The coffee shop is packed with them: young, hip, ironic writer types purporting to work on short stories, dissertations, even a couple of novels. Small wobbly tables support MacBook Pros with Retina Displays, along with half empty mocha latte cups, and the latest version of iPhone. The human operators of these machines are creative and intelligent, if somewhat distracted. In between all of their tweeting, posting, and emailing, some actually manage to write!

Beyond the technophiles, in the quiet back corner, sits a writer with a plain black Moleskine notebook and an ordinary-looking enamel pen. She’s not stylish, hip or modern; there isn’t an LCD screen within reach. And yet her hand moves steadily, and the pages slowly fill with… words. It’s the classic tortoise versus the hare, and it looks like writing by hand will win this race.

Writers like Truman Capote and Susan Sontag are well known for their writing habits and use of specific pencils, pens, and places. Capote was habitual in his longhand writing, completing first and second versions by hand before switching to the typewriter. Sontag demonstrated loyal devotion to the felt tip pen, pencil, and yellow legal pad. And it continually astounds that Nabokov wrote Lolita by hand, on index cards no less.

Looking beyond the eccentricities of famous writers, there is real science to support writing by hand. We first learn the alphabet by seeing and singing the individual letters; however, it’s not until the child practices forming each letter by hand that the relationship between the symbol, sound, and meaning becomes deeply rooted in the brain. Writing letters by hand helps children master language for independent use and transmitting thoughts into written expression. More complex longhand writing returns to this deep language center, resulting in work that is well-reasoned and includes more detail.

A 2009 University of Washington research study demonstrated this difference in school children producing written work either by hand or on the computer. Those who wrote by hand produced more writing, worked faster, and used a higher percentage of complete sentences than those who worked on a computer. Engaging both the eye and the hand in the writing task also deepens the level of mental attention. When we engage our hands and eyes together, our brain becomes completely focused on our task. While typing might also seem to provide this level of combined attention, it in fact does not. Typing relies upon a different set of tasks, mainly motor memory and sequencing based on our years of Mavis Beacon a-s-d-f-;-l-k-j practice exercises, rather than engaging our language centers.

There are other benefits of using a pencil and notebook. First, consider the opportunities to capture a few additional pages and perhaps even a chapter while trapped in a meeting or waiting in the pickup line at your kid’s school. People will think you’re busy taking notes when, in fact, you just fleshed out that difficult transition chapter in your current novel. The notebook tucked into your pocket or purse won’t let you lose that brilliant idea flashing during your walk in the park, in the middle of a dream, or in the back end of a grocery line. All of these extra moments of writing can add up to pages of material for your project. Plus, the notebook has no limitations of power supply, internet access, or file storage. It’s time to take a chance, turn off your MacBook and experience the magic of writing by hand.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of the Notebook: Why You Should Consider Writing by Hand

  1. My first book started out as a journal of handwritten entries in a special cloth bound book of blank pages. Given to me by a friend, this treasure contains my raw emotions which were scribbled on the pages in my poor penmanship when I was struggling on my grief journey. Smudged fingerprints from sticky snacks and stains from my tears sometimes camouflaged my words. But they will always be there. I wrote them over 21 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. Now as I write stories for my blog or entries for my next book, my “go-to” is a yellow legal pad and any pen that I can find. Thoughts come to me when I least expect it so I keep my pad handy. One day I came dripping out of the shower with an urgent thought and ran to get my pad to write it down before I grabbed my towel! . Later I refine my thoughts on the computer, but the true beginning of all my writings is always on paper. It is my handwriting that I see. It is an extension of me.

    • Thanks for sharing your success with writing drafts by hand, Kim. Writing by hand is so tactile. Pencil in hand, my most visceral and fleeting insights seem to come from slowing down enough to write them out. Often more like a “vomit” draft, the seminal work of writing as a generative process seems to have much to do with getting away from the keyboard. My composition books seem old school, but they still work.

  2. Great post, Jenna. I love writing classes for discovering new and surprising material. Something different happens when I leave the computer home and write in a notebook reserved for these occasions. I write double spaced so I can edit before transferring to the computer. Then I edit more. My book started as hand-written (with my favorite Uni-ball pen) bursts in response to a teacher’s writing prompt.

    • There is some kind of unknown magic that occurs between the hand and the page. I would never try to recreate that on a keyboard. Also, I do my best writing when walking. So using a notebook and pencil is my pocket magic.

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