Handwriting Versus Typing

I was listening to a podcast a few years ago that addressed the benefits of handwriting versus typing. The interviewee (I don’t remember her name) was a graduate student who had forgotten to take her laptop to a class one day and had to resort to taking notes by hand. To her surprise, she discovered she had retained more of the lecture information than she normally did. This led to a research project to compare the benefits of the two methods of taking notes.

The memory of that podcast recently prompted a question in my mind: outside of taking notes in class, does anyone write in long hand anymore? If so, what kind of writing lends itself to longhand vs. typing. I found some interesting information online.

*** 

In a 2021 article on whenyouwrite.com, Jessica Majewski summarized several benefits which I’ve paraphrased here:

Writing by hand is more focused. There are fewer distractions than using a laptop where there are constant temptations to check email or read the latest news story. Also, there are no word processing limitations when writing by hand. The author can draw a mind map, jot side notes, or doodle images without having to open another app.

But typing has its advantages, too. Doing research is a breeze if you’re on your laptop. Just hop over to another app to search out the information you need. Copy and paste articles into your research folder and keep going. But the primary advantage to typing is speed. And sooner or later everything you write is going to have to be typed into a word processor, so unless you’re fortunate enough to have a secretary to do the transition, you’ll have to do the additional work yourself.

But how do the different methods affect creativity? Majewski makes the following case in her article:

“When you are writing by hand, your cognitive processes are more involved than when you type and this can lead to some random springs of ideas. And at the pace of handwriting, you’re not worried about your hands outpacing your brain.”

In a 2017 article on qz.com, Ephrat Livni makes the following statement:

“Brain scans during the two activities also show that forming words by hand as opposed to on a keyboard leads to increased brain activity. Scientific studies of children and adults show that wielding a pen when taking notes, rather than typing, is associated with improved long-term information retention, better thought organization, and increased ability to generate ideas.”

That all sounds good, but does anybody actually write the first draft of a novel by hand? Well, yes. Here are a few authors you may have heard of who have written one or more novels by hand:

  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Stephen King
  • J. K. Rowling
  • Quentin Tarantino

***

As an experiment, I wrote this blog post in long hand. My thoughts flowed as I was writing, and there was a sense of freedom in the process that was different from typing. Fortunately, I was able to read my own handwriting when I finished, and I transferred it to a Word doc.

Well, I’m almost out of paper, so I’ll stop now. We haven’t touched on another creative method: Speech to Text. Maybe we can cover that in a later post.

***

So TKZers – Do you ever write in long hand? What advantages or disadvantages have you noticed using handwriting vs. typing? Has this article convinced you to give handwriting another go?

This entry was posted in Writing by Kay DiBianca. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kay DiBianca

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who retired to a life of mystery. She’s the award-winning author of three cozy mysteries, The Watch on the Fencepost, Dead Man’s Watch, and Time After Tyme. Connect with Kay on her website at https://kaydibianca.com.

63 thoughts on “Handwriting Versus Typing

  1. The challenge with long hand, of course, is the need to type the work. Writing on a tablet can allow that handwriting to be converted to text, but most handwriting-to-text apps convert a word at a time. Personally, I find that annoying and distracting.

    And then I discovered Nebo. I write on my iPad with an Apple Pencil (yes, with a screen that feels somewhat like paper) for as long as my mind is flowing. When I’m done, I tell the program to convert and send the text file to the appropriate program.

  2. Good post. I suspect writing on paper is a more (or differently) focused way to write. It’s a slower process and due to the lack of the ability to backspace and delete, probably the thought process is a little different at least subliminally.

    Same as reading your work aloud enables you to catch more mistakes and errors. The process is slower than reading silently, plus you get two modes of input—sight and sound—rather than just one.

    • Good morning, Harvey.

      Yes, I noticed a difference. My gray cells were doing a different dance than they do when I type. I don’t understand exactly what the change is, but it’s there.

  3. I always write longhand first. It’s a direct route to my heart. It’s always more authentic. I have to do less revision because it tends to come out right the first time. It’s easier to move scenes around and try things in different places. I like to write outside in nature. I don’t have to worry about battery life or glare. Ideas flow better. Less stress.

    I’m at work for eight hours minimum. When I finally get home I don’t want to go near a computer. Plus, when I write on the computer first, everything sounds like a report.

    Once it’s the way I like it, it’s easy to type it up. I’m a secretary and a fast typist. It’s like taking dictation.

    The things I find in a box in the garage and don’t remember writing are the things I did on the computer first. The things that flow through my pen, I remember.

    • Good morning, Cynthia.

      “It’s a direct route to my heart.” — What a beautiful statement. And your experience of remembering what you’ve handwritten while forgetting what you’ve typed makes a strong case for writing the first draft out in longhand.

