The Beauty of … Notepads

I usually have about five books on the go at the same time and one of my current reads is Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’. I prefer to read non-fiction, especially memoirs and especially political memoirs and especially American political memoirs! Obama is a fantastic writer and I am relishing the detail of his rise to the presidency. However, I found a seemingly small detail very interesting indeed – he often wrote his speeches in longhand first, on “yellow legal pads”, disliking the tidy appearance of word processed “half baked thoughts”. On reading this, I was reminded of a recent blog post on the importance of handwriting by teacher and author Alex Quigley. His post included reports of studies that evidenced the beneficial effect of handwritten compositions on the quantity and quality of words generated by students. Moreover, students were able to record the words more quickly than by typing them. This is a real bonus for students who buzz with ideas and want to ‘get them down’ quickly. Anyway, on reading these accounts by Obama and Quigley, I was inspired yesterday to purchase a notepad as a receptacle for my first draft blog posts. I was a long time in the shop because a) there was quite an array to choose from and b) having read about the importance of handwriting it felt like I was making a major decision! Choice made, I headed home and resisted writing in my newly acquired notepad for 24 hours, not wanting to spoil the aesthetic appeal of its emptiness. I took the plunge today and yes, now that I have drafted this post by hand first, the notepad is no longer the beautiful item it was in the shop. However, I am aware of William Blake’s admonition to “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” and therefore I hope this notepad will go from being beautiful to useful.


  1. Carrie Taylor

    I love the physical act of writing, much as I love the turn of a real page when reading and having a proper bookmark to keep my place. A sharp pencil or a smooth, glidey pen are a pleasure to use, as is choosing the paper or notebook. How’s it going, Margaret?!
    An interesting article by Alex Quigley….I agree! As a primary school teacher I would spend time in September doing 2 or 3 short handwriting sessions a week. The first page of their new English book would be full of beautiful rows of letters, all grouped in similar strokes or joins: c,o,a or the descender loops of g,f,y, j. Together we would star the ‘best’ letter or word in their rows. Spelling patterns could be dropped in inconspicuously! They were proud of their efforts and I believe that learning how to form the letters properly gave them the tools to write with speed and clarity. They quickly understood there was writing for ‘best’ and writing for notes.
    Writing has become such a chore in schools in the present climate, at least if they could scribe quickly and clearly it would be one less thing to struggle with in their compositions. However, fitting in handwriting lessons is hard with everything else there is to do. It takes longer to re-learn incorrect letter formation that to teach it correctly from the start, so I think time spent in the early years would be well spent. What is the latest thinking in schools, I wonder?

    • mbranscombe

      Thank you for your comment Carrie. I love your remark about the turn of a new page. I had never thought about that before but yes it is immensely satisfying in two ways. If I’m not enjoying the book but have to read it, the thought is ‘one less step to take’ but if the book is a great read there’s an anticipation at what is to come next. Also, I could imagine you as a teacher, patiently making your way around the classroom, giving each child attention as you both chose the star letter! I’m not sure what the current thinking on handwriting is, but as you mention, it probably has to jostle for time along with all the other expectations. As you say, ‘unlearning’ handwriting habits is very difficult. Perhaps we should consider handwriting as much as an art form as purely functional – and learn from the monks and their beautiful calligraphy! I’ve just stumbled across an article about the influence of a Trappist monk on Steve Jobs’ determination to design a computer with ‘beautiful typography’… I think you’ll enjoy this!