Whenever I give a talk about writing, one of the questions that comes up is whether I prefer to write longhand or to use the keyboard. When I started writing over thirty years ago, computers were expensive so I used an electric typewriter. Even then, I wrote my first drafts in longhand, as typing wasn’t something I associated with creativity. It was what I did in my day job. Pen to paper was for creative pursuits. My habit was—and still is—to write a first draft in longhand, using a pencil, type it up while making changes, print the draft out, then make more pencil edits.
Since I’m often concerned that I’m not writing quickly enough, I’ve tried over the past three years to write a first draft straight onto the computer. I’ve liked the results, although I still make as many changes as I did with the longhand.approach. Also, I’m one of those people who will write anywhere, and lugging a laptop around doesn’t appeal to me. A pad and pencil is lighter.
Even though writing first drafts and making changes on the screen has become more natural, I’m still drawn to pad and paper, and editing with pencil. There’s always been something about the brain-to-hand-to-paper motion that helps me to slow down and think about what I’m writing rather than just bashing out words on a page.
I didn’t understand why this process works so well until I came across an article in the examiner which discusses studies on the way the brain functions while working with paper compared to keyboards. One of the studies took 65 college students and gave half of them an offline laptop to take notes while the other half were given notebooks. The results showed that although both groups performed equally well on fact recalling, those who’d used laptops scored significantly lower on their conceptual understanding. The researchers suggested that the typers were taking notes verbatim and not processing what they were hearing while the writers were reframing the lecture in their own words and therefore processing the information better.
The article also referenced a 1940s study which suggested that typing essentially robbed the writer of the creative process. The researcher suggested that the word doesn’t pass through the hand while typing but instead appears through a mechanized pressure of the hand and therefore loses something in the translation, so to speak. I think subconsciously, I’ve always believed that, but never actually heard someone express it in that way before. Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of studies that will refute the 1940’s study, but it seems clear that we can’t discount the importance of the brain-to-hand-to-paper function.