Since it takes a lot of time to type presentations out using Beamer, PowerPoint, etc. (I need lots of equations) I have been thinking of shifting to handwritten slides (example).

Does anyone here have experience with handwritten slides that are not "transparencies"? What hardware/software will I need to prepare slides like these?

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    If that is really a concern, I am afraid you might have too many equations on your slides... Commented May 30, 2015 at 11:00
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    You talk about "presentations" but you've tagged the question "teaching". Are you asking about slides for lecturing to a class or slides for giving something like a conference talk? Commented May 30, 2015 at 14:13
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    The most successful version of this I've ever seen involved ball-point pens in several colors, a stack of 3x5 index cards, and a phone camera.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 14:38
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    Done well, I find it a very refreshing antidote to the antiseptic typeset powerpoint/beamer/etc slides we see everywhere.
    – Corvus
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 17:17
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    Do you have good handwriting? There's nothing more frustrating for an audience than trying to decipher poor handwriting. I thought the example in the video you showed was marginal. There is a great app called MathPad that lets you write equations and it will typeset them on the fly for you (to Latex). Then you can just copy/paste.
    – Floris
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 21:57

7 Answers 7


I see essentially two possibilities:

  1. Write out your slides on paper, then scan them.
  2. Get a Tablet & Pen combination and write directly "to your computer". I don't have experience with hand-writing slides this way, but I recently acquired a Wacom Intuos Pen which you could use for this. It has the additional benefit that you can use it in web conferences to write on a shared web whiteboard (this is the use case I personally got it for).

In case 1, you can scan your notes directly to PDF and present them. If you want to mix "classical" slides with your handwritten slides, you will need to mix PowerPoint or Beamer slides with graphics files containing your handwritten slides. You may need to experiment a bit with what picture format works best here, in terms of both file size and graphics quality.

In case 2, you can create PowerPoint presentations and write directly into the presentation with your Pen, which makes integrating "classical" and handwritten slides quite a bit easier.

  • Wacom Intuos tablet is too expensive for some students, while the best cheapest alternative is Huion which comes with 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity and up to to 8192 levels. As in Wacom, student won't really need tilt sensitivity, unless for airbrushing. Mind you, I have 5 tablets for digital painting and sculpting, two by Wacom and 3 by Huion. If student wants to writes digitally, he/she could check out free open source software, MyPaint. There, student could use brushes including ink pens for writing. MyPaint is good with Wacom or Huion.
    – user92331
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 21:01

Especially if these are for a lecture, you should really be using a blackboard (or whiteboard if you must) and write everything out during class. Presenting slides typically makes you go much faster than you would otherwise -- you forget how much time it took you to figure out the sign in an equation or the limits for some integral. While superficially this might help you "cover" more material, it's sure to lose everyone in the class. By writing things out as you go, you force yourself to think about the equations you're writing and about the speed at which a normal human being is able to process and understand them.

If it doesn't matter so much whether your students can follow the meaning of the equations you're writing down, then don't include them in your presentation. Direct your students to a book (or online notes), and use class time for something that they can follow.

  • Big upvote. Our theoretical physics lectures were on the blackboard in real time. Lots learned, lecture notes reproduced all derivations + some comments. All those fancy powerpoint presentations in the final year specialist courses were the worst.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 10:59

It's a good idea to try, but I also wanted to add some notes of caution. I've used a couple of methods, the tablet and pen method to write on the screen in real-time. I've done this to annotate existing typeset slides during the class.

I've also have handwritten annotations on top of slides which I've scanned and presented as PDFs, and I've also used full handwritten slides scanned as PDF.

Student's can be very sensitive to the unorthodox. If the unorthodox makes for a much better learning experience (or often in their mind - better test scores!) then they will be all for it. However, if it doesn't improve their experience and they believe you are doing it "to save time typing", i.e. for selfish reasons, they can be very negative. The negativity can transfer into losing engagement and depressed results from that class.

If your institution has quality monitoring systems or formalised student feedback mechanisms you need to be sure that a learning quality improvement will result.

[*]OK. I'm the departmental teaching and learning quality officer ... just doing my job!

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    if...they believe you are doing it "to save time typing"...they can be very negative. — Seriously? If the focus of the students' attention is how much the instructor is typing, the class has much more serious problems!
    – JeffE
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 19:46
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    @JeffE No, honestly - some instructors actually say to the class - "I did this because I could not be bothered... etc". Then, not surprisingly they are not quite so engaged. I was just kinda hinting there... Commented May 30, 2015 at 19:53
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    Thanks for the clarification, but now I have to downvote. If the instructor actually says "I just can't be bothered", then indeed the class has more a serious problem! In that case, the students are not reacting badly to the handwritten slides, but to the overt expression of apathy.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 0:29


  • don't overuse equations
  • don't use hand-written slides.