      Thanks for the insight!

  4. I love writing on my computer. It allows me to change my mind on the spot and highlight text or make notes enclosed in parentheses for points to be considered at a later time. Without my computer, I would not be writing novels.

    For nonfiction articles/essays, I do draw maps on paper first then use the maps as guides to write and edit the documents on the computer.

    • Good morning, Truant.

      I also tend to write just about everything on my laptop, although I have a three-ring binder for each of my novels where I jot down notes, maps, timelines, etc. Having read some of the research, though, I may do some experimentation with writing longhand.

      Whichever way you choose, have a great writing week.

  5. Thank you, Kay. I happened to come across a statement a week or so ago that there will only be one person alive who can read and write cursive at some point in the future. Hopefully, that will not happen, but one never knows.

    Elmore Leonard also wrote in longhand.

    Most of my typing is done by typing, but my middle-of-the-night ideas, which seem so brilliant at the time, are handwritten. “Guy robs bank…”

    Have a great week, Kay!

  6. If I had to handwrite anything, I’d never finish. As the world’s slowest handwriter (still waiting for Guiness to contact me. How many of those things do you have to drink before you hear from them?), using a pen/pencil is not part of my repertoire. My wrist hurts just thinking about it… 🙂

    • Good morning, Tom.

      I guess there is a tradeoff. I write quickly, but I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I wrote. 🙂

      As JSB frequently reminds us: Carpe Typem!

      • I could say Carpe Cursive, but my handwriting has always been atrocious. And, as Tom indicates, time is fleeting…

        I do use pen and paper when I plan. That is what unleashes my imagination…mind mapping, doodling, quick notes. That all gets put into the MixMaster of my brain until I pour it out onto Scrivener cards. Then I typem…

  7. As I recall, Zane Grey also wrote his novels longhand. The difficulty with longhand, as already mentioned, is that it’s slower and you ultimately have to transcribe, which adds more time demands.

    I enjoy writing longhand but rarely have the time to do so. I think I should conduct a longhand experiment for about a week and see what the results are. On the rare occasions I do write longhand (such as recently while at the car dealership waiting for my car to be serviced) I found that the scenes came easily to me–I didn’t have those long ‘stare at the screen wondering what to write’ moments as when using a computer. Though sometimes when I write longhand, I fear an idea will slip my mind before I can get it down.

    Here’s an idea–maybe the TKZ community should conduct it’s own informal group experiment on the results of writing by hand. Let’s pick a week, everyone writes longhand and reports their results (which would obviously be subjective) and then we could see if there are any patterns to what people report. Would anyone be willing to participate in something like that? Seriously, I think it would be a very interesting experiment. (Or I’m just off my rocker. It’s okay, been there before. 😎 😎 😎

    Of course some may not write longhand due to arthritis or other conditions.

    But now you’ve got me curious since I’ve never written longhand for more than an occasional scene here and there. Hmm….

    • Good morning, BK!

      I love the idea of an experiment. Let’s see if others chime in. If not, you and I can pick a week and give it a go.

      After having written this blog post in longhand, I decided I’ll write my posts for the rest of the year in longhand and see what effect it has on my writing in general.

      Have a good week!

      • Sounds great! I’ll be sure and check back here at this post to see if we get takers.

    • I would definitely be willing to experiment with writing by hand. I start each book/idea in a spiral notebook with a style sheet inside the front cover and a list of characters on the facing page. I write character sketches and scene ideas, ideas, and other information by hand in the notebook because that’s the only way to keep everything together. I used to have hundreds of slips of paper all over and found this is much better. Plus, I don’t lose any of the ideas and can change them before typing into the manuscript.

    • I’d be glad to give it a go. I do my Morning Pages longhand (and my cursive is actually pretty good, so I can read it), but for some reason I don’t write stories longhand.

  8. Great topic, Kay. I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s comments.

    I treat brainstorming/planning and “writing” differently, jotting ideas and initial thoughts in long hand/cursive, organize, then type an outline with extensive notes on Google Docs, and continue with Scrivener for the rest.

    I also find that fiction and nonfiction “flow” differently. I reserve a small laptop for fiction and type in a semi-reclined position. The sentences just flow from the keyboard as I think about them. For nonfiction (and everything else), I use a desktop computer, and I am slow. Constantly stopping to make corrections. I wonder if some of this has to do with placement of the keyboard and placement of arms and hands.

    I agree, that in the planning stage, there is something about the infinite possibilities with a blank page and a pencil/pen. When I’m ready to write, I want speed.

    • You bring up some great points, Steve. Each category of writing requires different ways of thinking, and may lend itself to one form of expression or another.

