Monday, August 11, 2014

Writing Longhand vs Typing: Does it Make a Difference?

Which do you prefer: writing longhand with a pen (or pencil) on paper or typing on a keyboard/electronic device? This is the question I posed to our TeachingAuthors for the series of posts I'm kicking off today. As I considered my own answer, I found some interesting information on how our writing tools may affect our creativity.

I was about twelve or thirteen when I first started writing for myself (as opposed to for school assignments). Back then, the only alternative I had to writing longhand was a manual typewriter on which I could eek out maybe 10-15 words per minute. So longhand it was. I wrote poetry, journaled, and did all my school assignments in longhand. When necessary, I then transcribed my written words to the printed page via my beautiful blue Smith Corona.

cropped version of photo by mpclemens, per CC rights 
By the time I started working as a freelance writer (MANY years later), personal computers had arrived on the scene. And I'd learned to type MUCH faster. So, for the sake of efficiency, I adapted my writing process to compose directly at the keyboard (as I'm doing with this blog post), but only for the nonfiction pieces I wrote for newspapers and magazines. For my "creative" writing--journals, poetry, short stories and my first novel--I stuck with longhand.

Then came graduate school, with its requirement of forty typed pages of writing per month. Once again, I adapted. I sat pounding out fiction--first short stories, then novel chapters--directly at the keyboard. For the most part, that worked fine. But every so often, I'd get stuck. I couldn't find the right words, or the words didn't have the right rhythm, or I couldn't get the feelings to come across on the page. I'd sit staring at the blinking cursor, my fingers frozen on the keys.

That's when I'd go make another cup of tea. Or stretch. Or take a walk. Sometimes that helped. But not always.

One day, while working on Rosa, Sola, I got the idea to take up a pen and write out a question for Rosa, my main character. I asked her what she was feeling in the particular scene I was working on. Then I closed my eyes and tried to imagine I was in Rosa's shoes at that moment. I opened my eyes and wrote the answer to the question, longhand, from Rosa's point of view. I was amazed at the words that flowed from my pen. They not only gave me insight into Rosa and her feelings, but also ideas for what would happen next in the story.

From then on, whenever I got stuck, no matter what I was writing, I turned to paper and pen. And almost every time, the writing was better than what I'd struggled to generate via the keyboard.

I decided to research why for this blog post. Chris Gayomali's Mentalfloss article "4 Benefits of Writing by Hand," like most of the other articles I found, says writing longhand makes you a better writer mainly because it slows you down. I think there's more to it than that. Otherwise, I could get the same benefits if I just typed slowly. But that doesn't help me at all.

I suspected that the difference really has something to do with how the physical act of putting pen to paper affects the creative side of our brain, our "right brain." Typing, on the other hand, seems to involve more of our logical left-brain.

Researching further, I found a Paris Review interview with poet and author Ted Hughes in which he said:
In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.
This explanation rings truer for me than the "slower is better" theory. What do you think? I'd love if you'd let us know in the comments.

But first, you may want to also read Kelly Barson's fascinating article "Writing from Both Sides of the Brain" in the Hunger Mountain journal. Just make sure to come back here when you're done!

Okay, so if you read Barson's article, you know it includes several references to Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way (Tarcher). Cameron also recommends writing longhand, at least for "Morning Pages." As it happens, I'm currently preparing to teach a new 12-week workshop on The Artist's Way at the College of DuPage that will begin at the end of the month. This Wednesday, August 13, I'll be presenting a free Lunch Break Lecture giving potential students a "taste of" the workshop. If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us. Check my website for details.

And if you haven't already done so, don't forget to enter our current giveaway for a chance to win the historical middle-grade novel Odin's Promise (Crispin Press) by Sandy Brehl. See JoAnn's post for all the details.

Happy writing!


  1. Dear Carmela,
    Thank you for this very interesting post. I love the bit by Ted Hughes and the connection between writing and drawing. I think of Lewis Carroll's beautiful handwritten letters with drawings interspersed and his own drawings for Alice. I was working on a picture book and I couldn't get it right until I made a little booklet and hand-wrote it, then edited it as I typed it into the computer.

  2. I hand-write all my manuscripts. There's just something that works better for me, putting a pencil to paper before I type in the manuscript.

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  4. Hi Caroline, yes, I was intrigued by what Ted Hughes said. Thanks for sharing about your process.
    Sherry, you use pencil? I find pencil fades and smudges too much for me. I do better with pen myself. But as you say, everyone has to find what works best for himself/herself. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hi Marti, Interesting post! I am a hard-core keyboarder, though I write in hand when I must. More on that in my post Friday:>)

  6. Carmela ~ I wish lived closer--I'd take your class!


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