As we celebrate National Handwriting Day (January 23rd), have you ever thought why it might be a good idea to write some of your book by hand? More to the point, how the act of doing so has all sorts of advantages: like boosting your memory, enhancing your ability to learn, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s?
Last year when I wrote about this topic, my focus was on the many successful writers of books and screenplays who use pen and paper to capture their first, sometimes even their second, third, or fourth drafts. (BTW: If you mistakenly think that good writers express themselves perfectly first time, read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird on “shitty first drafts.” Honestly — if you think writing is easy and the first thing out of your head is good enough, you’re kidding yourself and likely exposing your readers to drivel.)
Writer/directors John Lee Hancock (The Alamo; The Blindside), John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Charlie’s Angels I and II), and Randy Wallace (Braveheart; Secretariat) have said that writing longhand first feels more organic and real to them. And according to British actor Emma Thompson, winner of an Oscar, Golden Globe and Writer’s Guild Award for the screenplay she adapted of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (among many other writing and acting successes):
I have no problem editing on the computer, but I can’t write write on it.
In British newspaper The Guardian, author Lee Rourke confided that he, and many other professional writers, take pleasure in composing their prose in notebooks first. Maybe it’s because we’re just paper and pen fetishists? My loves include those glorious, orange Rhodia webnotebooks that I’ve filled over the years (handy when I want to find something quickly) and a gliding uniball pen that my former employer introduced me to and I’ve been obsessed with using ever since!
Numerous books, including Hamlet’s Blackberry and The Shallows outline how different parts of the brain are switched on when using computers, compared to writing by hand. And in his article The Phenomenology (aka “personal experience”) of Writing by Hand, Daniel Chandler distinguishes between Planners who “tend to think of writing primarily as a means of recording or communicating ideas which they already have clear in their minds,” and Discoverers, for whom writing is typically “a way of discovering what they want to say.”
I don’t know about you, but depending on what I’m writing, and the stage at which I’m at with my work, I’m a blend of both.
Before looking at some of the broader benefits that composing work by hand has for our brains, here are four possible explanations for why many of us feel that the quality of our work is enhanced:
- Working on a screen keeps you, literally, at arm’s length from your words; it’s like they’re not really part of you. According to Daniel Chandler, “There may even be a feeling of (your) being an extension of the tool” rather than having an experience of using a pen that is an extension of you.
- Inexperienced writers may think they know what they want to say beforehand, but having read many incomprehensible first drafts, it’s obvious that most are not clear about what’s in their minds before spewing words onto the screen. Being clear involves thinking for an extended period of time about your topic and holding those deliberations in some sort of logical order. Few people are really good at doing that, which is why it helps to write those thoughts down first.
- The speeded up and separated experience of writing on the computer makes you less likely to take the time to search for the exact word, or the more compelling sentence. For example, writer/director John August shared that the slower action of writing by hand encouraged him to “look for exact words that convey the sense” of what he wants to say. Choosing the right word with care, and re-evaluating phrases and sentences is the hallmark of more accomplished writers.
- Ironically, those of us who write with pen and paper are more inclined to revise our work. Just think about your emails or social site posts and how frequently they are misunderstood because you’ve typed words directly on to the screen with little or no editing.
What I hadn’t realized until recently, though, was how much of an impact writing by hand has on the brain. In a recent TV segment entitled Longevity Boosters, Dr Oz pointed out that using pen and paper gives the brain a workout that not only helps improve memory, but could reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s.
Children who are taught to print out letters by hand, compared with those who do so on the computer, have been found by researchers — using fMRI technology that measures blood activity in the brain — to show enhanced neural activity. They’re able to visually recognize letters and other visual shapes faster. Encouraging children to write letters out by hand may also improve their ability to read and learn. In short, writing by hand could make us smarter.
Even if I wanted to, I doubt I could give up my love of writing things out by hand. For example, I find it impossible to craft a cohesive article — let alone a whole book — by writing directly onto the computer. For that I need to create a huge mind-map poster that helps me strategize what I want to say, and how. And for more complex articles, where I’m not clear on what I’m trying to express, I’ll always write by hand first, honing and refining the manuscript several times before confining my work to the computer.
So — food for thought on National Handwriting Day, huh? And certainly something to think about as Apple and others encourage us to “technologize” learning in the classroom and beyond!
[Do you use a virtual assistant to help you accomplish more in less time? I do! Some of the research for this article was unearthed by the wonderful people at Zirtual.com. Check out their services. And if you do decide to use them (as I've been doing in a hugely beneficial way), please tell them Liz Alexander sent you ].