Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Writer's Process: Longhand or Keyboard?


Happy National Handwriting Day, January 23rd
Which is the better way to open your mind to greater creativity: by writing longhand or on a keyboard? This question first came up during one of my online writing courses. The instructor said that a different part of the brain is involved with each method, and encouraged us to compose our first drafts by hand. She pointed out the connection from brain to hand delves deeper into thoughts and feelings than typing on a keyboard.

Experts Debate the Issue
At stake is not only writers' creative processes, but what is best for learning to read for young children. Namely, the trade-off in elementary schools across the nation from cursive writing in favor of printing in Kindergarten and first grade, then on to keyboards. What is lost, if anything? What is gained?

In Favor of Longhand: A 2012 study discussed by quite a few articles I read, conducted by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, asked five-year-old children who had not yet learned to read or write to copy a letter or shape by typing into a computer, draw on a blank sheet of paper, or trace over dotted lines. An MRI scan on the children drawing freehand revealed areas of the brain "lit up." The other two ways showed much weaker brain activity. Read articles by Tom Chatfield and New York Times Article by Maria Konnikova

A study with children in grades two through five, conducted by Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, found that children who wrote material by hand "not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, [they] expressed more ideas." Visit Joe Buhlig's May 20, 2016 Blog Post

College students who take notes by hand retained the information better than their peers on laptops. In 2013, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer asked this question. Conclusion: students who wrote by hand had to summarize rather than simply type out the lecture, which aided in comprehension. From Maria Konnikova's article

Rewriting your notes by hand helps to retain the information. (Article by Chris Gayomali) It is the method I discovered in college; the only way I could learn the material. I learned how to expand this method while teaching, using such tools as Venn diagrams, a sketch of adjoining spheres to simplify complex concepts for easier comprehension, skimming a textbook chapter, noticing what the headings and subheadings are about and jotting notes on post-its to isolate main points during reading.

In Favor of Keyboard: Some experts believe the method of learning makes no difference in learning to read and write. Anne Trubek, associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College in Ohio, believes the fast action of typing allows more time to think. Read article by Anne Chemin

There is no substitute for having the world at our fingertips on a computer.

Engages both hands rather than the dominate one in longhand writing.

A teacher once told me: Children must be prepared for the future, and computers are the future.

Tip of the Iceberg
When I began reading about this topic, I had no idea its complexity. Also under consideration is the significance of the dominant hand; the issue of what could be lost in reading comprehension if children don't learn to form letters thereby memorizing them as they draw them; the very effort of doing so teaches them the letters by trial and error, which helps them recognize the letters later when learning how to read. The Anne Chemin article mentioned "body memory" when letters are written by hand and understanding the science behind the debate.


I have experienced "finger or muscle memory" as a piano student. Eleven (long) years of lessons as a child abruptly ended upon entering college. Thirty-five years later when I took up piano again, the pieces came back to me with little difficulty. Granted, they were rusty, but after practice it's as if I had never stopped. I suppose, much like never forgetting how to ride a bicycle.

Why I Believe What my Instructor Said

Throughout my writing career, I have ping-ponged between writing drafts by hand and typing them on the computer. It has become my writing process. While under deadlines when freelance writing, I did do away with paper and pen and did all the work on my computer. Now no longer under deadlines, I write first draft in longhand, type it on the computer, print that out, and during editing go back and forth until done.

Teaching reading and writing at school and to my own children was mostly the old-school method where the children learned their letters by hand and then learned to read. However, by the time I started substitute teaching in the 90s, cursive had already been phased out and typing on the keyboard was emphasized. The children's little hands printed everything (computer lab took place several times a week; there were only one to three computers in the classrooms then. Teachers teaching with their own laptops had just begun). Gone was each child's signature handwriting and the pride that went with it, since they didn't know how to write in cursive.

What Does this Mean for Writers?

Imagine my joy when my instructor suggested writers should undertake the very process I've been exploiting all these years. It makes sense that different parts of the brain are involved. Perhaps the same principle applies when composing in your beach chair by the sea or even simply finding a nook in your house that gives you a different perspective. Typing on the computer can never take the place of these intimate moments; so close to the experience of the feel of a book in your hands compared with reading on a digital device.

For a deeper understanding of the issues involved, I invite you to read the articles for yourself and weigh in on what you think by commenting. Also, what is your process? How did you discover it? How does it work for you? 




Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction courses, picture book course and mystery and suspense course. She has currently finished her first book, a mystery/ghost story for 7-11 year-olds, and is in the process of publishing it and moving on to new writing projects. Follow Linda on Facebook.

7 comments:

  1. Linda, interesting article. I've read about the significance of writing longhand a while ago and always want to do it . . . but when I try, my brain is too fast for my writing fingers. I kind of gave up. I know longhand has so many benefits - maybe one of these days I'll give it another try.

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    1. Karen, see my comment on Google Plus. I'm always surprised when I switch.

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  2. You're right. It does take time. But there's nothing better than a favorite pen and blank paper to spill out your guts!

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  3. I found a recent spill-your-guts kind of rant when I was furious with my husband. It was from 20 years ago. I was so amazed at the humor in it! That's the kind of thing that can happen when you just write by hand with concerning yourself about grammar or structure or anything else! Journaling at its best!

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  4. That's great, Carolyn! Even better that you made your rant humorous!

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  5. I find that when I'm writing prose I use the computer, especially for first drafts. But for poetry, it is always longhand first. I also find it much more productive to edit/revise prose in longhand too and then transcribe on the computer. Great article, Linda! Lots to think about with my students too!

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  6. Great, Pam! I hope it helps your students. Thanks for telling us your process. I can certainly understand writing poetry longhand first, perhaps sitting under a tree feeling a spring breeze on your cheeks!

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