May 8, 2023

Students in a course on the History of Writing taught by Distinguished Professor Joyce Kinkead investigated traditional, college-aged students and their preferred writing implements. Digital natives—people born after 1980 who grew up with technology—are assumed to prefer digital writing implements such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Do they really tend to use digital implements, or do they use analog instruments such as pens and pencils? To find out, the researchers designed a Qualtrics survey to ask students about their use of digital and analog writing tools. A second data source were essays on the topic "My Favorite Writing Implement," which were coded on a spreadsheet, counting each instance of tools noted, ranging from digital to analog, from tablets to gel pens. Participants were enrolled in two university classes: one lower-division, and one upper-division. Their majors ranged across all colleges. Through a review of literature, the researchers found that a trend exists toward Gen-Z using analog writing tools. Some steer clear of digital altogether and embrace the term “Luddites.” Shortly after completing this study, the researchers found a broadside for Logan Luddite Society! David Sax notes in The Revenge of Analog that analog offers "real and tangible experiences" that are tactile.

So, are digital natives committed to digital or analog writing tools? It depends. Results of this IRB-approved project noted that most academic tasks require digital implements; however, for social or non-academic writing, students often prefer analog for their "intimacy, aesthetics, and physical feel." Gel pens top the list, followed by ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils. Although few in number, some students turn to fountain pens or even dip pens. A couple even noted a surprising affinity for quill pens. Sixty percent of respondents said that their choice of writing implements contributes to their identity as writers, and many are loyal to a particular brand.

The analysis of essays about favorite writing implements produced fascinating insights into digital natives’ attachment to what might seem old-fashioned tools of writing:

  • “One reason why I love the dip pen so much is that it forces me to slow down and think about what I write. It also adds another level of artistry to writing, adding much more of an eloquent flourish.”
  • “During my second year of college, I discovered the ultimate pen: G2 Pilot pen. I refuse to use anything else. The gel in the pen stays wet for the perfect amount of time, while not getting smudges everywhere. Pilot says the G2 is the pen that “overachievers gravitate towards because it's the longest writing and can keep up with all the amazing things they're doing.” I believe that it can sense the greatness within me.”
  • “Starting in middle school, I started using EnerGel pens exclusively. I write with the black usually, but I particularly enjoy the cool tones: green, violet, and blue. These pens have seen me through the embarrassing days of middle school, the lonely months of high school, and now my partially completed years at university. These pens have written essays, designed projects, drawn doodles, and made life
    even better than it already is.”
  • “Writing with a pen gives a sense of nostalgia that can remind someone what it is to really write. Typing on a laptop will always be practical, but the words written down can be deleted and forgotten without a second thought. Sometimes it is good to live with mistakes and accept them, and writing with a pen can help make that feel more natural. Nothing can replace the feeling of a physical object becoming the vessel that transports thought to paper.”

Among the digital natives, some are tied to electronic implements for writing as this testimonial attests: “The laptop gave me unlimited and unbounded writing. With the start of 5th grade, my favorite writing equipment quickly became the keyboard, and it still is. Nothing tops the satisfaction of a keyboard. My mind flows better, and there is even a stark difference in my voice and the quality of the work.  

The twelve researchers presented the results at Utah State University’s Student Research Symposium on April 11, 2023 and have submitted an article to a national undergraduate research journal for consideration.