      Like you, I sit in a recliner with my laptop on a little stand when I write fiction. It’s a very comfortable position, so I don’t get tired. Still, I may try the same position with a notebook and pen to see if there are benefits.

      Have a great week!

  9. I can’t write fast enough longhand, so I lose my train of thought. Also, I can’t read a lot of what I write. I can type almost as fast as I can think. But … I do my chapter summaries, etc., when I’m going back to edit in longhand. Still hard to read sometimes, but it does give that extra pathway to the brain.

    • Good morning, Terry.

      “but it does give that extra pathway to the brain.” That seems to be the essence of going from one method to another. Maybe it jiggles a few brain cells and gets them to form a new idea.

  10. I wrote my first novel longhand. Never again. That said, I often take notes longhand. My desk is littered with scribbled scrap paper. The problem is deciphering them later. LOL

    • Morning, Sue!

      I also take notes in longhand. Taking notes on my laptop seems more like scribing than thinking. Now I need to sharpen my deciphering skills. 🙂

    • Aye, there’s the rub: deciphering my handscrawling. I have too many impenetrable notes like: fnaverlup crants tha (pretty sure that’s ‘the’) divo lup on desterk!
      A brilliant idea, no doubt, one of earth-shaking importance, lost forever.

  11. Good morning, Kay! Wonderful post. I do a lot of brainstorming and outlining on legal pads, and have filled up several for my mystery. I find it a great way to come at a story problem or to flesh out the plot. It feels like a more direct line to my creativity, especially when I hit a sticking point. On other hand, my handwriting is terrible, and I can have trouble deciphering it later.

    I draft on the computer, but there have been times when I write a scene in longhand to come at it from a different “angle.”

    Have a wonderful Tuesday!

    • Good morning, Dale!

      “It feels like a more direct line to my creativity, especially when I hit a sticking point.” This seems to be a recurring theme. There are magical highways in the brain that are hard to find. Maybe handwriting is the key. 🙂

      Have a great week!

  12. I take notes long hand, usually with a fountain pen. It slows down my thinking and I retain more of what is said. There is then the transcribing into the computer where I need what I wrote.

    My children want me to go to an Apple Pencil and my iPad. I am having trouble replacing a beautiful, if high maintenance $100 pen with a boring but highly functional $100 pen.

    • Writing with a fountain pen must be the ultimate longhand experience. I use ballpoint pens because I have a lot of them and one is always at hand when I need it.

      The notion of writing on my iPad with an Apple pencil is intriguing. D.K. says he uses that method and it works for him. Somehow, I need the ability to crumple up a sheet of paper and throw it in the trash when the words aren’t working. It’s cathartic.

  13. This semester one of my child’s professors REQUIRES real pen or pencil on paper notes in class. No laptop. No tablet. No e-ink. Prof does not like the sound of keyboards in class.

    • At Western Reserve Med School, there was a prof who discouraged note-taking. My dad was a fast, compulsive note-taker and ignored the rule.
      One day, in class, the professor paused during his lecture, and my dad looked up. The class exploded in laughter. They told him later that the prof had seen him taking notes and had been talking faster and faster, trying to leave him behind. As soon as the prof paused to breathe, my dad looked up, waiting for him to continue.
      When the laughter subsided, the lecture continued at normal speed, and my father kept right on taking notes, unaware until later what had happened.

  14. Kay, great topic and the brain research is fascinating.

    Count me in on the handwriting experiment BK suggested. The flow of ideas is better longhand but my annoying companion, Arthur-itis, interferes and makes a lot of words unreadable.

    Lately I’ve been hitting and missing a lot with my WIP. I may try the pen and paper to see if that gets me past the current bump in the road.

    • Great. That makes at least three of us who will donate our brainwork to science for a week.

      It’s interesting that you mention “hitting and missing” with your WIP. I also found myself wandering around inside my WIP. It felt like I was on a scavenger hunt, but couldn’t find the right treasure.

      I believe my problem was solved when Frank and I went on a long car trip and discussed the plot problems I was having. After a six-hour ride there and another six hours back a few days later, I believe I have a much better story in mind. (But I don’t think I can commit to a long trip just to solve plot problems. Handwriting seems like a better solution!)

      We’ll see about scheduling our experiment.

  15. When I’m in the process of thinking through a novel or an article, I find that long-hand note taking, etc., are much better. It’s a weird analogy, but it seems more 3D.

    In ancient times before the personal computer was a thing, I wrote my first three novels in long hand then typed them badly with my IBM Selectric. My first computer, an Apple IIc, was very liberating and worked much better with the way I write.

    • I like your analogy, Marilynn, that handwriting is somehow more 3D. It’s as if you can move in any direction you want, whereas a keyboard is restrictive.

