When I’m writing on my laptop, I often find myself reaching for a pen and the journal I keep handy. This is especially true if I’m feeling stuck and can’t work out what should happen next or how to craft the next line of dialogue. I also usually do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for my writing by hand, such as character profiles, outlines, timelines, and research notes. And when I’m starting a brand new project, I usually write at least two scenes by hand before I ever touch a keyboard.
I certainly do the bulk of my writing on my laptop with help from my favorite writing app. However, there are some parts of my process that just don’t seem to work as well when I type them. There’s something about writing out lists and drawing arrows all over the page to connect ideas that helps me work out the stickiest parts of any writing project, be they structural, character-based, or something else entirely.
Given how much easier it is to organize my writing on a computer, and how much faster (and more comfortable) it feels to type than to write by hand, I was curious as to why I can’t seem to get through any piece, regardless of length, genre, or subject matter, without reaching for that handy journal. So, I decided to find out.
What Authors Have to Say About Writing By Hand
It doesn’t take much searching to find that some of the most accomplished and prolific writers carry out at least part of their process by hand. Joyce Carol Oates, for one, claimed not to even have a word processor in 2005. Since then she’s stated that she still writes her notes and initial drafts using pen and paper before migrating to her laptop.
J.K. Rowling famously wrote Harry Potter by hand because she couldn’t afford a typewriter. Stephen King has said he keeps handwritten character notes and Neil Gaiman has written several novels by hand as well.
The motivation behind the practice of hand writing for these authors varies. For some it’s a matter of practicality or organization. For others it’s the physicality of the act – the weight of the pen in their hand.
I think there’s certainly something to be said about the latter line of reasoning. I’ve always found the heady-ness of writing to be a challenge. It’s so easy to get caught up in your story and almost forget that you have a body. Plus, staring at a screen for hours on end is so mentally draining.
I compensate for this by trying to schedule time into my day for some kind of physical activity – daily mile-long walks with my dog, a regular yoga practice. Often these pastimes improve my mood and jumpstart my creativity or even my desire to write.
But writing by hand may produce a similar effect. You can get around the glassy-eyed zombie stare the computer screen induces and actually make some progress.
The Benefits of Writing By Hand According to Science
Psychology and studies by institutes of higher education have noted a long list of benefits that come along with writing by hand, including:
- Improved memory
- Increased creativity
- Stress relief
- Higher quality notes
- Better spelling
- Increased writing speed
- Greater output (i.e., you tend to write more when you write by hand)
- More refined emotional expression
- Stronger sense of personal writing style
- Fewer distractions (think social media)
Basically, what psychologists and doctors have found is that the pairing of the physicality of writing by hand with the creative and mental exercises of composing a narrative unlock more brainpower than typing on a computer.
This may be why writing by hand is particularly helpful for the earlier stages of the writing process, such as research, outlining, and even entire first drafts. I know that personally, I often pick up my journal to work out a scene that I’m feeling stuck on. And many times, the words or ideas that were out of reach when I was staring at my laptop are right there at the top of my mind once I try again on paper.
Whether this is due to a burst of creativity sparked by picking up a pen or to my brain’s improved ability to organize thoughts and ideas on paper, I can’t be sure. However, it does seem that the claims authors make about their improved ability to write better stories by hand have their roots in proven fact.
All in all, both observers and practitioners of the writing craft have demonstrated that drafting by hand has its benefits. Next time you’re feeling stuck, try working out your plot hole or overcoming your writer’s block on paper instead of in front of a blank screen.
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