Don't overuse equations

If you need to present your work with lots of equations, then the problem is not on the tool you are using to do it (PowerPoint, Beamer, etc.), but on the presentation itself.

Take time to think about the presentation first. Specifically, think on:

  • What message do you want your audience to take home?
  • What message you want to convey on each slide?

Unless you are deriving a simple result as E=mc^2 on a slide, on which the derivation itself is beautiful and is thus part of the message, there is only one reason to have a slide full of equations: when you want to convey that your result was non-trivial to derive and that this slide is not supposed to be understood by anyone in the audience.

This is because no audience will follow the technical details of a derivation anyway, except probably for 1 or 2 specialists. If your presentation is good enough, those specialists will read your paper anyway and will be able to follow the derivation on their own pace, along with all the technical details.

Equations are extremely useful because they summarise an extraordinary amount of information, but because of that, they are also difficult to read, understand, and digest. They are like pictures...

My advice is: do not trow equations to the slides just because they are part of a demonstration or something. Put an equation on a slide using the same reasoning you put a graph: only if it is really worth to fully explain it.

Instead, use words to describe how you got there ("using the approximation X, the assumption Y and Z, we can derive [show equation]"). If you believe that someone may ask for more details, just add an extra slide in the end with the full derivation, or just say (the technical details can be found in Ref. ).

Don't use hand-written slides

Here are some reasons:

  • Difficult to maintain: if you need to re-use a slide in a future presentation, you will suffer; If you try to change then in a hurry (e.g. during your flight), you will suffer;
  • Difficult to read: hand-writing is always more difficult to read than computer font like Helvetica, Arial or Times.
  • Difficult to format: unless you use topographic tools, hand-writing slides will have elements mis-aligned and improperly formatted.
  • Difficult to maintain consistency: PowerPoint, Beamer or Keynote allow you to write slides with a consistent structure (e.g. the master slide). Hand-writing slides most likely will not be consistent.

All of these distract the audience thus hindering your ability to convey the message.

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    +1000 for difficult to maintain. Handwritten slides will make you lazy. With Beamer slides, if there is a description that does not satisfy you completely, you just go on, change the text and recompile. Ten seconds. With hand-written, you have to remake the whole slide, and future-you will think it's too much work for little gain, I won't bother. Commented May 31, 2015 at 11:26

As Stephen Kolassa mentioned, using a writing tablet or scanning notes are both options. However, if you have an tablet (iPad/Android) or touch screen laptop (mostly Windows 8 like the Surface), there are many software options that allow you to create PDF slides by writing directly on the screen with a stylus. Most people I know (myself included) vastly prefer this option for generating hand written PDFs. I personally have used Notability on an iPad, which I found quite effective. To find more examples of software, start googling for note taking apps. I know several mathematicians who use hand written slides in their research talks (also, check out Rob Ghrist's Funny Little Calculus Text, drawn on a tablet PC). Some will even write on their slides as they present, though I believe this is easier to do with a laptop than a tablet.

If you are serious about open source, this call all be done in Linux as well. One of my collaborators teaches classes with a Wacom Cintiq, which are designed for professional artists, with his Linux machine. This is likely overkill.

  • Notability doesn't deal well with pdf files that are in landscape format, which is the best format for computer projectors. I once created Beamer templates (with slide headings only) and then wrote on them in Notability, but recently I've been unable to get reasonable results this way (either Notability imports the landscape pdf in an unusable way, or outputs it in an unusable way). Is there way around this? If I start with blank pages, lock the screen rotation, and write horizontally, this works, but it would be nice to have typed slide headings (Notability doesn't rotate typed text).
    – Dan Ramras
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 17:05

It's hard to match both the readability and aesthetic quality of Beamer presentations by hand. Possible, but hard.

Have you considered trying some convenience layer on top of Beamer, like using Pandoc?

It has a Beamer output, and several input formats, like Markdown, Org Mode and Textile.

Another point to consider is the editor you use to write your slides. Using something like Emacs with AUCTeX should dramatically increase productivity compared to plain text editors.

  • I like a nice text editor for normal LaTeX but for lots of beamer slides I can see that a decent set of macros at least would be higely helpful.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 20:10
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    How is this going to help if the OP's problem is typesetting equations? Do these formats have a simpler syntax for equations? Commented May 30, 2015 at 22:42

I think several of the responses here have mentioned a key distinction only in passing.

If you are giving a lecture and interacting with students, then being able to write comments "on the fly" is very important. Using a SMART a Podium or other tablet makes this easy to do and also makes it easy to capture the lecture in a recording. In my experience students vastly prefer to have lectures presented in this way rather than with prepared slides, since there is a tendency to move through the slides too quickly.

If you are talking about a conference presentation to fellow researchers, then using prepared slides is definitely the way to go.

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