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Reconsider Hand Writing

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By Mia Zachary

Novelist Robert Stone said: “I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed — you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.”

Another novelist who goes old school is Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Neverwhere, writes his first drafts in longhand using fountain puns and moleskin. “One reason I like writing by hand is it slows me down a little, but it also forces me to keep going: I’m never going to spend half a day noodling with a sentence to try and get it just right, if I’m using a pen. I’ll do all that when I start typing.”

The most obvious argument for returning to pen and paper is that writing by hand eliminates- or at least minimizes- the inevitable distractions of e-mail, instant-messaging, digital games with flying pigs and web-browsing for everything except research.

I eventually make my way to the PC or to my laptop, but hand writing has some superior benefits to composing on the computer:

  • Writing by hand keeps the emphasis where it needs to be — on getting the words right, not on fonts, margins, or program settings
  • Writing by hand can get ideas out faster and simplifies the effort of organizing ideas
  • And, most importantly, hand writing acts as a powerful reminder that a draft is a just a draft, not a polished work ready to submit.

Hand writing compels you to move forward across an entire connected gesture and integrates three distinct brain processes—visual, motor, and cognitive. Writing by hand requires executing sequential finger movements activate brain regions involved with thought, language and short-term memory—the mind’s system for temporarily storing and managing small pieces of information.

That’s especially true for visual learners like myself, I always remember things I wrote myself better than I remember things that were typed. I’ll easily recsll which side of the paper it was written on, what shape my notation formed and how my words appeared. It may seem trivial to writers who prefer electronic mediums, but I have been able to locate many a late night ‘great idea’ simply by envisioning where and how and why I scribbled my notes the way I did.

The human brain has several distinct regions that process visual information, auditory input, emotions, verbal communication, etc. Although these regions communicate with each other, when presented with multi-faceted information, each region has its own processes to complete first. When you’re writing, spatial relations between various bits of information are created in your brain.

So what point am I trying to make? Why am I asking you to reconsider hand writing? Because when you write something down, our brain can’t tell that you’re not actually doing that thing. Envisioning doing something can “trick” the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it. This means that brainstorming, creative visualization and just plain daydreaming help us as writers to craft settings and characters, emotional scenes and action sequences. Then handwriting these elements triggers the brain to believe “so let it be written, so let it be done” Thus handwriting helps us to turn those daydreams into a cohesive literary work.

Even before we begin the physical act of writing, our brains are putting some degree of effort into evaluating, prioritizing and organizing the information we are imagining. That process helps to install ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line. Writing by hand strengthens the process by which creative information is stored in our memory.

For the past couple of years, I have signed myself up for National Novel Writing Month- 50k words in 30 days. Each year I procrastinated, got distracted , became frustrated and didn’t ‘win’. Until 2012. That’s the year there weren’t enough plugs in the cafe and I had to resort to using an ink pen and a notebook… I finished the month with 49, 410 words, 95% of which were handwritten and 80% of which were crafted well enough to keep in the manuscript. Drafting my novel this way felt amazing, liberating and most importantly productive.

There is great value in writing slowly and taking time over ideas, as well as in scribbling as fast as your hand allows, to capture your thoughts. Grab your pen and give yourself permission to write whatever you can come up with. Just dump your thoughts and ideas straight onto the paper. Feel free to scribble, doodle, jot notes in the margins and squeeze extra sentences between the lines. Writing by hand encourages focus on the story process and brings the writer neurologically and psychologically closer to the work itself. But, if you’re anything like me, you probably need to work on your penmanship 

Stephen King wrote Dream-catcher all in longhand using “the world’s finest word processor, a Waterman cartridge fountain pen.” He says, “First of all, writing longhand was physically easier for me, because of the location where I can work. But also, it brought the act of writing back to this very basic level, where you actually have to take something in your fist and make the letters on the page… It slows you down. It makes you think about each word as you write it, and it also gives you more of a chance so that you’re able– the sentences compose themselves in your head. It’s like hearing music, only it’s words. But you see more ahead because you can’t go as fast.”


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