Writing by Hand and How the Internet Has Changed the Way We Write

February 27, 2019

I used to keep handwritten journals, the pages scrawled with smudged pencil and later, black or blue ink. I never went anywhere without a spiral bound notebook in college, opting to struggle through deciphering my messy handwriting back in my dorm room rather than lugging my heavy laptop to class. It just felt so much simpler.

Little did I realize that my old school habits were also giving me a leg up on my tech-savvy classmates. According to several experiments, handwriting your notes may actually aid in the retention of those facts and concepts and give you a deeper understanding of the material you’re madly scribbling onto the page. Why? Because you write slower by hand than you type, forcing you to digest, synthesize, and summarize a lecture in your own words rather than typing it out verbatim.

There’s also, of course, the distraction factor. With a notebook, it’s just you, the pen, and the paper. No email, no social media, no news sites or blogs an easy click away. In fact, I’m typing this now on my laptop with 20+ tabs open and it’s taking all my willpower just to keep my focus on the glowing page in front of me. I can also see the time (5:05pm - almost time to start making dinner … ) and my iCal app shouts out the date (Feb 26 - how is it almost March??), making me think I should just take one quick minute to double check I’ve done everything on the calendar for today and that I’m ready for tomorrow’s tasks.

How over-editing can kill our best work

The distractions are endless, but that’s just the start. On my laptop, I can instantly delete, rewrite, look up words, and reorganize entire sentences and paragraphs. It takes conscious effort to let myself write without editing. And writing everything down, the good and the bad, the spelling errors and the horrible sentence structure, is important in a first draft. It helps you through your thought process and to get your ideas onto paper (so to speak) as quickly as possible before they slip away.

Then there's email and text. The predictive nature of both narrows our communication to a limited number of canned replies. How might these shortcuts over time dull our creative faculties, leading us to opt for tired, expected language void of personality and startling turns of phrase? 

Often, when I allow myself time to write using the stream of consciousness technique, my best insights come out. I write clever, searing sentences with personality and energy that gets lost when I’m overthinking every word that flows from my brain to my fingers to the screen. 

The habit of deleting and rewriting, however, is almost second nature with a keyboard. It’s a hard habit to break. This is why I love the simple advice of Tim Parks in his article about how screens have changed the way we write: Turn off the Wi-Fi and give yourself time with just a paper and pen.

Could a paper and pen improve your writing?

What would happen if you wrote everything down on paper first? How might your writing shift and develop? Would your writing process change? Would you enjoy it more or less? Perhaps you’d be inspired to write for longer periods of uninterrupted time. Maybe, just maybe, you would produce your best, most innovative material. I’m not sure of any of this, but I think it’s worth pondering and worth an experiment for anyone who uses writing in their work.

Here’s my challenge to you: Write your next piece of content entirely by hand in an old fashioned paper notebook. Grab your favorite pen, sit down at a well-lit desk with a steaming mug of coffee or tea and set a timer for 30 minutes. Then write and don’t stop until the timer dings. Keep going if you get into a good flow. Once your hands start cramping up, lay down your pen, switch off the light and walk away. Give your writing some space. Let it sit overnight if you can, or at least give it an hour before you come back to it with a critical eye.

This breathing time will let you see your writing with fresh eyes and less judgement. You might find that it’s all complete blather but you also might discover some jewels of wisdom and clever turns of phrase that surprise you. Does your writing have a slightly different tone than you expected? Did the process feel less forced, perhaps less intimidating than usual?

Have we lost something by giving up the art of writing by hand?

There’s no wrong answer. But it’s worth asking ourselves, have we lost something by giving up the art of writing by hand? How has it changed not only the way we write, but how we read and engage with others’ writing? Obviously the fact that we can instantly comment on and share every piece of content we come across online is a new development that’s changed the way we interact with content. But, how has it changed the cadence of our writing, our vocabulary, and the length of a paragraph or a sentence? And are these changes confined to online channels or are they seeping into the world of print as well?

I, for one, am going to hold onto my pen and notebook and make a concerted effort to write more by hand. The effort to resist change may be futile, but we can preserve the ability to write in its purest form by choosing to every now and then walk away from our screens and spend some quality alone time with our wild, uncensored, internet-free thoughts.

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