Writing by hand

write by hand
Image by Colleen O’Dell from Pixabay

We all know it’s a good idea to do something different when you’re stumped on a writing project. When you’re not satisfied with a scene, or just can’t decide what your protagonist should do next, you need to take a walk, chat with a friend, or practice your katas.

But psychologists and neuroscientists suggest an even better strategy is to grab a notepad and ink pen. It seems that the feel and shape of words stimulates your creativity and helps you connect with the narrative you want to capture. As Neil Gaiman once put it, “Writing with a pen is like playing,” and nothing brightens up a manuscript like a sense of playfulness. And this article in Fast Company tells us there’s science to back up what many writers have known for years:

When you write by hand, you write more thoughtfully. Such mindful writing rests the brain, unlocking potential creativity, says neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre. “Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out our letters,” she writes. “And this pathway, etched deep with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.”

I think there’s something to this. The last time I got stuck in a story, I redeployed to the back porch with pen and pad to chase down my muse. I found her, and we had a very productive writing session, the results of which will be published this Saturday at Idle Ink.

And it’s not just writers who benefit from writing the old-fashioned way. Students who record lectures with a pen relate to the ideas they’re hearing better than those who use laptops, and doctors who take notes by longhand build a better rapport with patients. By slowing down and actively forming words, we stimulate our emotional connection with the stories we’re telling.

47 thoughts on “Writing by hand”

  1. I can relate to the idea, Mike, but in real life I just don’t do it any more. The creative processes, including breaking through blocks, has gradually but completely shifted over. My nostalgia for the quill can’t beat the facts. (This is not a recommendation, just a personal note. On the other hand, I DO recommend the forgotten practice of reading passages out loud every day. Nothing in the computer world is a substitute for that underrated brain activity 🙂 ) Gary

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Hahaha. I like reading passages from great writers out loud. But when I do read my own out loud — even after revising ten times quietly — I alway learn something about the rhythm of my imagined landscape … and trim and groom accordingly.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I do my conceptual work by hand with a pen, Mike. I like to write between the lines and in the margin’s. I cross things out and draw arrows. For some reason the laptop is too confining for that initial development of a story idea. Great post.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Many practice writing out their thoughts in a journal each day. I regard it as a form of therapy without the therapist. “Such mindful writing rests the brain, unlocking potential creativity” suggests perhaps there might be something to this theory.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. For someone like me who copies texts from books by hand and for the sheer pleasure of it only, it is very good news! I agree that nothing beats an old fashioned pen and paper to boost creativity. When I myself give shape to words I feel more connected to ideas and concepts, as you say, but I also know that I have a much better chance of remembering what I have written or at least I will not forget it soon. It’s like with pianists – their memory of musical pieces is primarily in their hands (not brains). For me personally, asking to type something is sometimes akin to asking a pianist to play on a piano keyboard online by clicking a mouse on a screen or doing through a computer keyboard. It is just SO not the same.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yes to journaling and first drafts by hand! (A full moon watched over my shoulder this morning as I journaled early this morning.)

    But I’m amazed at how easy it was to give up my physical dictionary. My cellphone is anything but a phone, especially my camera and thesaurus.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Good! We’re happy to be here. Small town charm by the coast. Family and friends near by. And I have a painting studio. I will work on my grandmother’s story from here, making it an organic process:)
        Hope NC and you are doing well.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. elizabeth,

    Glad you’re doing well. Your new venue sounds charming.

    As for us, we’re dodging viruses and cooling out the best we can. On the plus side, it gives me more time to write. That silver lining …


  7. When I work with students in the Tutoring Center at my college, I always recommend taking notes by hand. As you noted, the research shows it to be more effective for memory, retention, and recall. When I’m stuck writing, I will turn to my pen and notepad. It’s therapeutic.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Despite being viewed as an old-fashion activity, writing by hand is still considered a valuable skill that has many cognitive benefits both in and out of the classroom. The act of writing itself can reduce stress, which helps improve focus and attention in the classroom.


  9. What a great way to think. I develop facts on paper, and though I’m no artist, I’m particular about which pencils I use to write down ideas and information. I use a sketching pencil. Do you have a favorite pen or pencil? Does it define your writing?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I like the freedom i have putting my pen to any place on paper. It also slows down my thinking. I type so fast that i don’t know what I’m going to write before writing it. With pen, i have plenty of time to formulate and consider my words before they appear.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I like being able to see the creative process unfold on paper. Crossing out words, circling important ideas, drawing lines to move things, is much more satisfying then seeing the changes in a word doc. It feels more personal and connected.

    On a side note: I’ve seen people (usually younger gens) who can’t read (or write) cursive. Kind of sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I am rather bipolar when it comes to this aspect of my writing. For shorter pieces, I prefer handwritten; for longer pieces, I like the ability to quickly scroll through/search for things I need to find like specific names or words. I hate typing up my handwritten stuff, but I love the feel of typing straight from my brain. I’ve opted for a more hybrid method recently. I have a pen and notebook open as I type, and when I find myself at a pause, I doodle or sketch out on paper what my next sentence could look like or what idea I maybe want to tap into next. Then again, I also pace and talk to myself during these points too. I think if you like freehand then write freehand, and typers, type. I think trying to do anything optimally takes all the fun out of life, so I think the best thing is to just horse around and write.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mtcharleswort,

      I’m definitely in the hybrid camp. However, I like transcribing my handwritten mss on the PC — it’s my first stab at refining the story. And sometimes, if I’ve been relying on the PC too much, planting myself in a new venue with pen and pad forces me to reexamine my project.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A great idea to put pen to paper to jog our creativity. I’m so used to typing on my computer that going back to how I learned to write, by picking up a pen, is good for shifting my thoughts around.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post! I’ve always written by hand first when writing a book, it’s the only way for me. I write first, then type it up- editing as I go, then edit, edit, edit some more. For a long time, I wasn’t sure if I was the only one. Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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