On Writing Longhand

Over the past three years, one of the most signficant changes I’ve made in my writing habits has been to return to drafting in longhand. For me, this makes a huge qualitative difference both in my experience of the writing process (making it far more pleasurable and reflective) and in the writing I produce. I don’t draft everything by hand: most of my email, administrative memos, and short blog posts still get composed on the computer. But for more serious writing — by which I mean deeply reflective and/or analytical writing — I prefer to write my first draft with pen and paper. Even if it’s not something you want to take up as a regular practice, sometimes a radical change in your composing tools can help you gain new perspective on your writing process.

Two things led me to try this out. First, my fondest memories of writing were all linked to my days as a university student, when I wrote and revised all my essays in longhand before typing a final copy on an electric typewriter I’d received as my “going off to college” gift. (Yup, I’m that old.) It was only midway through graduate school that I began composing directly at the keyboard, usually under significant deadline pressure. I felt then and throughout my early years as junior faculty that I couldn’t possibly take the time to write longhand, even though I suspected that my output might be better using different methods. Once I’d achieved tenure, I knew I could begin experimenting with my writing process in more radical ways.

Secondly, I heard one of my favorite contemporary authors, Richard Powers, speaking about his writing process for The Echo Maker. As he explains in this essay in the New York Times, he has completely given up the keyboard in favor of using voice dictation software. At the lecture I attended, he explained that he  felt that the spatial control required for typing used up cognitive power that could be better put to use for composing rather than the mechanics of writing. This made a lot of sense to me — especially since, unlike a piano keyboard, for example, the spatial arrangement of the keys doesn’t directly correspond to the output.

So I began going back to longhand. When I draft in longhand, I feel that my writing is more closely connected to my thought process, both in pace and in content. I think better. I’m able to work through an idea without worrying about the next one. I revise differently, tending to write much longer sections through completely before doing any revisions at all. This gives me a different perspective on the essay and means that I progress more easily through the draft.

It’s more enjoyable to sit in my armchair with my favorite pen and a stack of blank paper on my clipboard than to sit at my computer and resist the lure of the internet. Although I’m primarily a visual learner, the tactile experience of writing longhand eases me into the flow of argument in a way that the blank screen and blinking cursor never do. If I’m stuck, it’s easier to just start writing something, anything, by hand. Seeing it look like type on the screen gives it a finality that is sometimes intimidating. In longhand, I know it’s just a draft.

The transcription process serves as a gentle revision process, a chance to reacquaint myself with what I was thinking about a week ago, or a month ago when I wrote the draft. I like to leave enough time in between the initial draft and transcribing it to computer so that it feels a bit unfamiliar, giving me room for better critique.

Sure, these preferences might simply be due to the fact that I spent almost 20 years writing longhand before I ever started composing at the keyboard. But there might be some neurological factors as well. Some neuroscientists suggest that the physical act of writing activates the brain differently than pushing keys on a keyboard, perhaps because of the shapes of the letters. Writing also helps bring key information to the forefront of the brain’s filters. One study that compared people composing longhand and by keyboard revealed significant differences in the timing of the revision process. They also found that participants changed their writing style when moving from one mode to the other — but not necessarily in the same ways. These studies and other recent work about how our brains adapt to the demands of the new media environment raise interesting avenues for research with future generations more familiar with keyboards from the very beginnings of their literacy.

Writing longhand helps me think; it might not for you. But it certainly might be worth experimenting a bit.

How about you? Do you ever draft in longhand? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Kristian D.]

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