This post first appeared on LitBits on Nov 2, 2016
Essayist Dinty Moore says “the hand is connected to the arm which is connected to the heart” in an attempt to explain why writing by hand is instrumental in sewing the seedlings of great ideas that form and grow under the act of further writing and revision. When I first bring up hand-writing to my students, they often look skeptical, or wary to say the least. Some of them groan. Some of them say they will definitely handwrite at home. Most of them, though, do ask: “Why should we write by hand if we can type on a laptop?” And I have a few answers for them.
For one, writing by hand slows the writer down. While this may sound like a counter-intuitive hindrance to the writing process, it’s actually an element that makes for better writing, and a higher quality first draft. By sitting at the laptop or desktop computer, typing 40 words per minute allows you to write too quickly, moving forward and backward linearly, erasing any sign or record of your process, any change that you would be able to look over when writing with a pen on the page. By being forced to slow down, your brain has slightly more time to think about what it decides to pen. This allows for more real decision making compared to the writer at the computer whose hands type too quickly, perhaps glossing over a better idea that may have needed a few seconds more to percolate.
Another reason why hand-writing is paramount is that this approach creates room for risk and play, for less constraint. This is to say that there is something about a sprawling page and a pre-writing mindset that alleviates pressure for the writer, allowing them the space to try things on, to “just get the ideas down,” and worry about the meticulous details later. In Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, he emphasizes the importance of a writer’s journal, another arena where hand-writing takes place, arguing that it allows for the “freedom to try out things, to write clumsy sentences when no one is looking, to be prejudiced, even stupid. No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments.” Cartoonist Lynda Barry also supports hand-writing, explaining that students should write from their centers instead of their heads. Author and writing instructor Heather Sellers agrees that writing is a physical act, just like football, and so should be practiced physically with the same dedication and reverence that players hold for their sport.
As a writer who hand-writes herself, I can attest to a feeling that comes from the practice. It’s a feeling that comes after I’ve warmed up, after I’ve gotten a few paragraph down, and it comes when I’m hitting a stride, when I can feel my heart rate quickening, my writing becoming somewhat faster, when I know I’m on to something important. Though what I pen by hand is always a start and far from a finished, final draft, the ideas that come forward in the hand-writing stage I’ve come to realize are my better ones—the seedlings of greater things to come, planted by the pen in my hand.