The answer is YES. I do both.
I type all my research notes into a computer, but during this process, I also “play around with ideas” by writing longhand on paper. I jot down sudden thoughts about structure. I record fun phrases as they pop into my head. I try out different voices or writing styles in short bursts.
Some of this writing is recorded on legal-size pads of paper, but a lot of it is written on scraps of paper. That’s because this kind of thinking often happens while I’m drifting off to sleep, just waking up, taking a shower, out for a walk, or driving in the car. In other words, these thoughts are rising up from my subconscious at times when I’m not actively focused on something else. At these moments, paper is practical. Plus I like to line up all the random scraps of paper and rearrange them.
When I’m done with research, I organize information and ideas on the computer, using a method I call chunk and check. Then I begin writing my drafts on the computer.
I know that early drafts will involve false starts, deletions, insertions, and a whole lot of reorganizing. The computer makes sense because cutting and pasting is easier than erasing and more eco-friendly than tossing all my failed attempts into the trash.
But when I feel stuck, when things just aren’t flowing, when I suspect an underlying problem that I can’t yet identify, I return to pen and paper. I have often suspected that I somehow think differently when I am writing longhand. I have wondered if the tactile nature of writing by hand somehow causes different neurons to fire or allows thoughts to travel through or around different neural networks. All I knew for sure is that it worked, so I kept on doing it.
This summer I read Write Like This: Teaching Real-world Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts (Stenhouse, 2011) and was delighted to see author Kelly Gallagher address this topic. He says “writing by hand can produce a different, and often richer, level of thinking than does typing away at a keyboard.” His evidence includes studies with the following results:
—students wrote faster by hand AND generated more ideas when composing essays by hand.
—the sequential finger movements required to write by hand activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory
—students who wrote by hand had neural activity that was more advanced
Wow, maybe I should spend even more time writing by hand!