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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #33, describing when writing by hand is better than writing by keyboard . The post first ran on Oct. 13/17.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about whether there’s any advantage to writing by hand.
Today I’m answering a question from Chrystal Palaty in Vancouver. Chrystal told me she was a little shy about sending in a video, so she came up with a solution….
[recording] Hi Daphne, My name is Chrystal Palaty from Vancouver BC and my question is: Is it better to type or to handwrite the first draft? I like both approaches and type very fast however several writing books I’ve read suggested there is a hand-brain connection that encourages creativity. Thank you very much! Bye.
Thanks for the question, Chrystal. It makes me reflect back on my own writing history because I came of age during the typewriter. Back in university late in the 1970s, I wrote my 30,000-word honours thesis by hand and then transcribed it on a typewriter. In my mind, the end of carbon paper and white out is only a good thing. Life is so much easier with computers. Before it was impossible to move chunks of text without retyping everything or using vast quantities of scotch tape. Now we can move blocks of text or rearrange our writing with ease.
But many people ask me the question you’ve raised. Despite the EASE of computers, is writing by hand perhaps better for creativity?
There are numerous authors who insisted on writing by hand. Vladimir Nabokov, author of the infamous book Lolita, wrote in pencil using only cue cards so he could rearrange the story elements at a whim. Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood not just by hand, but while he was lying down. And acclaimed musical lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim continues to use Blackwing Pencils on yellow lined notepad paper, with precisely 26 lines. Despite the particular brand of paper being discontinued, he still uses it. He’s told the press he has purchased a lifetime supply.
All of these quirks aside, the question remains, does writing by hand actually make a difference to your creativity? Of course, researchers have looked at this question and here’s what the evidence tells us.
Pencils and paper are indeed better for creativity. But this doesn’t mean you should WRITE with them. Instead, the research says to use them when you’re in the THINKING. Noted engineer and Coursera teacher Dr. Barbara Oakley calls this the “diffuse” stage of writing. She says when you’re in this stage it’s better to work by hand than keyboard.
Paper and pencil are also the best tools for mindmapping, and they’re equally good for doodling or note-taking. Below, I’m including a link to my videos on mindmapping.
But, the research says, when the time comes to write, switch over to your computer. Why? Our brains work very quickly and most people can type a lot faster than they can write by hand. Like Sondheim, I have become a Blackwing pencil fetishist and I’ve spent an unholy sum of money on my own box of pencils and a super duper pencil sharpener. They’ve both been worthwhile investments for when I’m THINKING about what I want to write. But when I’m actually writing, I always rely on my keyboard.
I type quickly — about 85 words per minute — which is a whole lot faster than I can write by hand. Another benefit: My typing is always readable whereas my handwriting usually is not!
Be aware, if you’ve never developed the practice of writing on a keyboard, it may take you awhile to adjust. Back in 1984, when I started working at a daily newspaper and made the switch to a keyboard, I found it hard for about two months. I almost felt as though part of my brain was missing. As soon as I got through those two months, however, I found writing so much easier and better than before. I think the same will happen for you.
In some ways, I think my answer suggests you get to have your cake AND eat it, too. Use a pencil for thinking and planning. And use a keyboard for the actual writing.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the writer Clive Thompson, another pencil fetishist who also writes by typing: “Think of the ideas in your head as rushing along and you’re trying to transcribe them onto the page. The faster you can type, the less likely it is that words and ideas will escape and get away from you.”
Thanks for your question, Chrystal. See you next week.
What’s the best tool for writing?
The case against outlining (why mindmapping is better)
Are you making any of these mindmapping mistakes?