In the age of keyboards, blogs, Microsoft Word, and even turning in assignments online, we have fewer and fewer reasons to write things out by hand anymore. Even little notes and memos are more often kept on our phones than on scrap sheets of paper. After all, it’s faster.
This isn’t an intrinsically bad thing. But for dedicated writers, the loss of writing by hand comes at a cost. There are still good reasons to write by hand, at least every once in a while. Here are the three big ones:
In the course of researching memory for a separate project, I discovered that apparently writing notes by hand tends to result in better recollection than typing them on a computer. Most of the researchers cite the verbatim manner in which typed notes are usually taken as the most likely reason that hand-writing is better. Pen and pencil users usually have to reframe the concepts in their own words because there simply isn’t enough time to hand-write what a lecturer is saying in full, and as a result, they seem to retain a better conceptual sense of the content.
It is also possible that hand-writing might tap into our primarily visual episodic memory, rather than just our visual memory. Typing is a task of inputting a fairly undifferentiated sequence of symbols onto a screen. By contrast, there is something more holistic and artistic — something more viscerally visual — about drawing out each letter yourself. Cicero spoke about the “memory palace” technique for remembering semantic information by converting it into visual information — in his case, using visual mnemonic cues placed in an imaginary house — to better remember the sequence and contents of a presentation. Given the semantic and visual nature of handwriting, as opposed to the more purely semantic nature of typing, it seems possible that handwriting is simply more cognitively engaging than typing.
But beyond the content of handwriting and its visual nature, there is also a physical element to handwriting that not only changes our ability to remember, but also the style in which we are likely to write. Many writers, from Orwell to Steven Pinker, have complained or at least attempted to help ameliorate the tendency of modern writing to become longer and more complicated than necessary. My guess is that for the same reason that digital note-takers tend to transcribe verbatim, most writers write longer and more complicated sentences than necessary: because they can.
When you’re typing, the words just flow, in a stream-of-consciousness approximating the speed of thought. Run-on sentences, Greek and Latinate verbiage, layered clauses, and incomplete clauses are easier to type — especially when you’re in “the zone” — than they are to painstakingly write out by hand. The process is simply slower. Because of the reduced speed, you may be more likely to catch or rethink stylistic errors than when your fingers are flying away with your thoughts.
I’ve been reading a book about Cræft (the Anglo-Saxxon for “craft”), and what the author describes the term to mean is an undefinable skill, a “cunning” or “craftiness” that comes from a sort of independence from our tools, rather than an accumulation of tools which make our job easier. From my own experience in construction, it’s a known expression that what makes a master carpenter is his ability to do the same work with any variety of tools. He is a master of the tools of his trade, but he is not dependent upon any one of them.
There is also a connotation of physicality to the word “cræft,” a knowledge of our own body and the appropriate, controlled direction of its power. Writing by hand literally develops the endurance for writing longer, in this physical capacity, but it also teaches us how to write without constantly checking the internet for sources, ideas, turns of phrase, or — every writer’s favorite — synonyms. In other words, writing by hand assists the writer in developing his craft as a writer by removing the digital crutch offered by the world-wide web. The pen makes for a more skillful and competent constructor of sentences than a keyboard.
There are certainly benefits for the writer to be able to type, on a word-processor or on the web. Logistically and practically, it is probably a bad idea to abandon these tools entirely — like a carpenter trying to avoid using compound miter-saws in favor of a good old-fashion pull-saw. Nevertheless, the writer is still missing out on something if he neglects the practice of writing by hand. Over time, this neglect it may negatively affect the concepts, coherence, and craft of their written work.
For these reasons, it may be a good idea to keep a journal, or else, to set some time aside every day to write, if only for a few minutes.