Essays

High Wire Act: Why I Started Writing By Hand

By posted at 6:00 am on April 11, 2012 35

This essay is the first piece of writing I’ve done by hand, start to finish, since 5th grade, 1992. I drafted it using a Uniball Signo pen and black notebook while sitting at my desk. I edited it in the same way. When it came time to enter the essay into the computer so that it could appear on this website, I typed it in almost exactly as I’d put it down on paper.

I had several reasons for wanting to write by hand. The first is that I don’t have positive associations with writing on the computer. In fact, just thinking about a blank Word document makes me sweat. At the same time, switching from the computer to my notebook might do little more than prove the adage my dad likes to quote: Wherever you go, there you are.

But I think there are legitimate reasons to believe that writing by hand might be a better kind of process. I compose bits of essays in my head during a great percentage of my idle brain time — when I’m running or brushing my teeth or trying to fall asleep. I’ve noticed that the writing I compose in my head usually feels more fluid and articulate than what comes out when I sit down at my computer and try to translate those thoughts into typed words.

Now, there’s reason to be skeptical of the quality of the “writing” I do while lying with my head on a pillow and the lights out. We’ve all had the experience of having brilliant insights when we’re half-awake, only to emerge into the light of day and realize that our midnight ideas seemed brilliant only because the side of our brains that knows the difference between crappy writing and not-quite-as-crappy writing was turned off.

This is the first piece I’ve written start to finish by hand, but I’ve done a lot of drafting by hand over the past year. In that time I’ve noticed that both the experience of writing and the end product are different depending on whether I use a computer or a pen.

When I write by hand the correlation between the thoughts in my head and what ends up on the page is a lot closer to 1:1. This is good in one sense: When I write by hand the process doesn’t prevent me from putting into words what I already know. It might be bad in another sense: My ideas as they come straight out of my head aren’t necessarily my best ideas; it’s possible that all the reconfiguring I do on the computer produces more sophisticated thoughts and better forms of expression. I don’t know.

Writing by hand also alters the relationship between forming a thought and recording it in words. When I write by hand I almost always form a complete sentence in my head before I write it down. When I write on the computer I tend to start typing at the onset of an idea or a sentence that I then figure out how to complete during the process of recording it.

Put another way, my process for writing sentences by hand looks like this:

THINK THINK THINK THINK WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE

Whereas my process for writing sentences on the computer looks like this:

THINK WRITE THINK DELETE THINK WRITE THINK DELETE THINK WRITE

I find my thoughts come out cleaner by the former process. Whether they come out better is a different and still unsettled question.

The different process leads to a different product. When I write by hand I use simpler words. In the last year I’ve typed essays that have included the words “garrulous,” “neophyte,” and “bivouacked.” When I’m walking and thinking I never use those words. Instead of “garrulous” I think “talkative” or “annoying sonofabitch.” Instead of “neophyte” I think “inexperienced.” My word choice tends to be simpler; my sentences also tend to be shorter. Because I hold a complete thought in my head before I write it down, my complete thoughts are briefer.

At the same time, writing by hand produces some flourishes that writing on the computer does not. When I write by hand I’m more intent on following the thought-track in my head. The whole process is slower, which allows me to notice detours in my thinking. That bit in the last paragraph about “garrulous” and “neophyte” is an example of one such detour. I’m almost positive that it never would have occurred to me to write that if I’d been working on the computer. Or if it had occurred to me, it’s a fair bet I would have ended up deleting it on the grounds that the detour was more interesting to me than to anyone else. You can be the judge of that.

I haven’t come up with a way to fit this thought into the rest of the piece but I wanted to include it anyway. This desire is an example of how writing by hand can be more self-indulgent than writing on the computer. Anyway, here’s the thought: Writing by hand takes more of your brain’s RAM than writing on the computer does.

I find writing by hand to be a lower pulse-rate activity than writing on the computer. Writing on the computer feels like going to war with myself. Consider, for example, that in the process of writing this essay I’ve crossed out exactly 47 words (and half of those were in one ill-considered sentence back in the sixth paragraph). If I’d been writing this on the computer the carnage would have been 10-times as severe.

Of course, easier processes almost always produce inferior results. Thus there’s considerable reason to be skeptical of writing by hand, at least if its only bona fide is that it’s less likely to give me a heart attack.

Overall I think there’s greater variance in the quality of the writing I produce by hand. The good stuff I write is cleaner, more honest, less stylized, more well-considered. The bad stuff is more obvious, more ponderous, more self-involved, maybe weirder. In fact, this is definitely one of the weirdest pieces I’ve ever written. Writing on the computer drives my writing towards some average value — I think/write/delete/think/write until I have something that’s decent but maybe less vibrant than the ideas as they were conceived in my head.

