May 28, 2012

Paper or Plastic? Why I hate handwritten sermon notes

by Clint Archer

Legend has it that John MacArthur has never typed a single sermon. After 40+ years of prolific preaching, every jot and tittle flows from the nib of what must be an astonishingly robust fountain pen.

Similarly, my novelist hero, Jeffery Archer (no relation) laboriously pens his 400 page productions with a fastidious average of 14 drafts per chapter. Each one transcribed with a ballpoint pen. He’s spawned dozens of books– tens of thousands of pages– in this meticulous manner. He confessed wryly to a friend of mine, who met him at a book signing, that his antiquated method drains the life of no fewer than six pens per project.

Likewise, John Piper’s preaching notes are manually penned and notoriously illegible. I’ve encountered chicken-scratches in a coop that appear more pulpit friendly.

Piper's pulpit "notes"

Even some younger preachers are too timid to sample the new technology. Several of my fellow pastors still write out their sermons, eschewing the use of a word processor, much less an iPad. I wonder what they feel about the newfangled ideas of indoor plumbing and electric light bulbs?

Admittedly, I too suffered from the enslaving scourge of technophobia. I have in my unenlightened years re-inked a particular silver bullet sermon seven times for seven different occasions.

I cited the vintage ways of stalwarts in the preaching fraternal as justification for my inertia to try new methods. But now that I’ve made the switch, I won’t go back as long as electrons flow in our world. Memories of my antediluvian ways now make me cringe.

Here is why I hate handwritten notes…

1. You can’t easily search handwritten notes.

I have frequently remembered a fuzzy fragment of a quote, or an indistinct part of an illustration, or a word study that I did a few years ago, but can’t recall where I saw it. But if it was typed into my sermon notes, or even the research notes I keep stashed on my hard drive for perpetuity, a simple Ctl+F search exhumes what I need with cheerful rapidity, saving me hours of thumb-numbing scouring of my library.


2. You can’t easily cut-and-paste the gems.

As with the above point, there have been times when a word study, definition, chain of cross-references, or eloquent Puritan quote can be recycled resurrected for a new sermon, even several years later.

The finger-ritual “Ctl+C – Ctr+V” has saved me innumerable hours of typing. Not only is your own material eagerly awaiting redeployment, but a sumptuous quote culled from the Internet or Logos can be effortlessly dragged straight into your sermon. And these days software can, like a cohort of elves, magically help you format and footnote it for further reference.


3. You can’t easily share handwritten notes.

Unlike its paper counterpart, an e-version of your sermon is, like a racehorse in the gates, perpetually chomping to be dispatched to others. Your work can readily be broadcast to Facebook followers, shared with blog readers, uploaded to a website database, e-mailed to congregation members, etc.


4. You can’t easily back them up.

Of course, all notes can get destroyed or deleted. But e-copies can easily (and ought always to be) backed-up on various flash drives kept in several geographically dispersed locations. To lose my notes now, Satan would need to destroy 5 hard drives on 2 continents– and the Internet.


5. You can’t easily take them all with you on a missions trip.

Before my iPad, I used to lug my six most dog-eared “sugar-stick” sermons with me in case I was  spontaneously called upon to preach. But in various settings they have proven inadequate. A more suitable sermon can be within clicking distance on a flashdrive, CD, or iPad.


6. You can’t ever use them on your iPad!

I, of course, shan’t attempt to make a theological case why you should use an iPad. But since God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy,” (1 Tim 6:17) I can at least proffer the tongue-in-cheek case of why you could use it. Just like a carpenter takes pleasure in using quality tools, or a guitarist favors a particular brand of instrument, preachers are entitled to their private little pleasures in the pulpit. I love the craft of preaching, and I enjoy every step of the sermon’s inception, incubation, and delivery. The iPad is merely a luxuriant garnish to round off the experience.

For my post on how to format your notes and set up an iPad for preaching, see Adam’s Apple: Preaching from an iPad.

And if you’re wondering why I kept inserting the annoying “easily” in each point, it’s because a megachurch pastor may have all the above abilities at his disposal. He can employ an army of interns, secretaries, executive pastors, and other willing minions to do what could be done by a single laptop.

