a pencil and a pad of blank A3 paper for starting out on a new big idea.

Dr. July Pilowsky
Dr. July Pilowsky
he / they / she

Computational ecologist using models to understand the natural world.