What’s the best tool for writing?

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a video about the best tool for writing…

Clive Thompson is a freelance journalist and blogger who writes about digital technologies and their social and cultural impact for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications. He’s also author of the fascinating book Smarter Than You Think.

I just watched a short speech of his (thanks, Vicky!) on the topic, How The Way You Write Changes the Way You Think” and I highly recommend you take 10 minutes to watch it. 

Describing himself as a “pencil fetishist” Thompson declares that the Blackwing pencil is his favourite among many. Furthermore, he recommends the Kum double-long-point sharpener. But the point of his speech isn’t to recommend pencils — it’s to describe when to use them.

Thompson argues that writing notes by hand is vastly superior to taking them on a computer. People who write by hand, scientists say, understand more and remember better. He also notes that writing by hand also works better for what he describes as “big picture thinking,” by which he means planning for articles or stories we want to write. (I think this is why I’ve naturally gravitated towards mindmapping by pencil rather than by using any of the excellent pieces of software developed for it.)

But when it comes to writing, Thompson says, scientists have also shown that typing is vastly superior. This is because our ideas rush along, like cars on a freeway, and typing allows us to keep up better and avoid “bottlenecks.” Most interestingly, he says:

Increase people’s typing speed and you’ll increase the quality of their writing. 

Although this sounds counterintuitive, scientists did exactly that when they took a group of students who didn’t type. Following a writing test, they gave part of the group typing instruction for several weeks and then retested them.

Amazingly, the simple act of knowing how to touch-type improved their writing scores by some 40%.

Concludes Thompson: There’s no such thing as one perfect tool for writing. Instead, it’s important to define exactly what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to absorb information, a pencil is best. If you want to produce it, however, a keyboard is vastly superior.