If you have any objections to this post, please have the integrity to write them down, lick a stamp, and mail them to me :)


Clint Archer

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Clint is the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church. He and his expanding troop of Archers live near Durban, South Africa (and pity anyone who doesn't). When he is off duty from CGate, his alter ego blogs at Café Seminoid,
  • Michael Delahunt

    Only a sunday school teacher here, but I prefer handwritten notes over typed notes (I’ve used both). I enjoy preparing that way, even though it takes longer. Also, I cannot stand the ‘iNeed’ system that is apple, but I know i am in the minority here, and I look forward to hearing a pithy response from your iPad ;) 

    • Clint

      I detect a little iEnvy. :)

    • csrima

       Also, Michael, are you of the Delahunt clan begotten from Doug?  I believe I met your father a couple of weeks ago.  Great guy!

  • Jeff_sagester

    As a teacher, I am trying to keep the lost art of writing alive with my students.  Of course I’m typing this from my BlackBerry PlayBook tablet!  The wave of progress keeps rolling whether you are riding with it or swimming against it.

    • Clint

      I’m a fan of writing notes and letters by hand. Fountain pens are one of God’s great gifts and should be proliferated among the youth to encourage the personal touch. But sermon notes need to be searchable. That’s just my opinion.

  • Diane Lytle

    You can do all of those things (except cut & paste) if you use a Livescribe pen. It’s a paper-based computing platform consisting of a digital pen, digital paper, software applications, and developer tools. It even transcribes handwritten notes into pdf so that you can then download to your Kindle and read on your iPad or phone or share with others.  I have one and have found it extremely beneficial.  I journal daily and now have a way to search entries. I also record my notes and sermon audios so I can replay and ponder or share with friends.  This pen does more than I can tell you about so you might want to visit their website.

     This isn’t meant to be a commercial but rather a way of letting you know about a very useful tool.  I can send you a link for a 15% off coupon.

    • Clint

      Oooh cool, new technology this sounds like the best of both worlds. I’m intrigued. Thanks for sharing.

  • Timcampbellsr

    I have to agree. I feel as if i retain more in my head when i handwrite my notes, but the benefits of type far outweighs this right brain/left brain thing. Interestingly, just last night i was preaching and had my wife copy my notes at the last minute via email at the church as my printer was down. I was preaching when i realized indid not have the last few pages (i use 14 pt and use alot of breaks so i have more pages). I had also backup sermon to Dropbox for my iPad because I was undecided on what format i would use. Well, i had my iPad handy and paused and had my sermon on my iPad (all the pages) and continued on. So, the iPad will be my go to method. It takes a while, use it in less formal situations to get comfortable and you will be hooked. Make sure you use 14-16 pt type so when it is on iPad you can see it clearly to read w/o strain.

    • Clint

      I concur w wholeheartedly.

  • Charles e Whisnant

    Its true about John MacArthur’s note taking, I have seen them up front and close at his church. I did prefer handwritten notes before Dell or HP.  My first thousand sermons were all handwritten. Now I do like my Kindle Fire to read from. Still learning, thanks for article and comments.

    • Clint

      Kindle is a great tool, and more affordable. Thanks Charles.

  • Staci Eastin

    About 15 years ago, the pastor at the church I grew up in realized on Sunday morning that his final draft had been taken out in Friday’s trash. When he went to the dumpster to retrieve them, he got stuck and had to wait quite awhile before a passerby noticed him and helped him out. That wouldn’t have happened if he had been using a word processor. :)

    • Clint

      Awesome. That is a great story.

  • elainebitt

    Clint, I have to be honest, when I read your article this am I thought, that is it? that is today’s blog? =)

    Anyway… much of what you say does not apply to MacArthur (or even Piper) who has had all his sermons (or the vast majority of them) transcripted and turned digital. But you know that already.

    I’d object to more but I don’t wanna be a hypocrite, unless you wanna share your mailing address. Ya, I didn’t think so. ;)

    • Clint

      I’m surprised I don’t get more comments like that every week! Thanks for your faithful following of TCG, Elaine. You were our very first subscriber, if i remember correctly. Thanks for the endurance!

