Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Behind the Books: Writing By Hand

During school visits, students and teachers often ask me how I physically write my manuscripts. Do I type them using a computer keyboard or do I write them by hand?

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!


  1. I often do brainstorming and pre-writing and poem drafts by hand, but only if I'm somewhere with no tech available. I usually write by keyboard. My hands can't keep up with my brain and I lose so much. I much prefer typing. I have a cute little foldable keyboard that lets me write easily on my phone, and I love that...

  2. Very interesting research. I do think it's tremendously important to take handwritten notes. I can't recall, now, where I read this, but your brain takes in more information when you write notes by hand versus using a computer.

    I also use a mix of longhand vs typing when I'm writing. I, too, tend to lose my train of thought when I write longhand. I've gotten so skilled at the keyboard that I can write much faster that way. However, when I'm stuck, I tend to resort to longhand, as you note. I do think that the brain fires differently when there's a writing utensil in hand. Maybe it's the coordination required to produce letters in strokes compared to individual finger movements to strike keys. It's an interesting subject. Will have to take a look at this book. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for your input, Laura and Jilanne. It's so interesting to hear how other writers work.