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The benefits of writing by hand

During the writing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck kept a journal that he wrote in every weekday, using it as a disciplinary tool for finishing the 500-page novel. The now-published diaries offer a peek into the gruelling daily labour behind the famous book’s completion, but they also give insight into the embodied experience of writing, with Steinbeck paying sweet tribute to his favourite writing materials: he expresses affection for his desk, for his “swivel chair that comes to the perfect height,” and, especially, for his “wonderful pen,” of which he’d “never had a better one.” In one poetic passage, he describes the act of handwriting in almost mystical terms, as an experience of spiritual union with his tools:

Here is a strange thing—almost like a secret. You start outputting words down and there are three things—you, the pen, and the page. Then gradually the three things merge until they are all one and you feel about the page as you do about your arm. Only you love it more than you love your arm. 

Steinbeck isn’t the only famous writer to have talked about the physicality of writing, and he’s not the only one to have developed a special relationship with a beloved pen. As writing technology continues to get easier and more intuitive, many modern writers, from Joyce Carol Oates to Neil Gaiman to J.K. Rowling, have remained outspokenly loyal to longhand. So what is it about the humble pen and paper that continue to inspire such writerly devotion? We had a look at some of the science.

It makes us more mindful. In a 1968 study at the Stanford Research Institute, an early, anonymous user of the word processor reported a feeling of liberation from the slow labour of hand- and typewriting. “I feel that I can express myself better,” the person wrote. “I find that I write faster and more freely, pouring thoughts and trial words onto the screen with much less inhibition.” Interestingly, it’s this same seamless efficiency—the ability to write at the speed of thought—that many writers point to in explaining their preference for the greater effort of longhand. Susan Sontag told to the Paris Review that she liked “the slowness of writing by hand,” noting that she wrote “with a felt-tip pen, sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads.” And Steven King, who returned to handwriting as an experiment after years of typing his manuscripts, said in an interview with the same magazine that manual writing seemed to improve the quality of his initial draft, “just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast.”

Studies suggest that there’s something to this sense that we write better when we’re forced by our materials to slow down. In a recent study at the University of Waterloo, researchers found that some aspects of essay composition, such as sophistication of vocabulary, were improved when study participants typed with one hand instead of two, slowing their output down to about the speed of handwriting. The study’s lead author, Srdan Medimorec, suggested that the limitations of pen and paper gave participants more time for cognitive processes like internal word search: “Typing can be too fluent or too fast, and can actually impair the writing process,” he said.

In another recent study, psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that the slow pace of handwriting can improve note-taking, resulting in better comprehension and retention of ideas over time. The study, which compared laptop and longhand note-taking by university students, found that the laptop users did significantly worse than the hand writers on a subsequent test measuring their understanding of the lecture material—and they were still outperformed a week later when both groups had been given a chance to review what they’d written. The researchers noted that while the digital group wrote comparatively more words than longhand one, they seemed to process information more shallowly, with more verbatim overlap between their notes and the lecture. Like in Medimorec’s study, then, it seems that the inefficiency of pen and paper can sometimes be an advantage: in this case, it meant that the hand writers had to make choices, processing information for what was important, and this more active and critical engagement with the material, in turn, resulted in better learning. Interestingly, the researchers saw similar results even when they explicitly told the laptop-using students to avoid taking verbatim notes, suggesting that the impulse toward “mindless transcription” when typing is hard to resist.

Our bodies help us think. A long tradition in western thought sees cognition as an essentially autonomous mental act—a process free from physical laws and “not immediately affected by all parts of the body,” as history’s most famous mind-body dualist, 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes, put it. Science has come a long way since Descartes located the soul in an endocrine gland deep inside the brain, but his view of mentality has proved stubborn: even as we’ve come to understand thinking as a physical act—a neurological event—mainstream psychology has tended to maintain the sharp division of labour between thought and other bodily processes. The idea that our bodies might participate in cognition beyond just their sensory role goes back to at least the late 19th century—to the theories of mind of American pragmatist philosophers like William James and John Dewey—but it’s a relatively new area of scientific research, with findings that are often both surprising and familiar to experience: that walking helps us think, that emotions manifest in the body, that the state of our bodies and surroundings can steer us to different decision-making outcomes.

The idea that our writing technologies change the very act of writing is supported by this broader view of cognition as essentially embodied—the idea that the brain and the body act together as a unified team, influencing one another in profound and sometimes mysterious ways. Given the mounting evidence of this reciprocal dependence, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the more complex sensorimotor act of handwriting engages the brain in a way that typing doesn’t. As psychologist Stanislas Dehaene told The New York Times, the more active participation of the body in handwriting activates different—and more—parts of our brain, and this greater activity seems to contribute to learning:

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”

Educational psychologist Virginia Berninger has suggested for decades that writing technology shapes the way we think, especially in developing brains. In one study, she found that children expressed more and better ideas when writing essays by hand than they did typing. In another, she showed that at the brain level, good and poor child writers differed not only in activation patterns specific to handwriting but also in brain regions involved in executive control and working memory in composition—suggesting that handwriting and composition skills may go hand in hand in children’s development.

It’s easy. Nothing beats the computer for getting words out fast, but the simple pen and notebook are convenient in their own way: we can take them with us anywhere, and their pages are digital distraction-free, with no tempting social media notifications or funny dog compilations. This freedom from the temptations of the internet alone can result in greater productivity and focus.

Of course, there’s no wrong way to write, and each person needs to find the tools that work best for them. For many writers, though, there’s just something about the intimacy of longhand that seems appropriate to the creative and sometimes emotional act of written expression. The choice of writing materials is a personal one constrained by things like comfort, resources, time, and mood, but as novelist Julian Barnes has put it, “[s]ometimes you need your thoughts to go down your arm in what feels like a direct feed via pencil or felt-tip to paper.”

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