  • Michael Russell

    There are advantages and disadvantages to both paper and electronic. You listed several advantages of electronic, and as a person in the IT industry I fully agree with those and it is why I have moved most of my work to electronic form.

    But, there are advantages to handwritten notes that typing cannot achieve. (Notice, I didn’t say it has to be on paper, just handwritten and freestyle. I have a Lenovo X201 combination laptop/tablet with integrated Wacom tablet and stylus that lets me write on the screen with same freedom as paper.)

    Anyway, in the field of human factors engineering, research has discovered that freestyle handwriting permits a person to concentrate better on the task than keyboard editing. The reason is the handwriting process is from so-called muscle memory and the action of making notes is free of distractions. Whereas, with keyboard editing, there are distractions caused by the formatting, linear presentation on the screen, auto-correction by the software, etc. A person has to spend time breaking from the flow of thought to correct, adjust, format, etc what the keyboard entry allows. Therefore, handwriting avoids software’s distractions that break one’s train of thought.

    The second discovery is back to the so-called muscle memory. It turns out that the process of handwriting acts as a reinforcement to one’s recollection, something keyboard typing does not provide (at least to the same level). Think of playing a musical instrument. If you strum the notes on a guitar, that movement of the hands makes stronger neuron connection in the brain to remember the song than if you simply listened to a MP3 playing of the song or typed out the notes in some musical notation software and had it play it back.

    The net result is that using handwriting during the thinking and research phases of sermon preparation presents less distractions and reinforces the recollection of the material.

    When I prepare my Sunday School lessons, I often sketch notes in a freestyle manner, but once I’ve finished my research and thinking through the main points, then I type them up in my outline.

    Oh, speaking of writing, there is an often overlooked Mosaic Law that I think is relevant here. In Deut 17:18, it reads “And when he [Israel's king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.”

    Basically, the first job of the appointed king over Israel is to write a complete copy of the Mosaic Law and get it approved by the priests. From what we have learned in human-factors engineering, this would result in the king learning more of the contents of the law than if he just read it. This is something I’ve been thinking of doing, either using my wacom tablet or actual paper and start making a hand written copy of Scripture as part of my reading time.

    • Clint

      Excellent insights. I am a supporter of handwritten thank-you notes, cards, and even personal correspondence. And of course for studying and memorization it is unequalled. Your techno pen thingy helps get around many of the drawbacks of inked sermon notes. Thanks for your input.

  • csrima

    I’ve only taught a few times, but each time, I’ve taken handwritten notes, and then the night before I usually type them up and arrange them using text boxes to help me with transitions.  I am the same guy who won’t get a Kindle because A.) I must smell the pages of a book before I deign to read them, and B.)  I am a distance seminary student, aka extremely incapable of affording one.

    I just love when you have a good pen.  It makes writing enjoyable.  However it is much easier to read typed notes when you have a group of people staring at you waiting to hear what you have to say.  

    • Clint

      Perhaps Kindle will release a version with smell. Good fountain pens are indeed a gift from God.

  • Greg

    Do you have a back-up plan for the day your iPad goes iKaput in a live setting? :) Or, if you forget to charge it? This is the main reason I hesitate to move primarily to something like an iPad (as opposed to printed, typed notes) when teaching…

    • Clint

      Greg, I see that you have looked into my nightmares. {chills}

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  • Justin Taylor

    Clint: good post! One thing to note: Piper doesn’t handwrite his sermons. They are always typed out in ms form ahead of time—what you see on the web is essentially what he has with him in the pulpit.

  • Hollyhuckabee

    Thanks for a great post! As a former Community Bible Study teaching director, I found typing my lectures in manuscript form to be much more helpful than handwriting an outline. I’ve been able to develop retreat talks and devotionals from saved lectures–cutting and pasting are two of my best friends in preparing to speak to groups. And the search function has enabled me to access years of work that I can now share with other teaching directors in my current role as CBS area director in Arkansas. From illustrations to application, and especially content and footnotes, I’ve been able to pass on what the Lord has given to enrich the preparation and service of other Christians. I use iPad or iPhone to run my Keynote presentations, so I’m not up to speed on speaking to women from my iPad. May have to try it!