      I have a warm place in my heart for the IBM Selectric. I typed my husband’s PhD dissertation on one. There were lots of complicated equations that required changing the normal Selectric ball with the one with Greek symbols. I barely survived.

  16. I’ve lost my cursive writing ability, Kay. However not my printing. Years ago I learned drafting printing, and I use it to this day in note taking. Having said that, I write everything on a laptop keyboard and average about 1K wph.

    • 1K wph! At that speed, you can turn out a novel in a couple of weeks!

      I’m a fast typist, but my brain doesn’t work that fast. Maybe I need to research brain calisthenics.

      Have a great week.

  17. Shelby Foote believed writing with a real pen on real paper centered him on his work. I think that’s true, but for me, the biggest advantage of retreating to the den or porch with pen and notepad is that I’m out of reach of that Internet time-stealer.

  18. The advantages do not for me outweigh the disadvantages of being slower for doing a draft, taking an inordinate amount of time to then type, not being able to make changes on the fly, and that I have difficulty reading my own handwriting. As far as ‘you can make notes’, I have a notebook and pen next to my keyboard if I want to do that although I generally prefer notes in a PC document.

  19. When I find that thoughts aren’t flowing as readily as I’d like, switching to writing by hand breaks things loose. I probably write 20% of first drafts by hand. The added benefit is what some others have presented as a detriment: An automatic rewrite as I enter my scratchings into the computer.

    I also write by hand when I’m traveling alone. I use a very nice bound notebook with good paper and a fountain pen. Every handwritten session begins with the date and the location where I was when writing. Over the years, those books are fun to revisit.

    • I like the idea of switching to handwriting to “break things loose.” I hadn’t thought of the added bonus that you get to edit as you type into a word processor.

      Your travel journals sound interesting. Wish I had done something similar over the years.

  20. Joe Haldeman spoke at an SF conference some years ago. When asked about his process, he said he would take a notebook to the porch in the morning and write in longhand. Because writing is hard to change, he found he was more careful about thinking through the story before putting pen to paper. In the afternoon, he’d take his notebook to the computer to transfer the writing, and then he’d begin to edit. He’s a very successful SF writer.

  21. I write mostly on the computer except in the very beginning of a story. That’s when I use longhand. to flesh out my characters and different plot possibilities.

    As I said before, I do use my iPad, but for some reason hadn’t thought to use it to do the above! lol Going to try that in a minute. And I’d be happy to take part in the experiment.

    • Another experimenter! Excellent. We’ll see how many more are willing to hop in the petri dish. Who knows what we may discover.

      If you try the iPad solution, let us know how it goes.

  22. I love writing longhand, especially for passages I’m having difficulty with. It allows me to just go forward without backing up to edit this or change that. Good article, thanks.

  23. The Great Handwriting Experiment

    Here are the folks I have so far to take up BK’s challenge to write longhand for a week and report back the results:

    BK Jackson
    Becky
    Priscilla Bettis
    Debbie Burke
    Patricia Bradley
    Kay DiBianca

    BK, Becky, and Priscilla: I don’t think I have your email addresses. Please contact me through my website at kaydibianca.com so we can decide on the week we want to do this.

    Anyone else want to jump into our little experiment? (Rubbing hands together.) This will be fun. 🙂

  24. I’m late to the dance as usual. Plumbers in the house today.

    I should be good for the experiment because I’m a compulsive note taker. I also sketch out the details of a circuit when I’m working on a guitar amplifier-it helps me visualize out what I’m working on and then I can post it on my instagram page.

    What this process is doing is imprinting ideas and concepts through mind, eye, and muscle movement.

    My writing group has issued a challenge last Saturday: Write 1000 words nothing but dialogue, and this should be a great test of longhand vs keyboard.

    • Welcome to our little laboratory, Robert! Please email me your email address. You can contact me through my website at kaydibianca.com.

      Ready. Set …

  25. Usually, handwriting can’t even begin to keep up with my brain, so typing is a MUST, if I’m working on a story. My wrist would never take the abuse if I tried, AND because I can’t write as fast as my brain generates words, I’d lose the story flow in short order. My notes, on the other hand, are done long-hand in a spiral notebook specific to that purpose. One notebook for each series or stand-alone novel. I don’t type up anything on my computer except the story itself. Everything else is handwritten in my notebooks.

  26. I always write both my short stories and poems by longhand. It has become a habit. The drawback as you say, is the difficulty in doing research while I am writing. However, the advantage as you point out, is that I can concentrate better on my fiction writing when writing in, say a notebook. Only after I have completed at least two drafts of one short fiction do I commit the words onto my laptop computer.
    I’ve even recently written a novel (first draft) by longhand. When I typed it out it came to about 104 printed pages!

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