Writing by Hand versus Keyboard

“Is it better to write by hand or on the keyboard?” 

This question comes up at the beginning of every class I teach.

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell them. Today I expand with a bit of advice. “Do whatever you’re most comfortable with. But even if you prefer a keyboard, writing by hand at least part of the time can prime your creative pump.” This advice comes from a combination of personal experience and science.

In my experience teaching, I’ve noticed that a few students routinely write terse, dry little stories that do little beyond stating a few facts. Unlike most in the class, their skill level does not seem to improve.

A woman I’ll call Alice is typical of these students. While most students are challenged to stick to one-and-a-half page limit for assigned stories, Alice’s stories were never longer than half a page. Although this was technically against the rules, she always spent longer explaining the story in class than reading it. In contrast to written versions, her oral stories were rich and intriguing and we encouraged her to include all those extra elements in the written story.

Alice was not discouraged. Though her stories never expanded, she did keep coming to class and plodding along with her writing. In that respect she was a fine example of my strong belief that any bit of personal history that you write and share will eventually be treasured by family members, though perhaps not right away.

One day as I looked at her typos and awkward formatting, I had an idea. “Alice, do you type easily and well?” I asked her privately after class. Sure enough, she was a hunt-and-peck typist. “Do you write your stories by hand first, or start them on the computer?”

“Oh, I start out right away on the computer. I don’t want to have to do all that extra work to type them later.”

I asked her to write her story by hand the next week. She could bring the hand-written copy to class, or type it in when she was finished. Sure enough, the next week her tantalizing story thrilled the class. Alice floated out of class that day on a cloud of praise for her new writing style, and her skills continued to progress from there.

My hunch had been that she was so focused on finding letters on the keyboard that she lost track of her story as she wrote, and most of it got lost until she came to class when it began flooding in again. She agreed that was the case. From then on, she wrote by hand first and typed the stories in later.

A couple of years later I learned the science that explains this difference, and it should give all of us an incentive to pick up pen and paper now and then. Generally speaking, you use different brain centers when sliding pen over paper compared to tapping away on the keyboard. Muscle control is different. Tactile sensations vary. Keyboards make sounds, and visual input is different.

As I recall, brain researchers have found that writing on paper uses a wider array of brain centers, engaging differently with memory and visions. Keyboard input may be more focused, coming from a single center, perhaps the frontal lobe.

Back to personal experience, I’ve found that I’m almost unable to make lists on a keyboard. I need pencil and paper for that. Likewise, if I’m having trouble starting a story, I can always start writing on paper. Soon enough the story concept starts to clear and I grow impatient with paper, so I switch to a keyboard. If I get stuck in the middle of a story, I stop, ask myself what am I trying to say and answer that question. Then the story flows again.

So which is better, writing by hand or keyboard? Both and neither.

Points to Ponder: How comfortable are you on the keyboard? If you still think of each letter as you type, definitely try writing by hand. Even if you do write well on the keyboard, try writing by hand. You may access different points of view or memories.


Marian Beaman said...

I've heard this theory discussed before, but I like the sensible, succinct way you summarized the research here: "Generally speaking, you use different brain centers when sliding pen over paper compared to tapping away on the keyboard. Muscle control is different. Tactile sensations vary. Keyboards make sounds, and visual input is different."

For the past two weeks, I've done re-writes of a certain scene, and it's still not tight and strong. I think tomorrow I'll go back to pen/pencil and a legal tablet. Thanks for the nudge, Sharon.

Amy said...

That's consistent with my experiences also. When I was teaching, I always wrote my class notes out by hand long after I was typing everything else I did. I found that if I typed my class notes, I did not remember them as well. And since I rarely could look at them once I was teaching except to keep me on track, it was critical that most of it stayed in my memory. Interesting post, Sharon!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Glad you like the summary Marian, and I do hope switching modes works magic on your scene.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for mentioning the memory boost Amy. I've also found that and think I read a study about it. Considering that you are more deeply involved with the material when you write by hand, it's not surprising that it would stick more tightly.

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Olga said...

Well Stated. I have tried. Oth approaches. Sometimes my mood prefers one a
Preach over the other.