Write It Sideways

Do Writers Need to Write by Hand?

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.

Leading a discussion at a writing workshop a few summers ago, I fielded a question that struck me first as funny, then as thought-provoking: one participant wanted to know how often I drafted stories and poems by hand.

I stumbled over the answer at first; I hadn’t really thought about it before. I’m in my early thirties, part of a generation that generally can’t imagine giving up computers now, despite clearly remembering life before them. I have boxes full of lengthy handwritten stories I penned as a child, so I know I must have done it at one point, but these days I can barely write a page without my hand cramping.

“Not really,” I answered at first, then paused, realizing notebooks filled with scrawled half-pages still filled my desk at home. “Well, wait. Sometimes.” Considering the question again, I realized that despite my reliance on the computer for writing, I still, reflexively, write by hand too. But only in certain situations. Why, I wondered, did I sometimes ditch my laptop for a pen? And did it ultimately matter?

Does handwriting affect your writing process?

A recent BBC article asked: “Is handwriting still important?” The article mentioned a bill drafted by a North Carolina congresswoman demanding that elementary schools teach penmanship; a linguistics professor meanwhile deemed such instruction “not crucial to their education” as technology displaced handwriting as a communication tool.

The brief article touched on the question of whether or not handwriting is a purely nostalgic skill. My choice to write by hand, or not, went far beyond penmanship and struck at the core of my creative process.

I realized I wrote poem drafts exclusively by hand, typing them only after several revisions, when they felt “done.” Essays and articles happened primarily only on the computer, yet if I wasn’t completely sure how I planned to start and wanted to sketch out an organizational plan for a longer piece prior to writing, I usually started with a pen in my hand rather than with a blank Word document. I felt I’d reached a point where no matter how much of an essay or story I wrote by hand, though, I’d only be able to truly finish writing it on my computer.

The easy quickness of the clacking keys, the way my typing speed matches the pace of thoughts as they come, the “delete” key keeping me from getting mired in unwanted sentences, the cut-and-paste tool helping me easily rearrange and reorganize– I just couldn’t imagine giving up these conveniences.

Not only was typing easier than writing by hand, it had become, for me, necessary to my actual writing process. I couldn’t imagine the patience that, say, Charles Dickens must have had, writing Great Expectations line by line, without even white-out. I realized, logically, that people wrote that way once because they had no other way to write. But what intrigued me was the idea that I honestly didn’t know anymore if I could. Had I evolved—or devolved—into someone who needed the computer for expression, like some kind of extra limb?

I doubted I had the discipline of Wendell Berry, a writer and poet I admired who insisted he would never buy a computer to write. “I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil,” Berry stated, going on to say that he might give computers more respect as soon as anybody writes “work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s” on one.

I admired his point, but despite having written by hand for a couple of decades before growing accustomed to effortless typing, I felt that perhaps my brain had changed, grown dependent on the keyboard and screen. Without my computer, would I even be a writer anymore?

Faced with the question at the workshop, I finally answered that I used the computer to actually write and edit, but that if I needed to think first, I went for the pen and paper. I knew my tendencies wouldn’t apply for everyone, but I still wondered if there was anything to learn from them.

Can handwriting be helpful?

After leaving the workshop and doing a little research (on my computer, of course!) about the effects of handwriting, I learned about some connections between handwriting and cognition.

Citing a study on handwriting and children’s cognitive development, The Huffington Post called writing a “more complicated” task than typing on a keyboard, noting that since it integrates three brain processes—visual, motor, and cognitive—it actually builds brain power.

The Wall Street Journal discussed several studies indicating the importance of handwriting, including one that “highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas.” The physical act of handwriting, the study suggested, “activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”

So perhaps there’s something to my inclination towards brainstorming and organizing by hand. And it follows that poetry, which for me personally requires condensed focus on shaping the right words first rather than free-writing and cutting back or editing later, would also benefit from handwriting.

I’ll never give up writing on my computer, but I did learn fairly recently that I didn’t need to entirely depend on one either. Hospitalized and on bed rest during my second pregnancy, I felt urged to write but didn’t have a computer nearby and moreover, felt strangely tired at the thought of trying to maneuver one into the bed. I was comforted, however, by a small notebook and pen I’d brought, and spent the long hours doing what I used to do before computers came on the scene—writing, scratching out, stopping and thinking, and writing again. It was slower going, but it felt just fine.

The essay I wrote by hand in the hospital will be published in a literary magazine this summer, so I suppose I haven’t completely lost my ability to express my thoughts on actual paper—even if I did edit them later on a computer!

Do you write by hand anymore? If so, when? Does it help or hinder your writing process? Do you believe handwriting is a valuable exercise, or a near-obsolete nostalgic venture?