Writing by hand is higher risk, higher reward. More than writing on the computer, it’s a skill in its own right that can be improved upon, which I intend to try and do.
Image courtesy the author





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35 Responses to “High Wire Act: Why I Started Writing By Hand”

  1. Existentia
    at 7:40 am on April 11, 2012

    Another benefit is that when I write by hand, there’s no temptation to fiddle with the page margin sizes or font. I don’t switch to another window to look for more suitable background music. There are no brightness or color saturation controls to tweak until the work area looks “just right”.

  2. Margi
    at 8:11 am on April 11, 2012

    Think of great literature written hundreds of years ago. Those authors wrote by hand and we’re still reading their books today.

    My friend passed along this essay and I’m glad I read it–keep up the writing by hand. (By the by, I wrote this comment directly on my computer. It might have been more interesting if I wrote it by hand, but I have to leave for work in a minute. ;) )

  3. Joe
    at 10:02 am on April 11, 2012

    Thanks for this essay. I always wrote journals by hand in college and never strayed from it as I got into fiction and poetry. Someone early on in my writing life told me studies had been done where writing by hand created 20 percent more brain activity. Something like that. Aside from this, though, I find the computer difficult to look at for too long (especially after looking at it all day at work), and writing by hand feels like meditation, especially in the early morning or late at night.

  4. Maija
    at 11:20 am on April 11, 2012

    Two benefits from writing by hand that weren’t noted. First, the crossed-out words are still visible, and available for inspiration (they came from somewhere, didn’t they?), unlike deletions on the computer, which are gone forever. Second, the juicy visual placement of words on the page — those insertions that scale the right-hand margin, in the tiniest font, their smallness somehow related to their urgency.

    I like to write first drafts by hand and then put the handwritten paper on my copy stand while I type the second draft. A triangle forms between the paper, the screen, and my mind, and there’s energy there.

  5. Nic Boshart
    at 11:36 am on April 11, 2012

    Even as someone heavily immersed in digital publishing, I think writing by hand makes a lot of sense. It imposes another level of editorial where you are probably more closely reading the piece than you would had you first typed it out.

  6. Denise
    at 2:03 pm on April 11, 2012

    Here I thought I was the only one with this problem. I always find that I start my written work by writing it by hand or I do all of it by hand first before entering it on the computer. For some reason, when I look at a blank screen I can’t seem to get anything out. I feel the slower pace of writing allows me to process my thoughts before I get them out, while when I type everything moves so fast that I don’t get to process it all as thoroughly as I hope. So I find myself stopping to think about what I was trying to write, and it all goes downhill from there.

    I also find I become distracted with the formatting and the misspelled words underlined in red, and the spacing, and the periods and the…you get my drift. It could be a matter of conditioning. Most people currently in their late 20′s and above were taught to write out their rough draft first and then type their final copy on the computer. It is possible that going to the computer first to type your first draft still feels foreign or not natural. Some theorizing…great post!

  7. Anthony Haynes
    at 2:30 pm on April 11, 2012

    Am certainly in sympathy with this. Last year I went to a specialist pen shop and said, “This is how I hold a pen, this is how I write: what’s the best pen for me?” They sold me a fountain pen for £16 (approx $25) and it’s turned out to be one of best productivity aids. Overall, I don’t think it’s ‘handwriting good, word-processing bad’ – it’s more a case of the two technologies each having their own strengths and uses.

  8. Barnstorm | Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 3:14 pm on April 11, 2012

    [...] Millions has an essay by Kevin Hartnett about writing by hand. Check back next week for my essay on writing by foot. YOUR MOVE, [...]

  9. Manoj
    at 3:46 pm on April 11, 2012

    I guess it is more of a personal choice. I don’t exactly agree that your brain is stimulated better when in front of paper – depends on how you train your brain.

    I prefer writing when I’m composing something big needing footnotes, to-dos, etc. However, while blogging or writing one-page articles, I do prefer typing. Basically, if something ends up typed (soon after), why write first? Especially, if it needs online research.

    It is just a choice.

  10. Writing by hand | morris.wm
    at 8:22 pm on April 11, 2012

    [...] The Millions : High Wire Act: Why I Started Writing By Hand. [...]

