This morning I was reading an article for my other blog, College Composition Weekly, where I summarize selected articles from the scholarly journals on teaching writing (if you teach writing, check out my archives). This sentence caught my eye:
In fact, [Maryanne] Wolf advocates that students write by hand, which “encourages them to explore their own thoughts at closer to a snail’s pace than a hare’s” . . . which can only help them think more deeply about the texts they both write and read.*
This claim resonates because I always compose my fiction and my own research articles in longhand and have advocated, including as a writing teacher, for this practice.
The simplest reason is that writing in longhand gives you an extra edit. Keyboarding makes you scrutinize all that text you have to transfer and, in my experience, encourages sharpening as well as re-evaluating structure. You’d be amazed at what you suddenly don’t need when you have to go to the trouble to type it all in.
But there are other reasons. I owe the next two points to an essay from the late 1970s, Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” I used to walk my students through an outline of this piece in an effort to persuade them of the value of writing not just to recall but to engage with their reading in all their classes. Two of Emig’s points are especially salient here:
- Writing is a bodily activity. It doesn’t just happen in the mind.
Emig argues that humans learn better and make better connections when the body echoes what the mind is doing. That’s one reason you remember points better if you rehearse them aloud to yourself.
True, typing is also bodily, but handwriting magnifies the bodily engagement. I remember writing in high school with cartridge pens and just loving the process of shaping the black-ink letters on the white page. A written sentence was almost like a painting, merging visual, palpable, and mental into one.
- Writing slows down thought; slower thought allows new connections and ideas to bubble up.
I’ve become deeply appreciative of my subconscious. Of how, even in the few instances when I’m white-hot and pouring out text, it’s in the middle of one sentence that the next few start to bloom, as do memories of how this sentence ties to sentences I wrote pages before. Typing can work this way, too, but the extra time to lay out the hand-shaped words allows more of that latent understanding to find its way into the light.
Other advantages of writing by hand
- Margins! They’re repositories for all those adjunct thoughts that pop up, as well as for brainstorming word choices or for trailing revisions up the side and across the top with arrows showing the way. The Word comment function just doesn’t provide this same looseness, this same ability to explore all the relationships among ideas and sentences. I star things, circle things, even draw pictures. A handwritten page is a landscape, not a Lego tower.
- A handwritten draft is a real draft! Its impermanence invites the scribbling that calls out inspiration. It never says, “There, finished,” which word-processed pages want to say even when we know they’re wrong.
Of course, my sense that handwriting is better is more a matter of my personal preference than a provable claim. I’m writing this on the screen, will edit it on the screen, as I do most of my blog posts. And these days, I risk not being able to decipher my handwriting if I wait too long to come back.
All the same, if I get stuck when I’m writing, I pick up the pen and the notebook and head for a comfortable chair to recover the slow, free sense of living words that writing in longhand offers. The words just loosen up there.
*Smith, Cheryl Hogue. “”Fractured Reading: Experiencing Students’ Thinking Habits.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47/1 (2019): 22-35.