  11. Tony Acree
    at 11:20 pm on April 11, 2012

    I enjoyed the essay very much. The biggest draw back writing by hand for me is my penmanship. I have found that I try to write as fast as I think, and therefore the quality of my penmanship gets kicked down the rabbit hole with Alice and strange things along with it. I had a professor in college give me an A on a term paper with a note saying, “If the half of the paper I could not read is of the same quality of the half I could make out, you did very well. Slow down!” Perhaps I should try again slowing down my brain, or at least my writing speed.

  12. Amber Paulen
    at 5:24 am on April 12, 2012

    Great essay! I also have often thought about the differences and benefits between methods of writing. I prefer to draft on my typewriter and up until a year ago I even wrote blog posts and articles there that would eventually see light on the computer screen. But that took a lot of time. Besides from my more personal work, I use the typewriter when I have to work out a problem in my writing, the kinks seem to untie more easily—I think there is more space for my thoughts to flow. I love the tangibility and that my fingers get inky.

  13. elle
    at 10:19 am on April 12, 2012

    There is a certain pleasure in the act of writing with a good instrument and the right sized notebook and quality of paper. Positive associations that can only serve to make the process more enjoyable.

  14. Robert Detman
    at 10:50 am on April 12, 2012

    I only write by hand–at least the things that I’m trying to make count–unless I’m in a hurry, which usually doesn’t bode well for the writing anyway. But there’s also something to the process of allowing yourself to get it all down on the page without pre-editing as you compose. The real editing comes through in the drafting and re-drafting, I think, which is a process of taking the typed up copy and writing all over it about seventeen times. Ultimately, the computer is a tool for translating the work to a readable format.

    Come to think of it, I don’t really like reading words on a screen, either, so call me a luddite.

    So, yes, it does take more time, but what’s the hurry? Ars longa, vita brevis (I did have to look that up, one of the benefits of typing on a laptop.)

  15. Angela
    at 3:28 am on April 14, 2012

    I really enjoyed this essay. In a writing courses several years back, my instructor made the point that …”to backspace is to interrupt the natural flow”. Well, I believe that, and have developed a habit never to do it.

    This is not to say that I think it’s better to write- at least, to create- with some sort of word processor. Quite the opposite, I value the pen and paper- or graphite pencil, or colored pencils and or inks- yes, I really value the essence of the hand-to-paper experience.

    My problem with hand-to-paper when dealing with words is that I become so frustrated with not being able to write quickly enough. Everything tends to become such scribble, and then there’s the re-write- at which point I am thankful for modern word processing.

    Not to suggest that I’ve devalued the other- on the contrary, I’ve decided it should be better training for me to dedicate more time to handwritten story telling. Not only this, but to dedicate myself to doing it deliberately enough so that it remain very neat in hand. Forcing my mind to slow this way while constructing may eventually lead to more good surprises.

  16. Laura Lee
    at 10:16 am on April 15, 2012

    RE: “Think of great literature written hundreds of years ago. Those authors wrote by hand and we’re still reading their books today. ”

    Actually, there is very little of what was written hundreds of years ago that we’re still reading today. So you could also make the case that writing by hand produces ephemeral creations that are doomed to disappear.

    For some processes I find writing on the computer more useful and for other processes writing in long hand. It’s just a matter of the right tool for the right job.

  17. Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog
    at 2:05 pm on April 15, 2012

    [...] Reasons to write by hand. [...]

  18. Evelyn Walsh
    at 11:02 pm on April 15, 2012

    I’m part of the last generation to have written its first fiction on the typewriter. The beauty of that process — as with handwriting–was how it slowed you down and made you more familiar with your work, its scale and iterations. I find it hard to have that sense of familiarity with a screen and the virtual pages lurking behind the current page you’re typing on at any given moment. For the most part I treat the laptop as a typewriter, printing out pages for review, making multiple versions of everything, editing by hand. I often find that when I’m really stuck with a passage it pays to write it out by hand. It must engage your mind and imagination in a way that the computer does not. I also have the need to spread pages all over the floor when really grappling with a work as a whole or in pieces.

  19. Egypt Steve
    at 9:20 am on April 16, 2012

    neophyte: three syllables.
    inexperienced: five syllables.

    Garrulous: three syllables
    Annoying son of a bitch: seven syllables.

  20. Ramsay Breslin
    at 10:47 am on April 16, 2012

    I have a question: Do you think your writing by hand makes your prose more embodied? And if so, how would that manifest itself?

  21. Kevin Hartnett
    at 11:58 am on April 16, 2012

    Can you explain what you mean by embodied?

  22. The beginning… « Novel Telegraphy
    at 1:47 pm on April 16, 2012

    [...] See Kevin Hartnett at The Millions for an interesting personal essay about his switch from computer-processed writing to handwriting. [...]

  23. Dave
    at 6:39 pm on April 16, 2012

    As Egypt Steve mentioned…. not one of your examples for words chosen due to writing by hand is actually shorter than the computer-written words.

  24. Flavorwire » What’s On at Flavorpill: The Links That Made the Rounds In Our Office
    at 9:00 pm on April 16, 2012

    [...] We saw a few illustrations that predicted laptops and wireless communication. We read a case for writing things by hand. We watched Bill Plympton’s recreation of The Simpsons’ couch gag. We met our new robot [...]

  25. This essay is the first piece of writing I’ve done by hand, start to finish, since 5th grade | RC Gale
    at 9:07 am on April 17, 2012

    [...] I write both by hand and on the computer I found this essay appealing. Kevin Hartnett (whose image I include–the actual image of the essay) writes the entire essay [...]

  26. matthew bowen
    at 8:14 pm on April 17, 2012

    Bravo! I for one would write by hand other than for the problem of not being able to decipher it afterward (a genetic flaw in the basal ganglia).

  27. aging lit major
    at 10:01 am on April 18, 2012

    I am ancient enough to have attended college several years before personal computers were conceived for 99% of the population, to have had a penmanship teacher visit my first grade and teach us how to print and write cursive properly, putting us through gymnastic exercises to combat writer’s cramp and promote muscular development. So, writing by hand is not alien to me and it is how I have kept book and cooking journals for the past 35 years. It is how I begin the process of all writing, but it is not how I finish: word processing promotes faster, tighter editing. Despite the journaling, my penmanship has deteriorated to the point that personal letters are best generated on the computer if they are to be comprehended by the recipient. But in the end, writing by hand creates an irreproducible bond with thought and words that binds them to memory, and that’s why we should all keep at it some way.

  28. Johanna van Zanten
    at 10:58 am on April 18, 2012

    hi,
    Well said. Intreated writing long hand for all of those reasons, but reverted back to the computer after the first draft of my short story collection. It just is too cumbersome to have it later all converted to a digital file.
    Thanks for the article.
    Johanna van Zanten

  29. Ms. Jane
    at 11:15 pm on April 18, 2012

    I loved this article. Thank you for sharing! I have been thinking the same thing for years, but thought it was my imagination until reading this. What a relief.

    If so many great works were written by hand, the only gadgets we still need are pen and paper. Nothing else.

    And to that I say just one word: Amen.

  30. Shelley
    at 11:44 am on April 19, 2012

    If you don’t handwrite it first, then you miss out on the jolt of moving it into type.

    Writers need that jolt.

    We need all the jolts we can get.

  31. Ramsay Bell Breslin
    at 11:13 am on April 29, 2012

    On 4/16 I asked if you thought your handwritten prose was more embodied and if so, how would that manifest itself? You then asked what I meant by “embodied prose.” To me ep is less abstract, more concrete; it appeals to our senses with descriptive images that evoke touch, taste, smell; it can be intensely visual but also visceral; nouns can literally refer to the body; action verbs can physicalize experience. Sports writing falls into this category; ditto fiction and reviews that require bringing experiences to life. Embodied prose can also be poetic; e.g., he punched her in the arm until her mind turned blue. To these questions let me add another: You have said that the relative slowness of handwriting seems to produce writing that is simpler and more direct. I’m also wondering if writing by hand gives you more direct access to your thoughts and feelings—for better and for worse—because there is no digital interface to distance you from your material. By distancing I refer to your editing your sentences before you complete them. Your article made me wonder if the body’s processes could be argued to be more efficient/economical than our speedy, time-saving computers.

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  33. #50 Skin a Cat: Keeping a Journal | thethingaboutflying
    at 6:04 am on November 22, 2012

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  34. Hand writing | eric.r.shelton
    at 5:29 pm on February 19, 2013

    [...] way that can be applied elsewhere. I honestly feel longhand writing improves cognitive function. This essay mentions what I’m talking [...]

  35. Sam
    at 3:13 pm on January 17, 2014

    Great article! I just have 2 suggestions. The first is to use draftin.com as it is amazing for writers who want to write without having the need to delete words. The website also saves drafts of your work so you can compare your work. Also it is free. Second suggestion is to use a program like Dark Room to have a distraction free writing environment set up. It can be downloaded from cnet and is free. I use both to write and it has helped me very much when I write. I no longer need paper and pens.

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