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Handwriting, Learning, and the Science of Writing Longhand

Cheryl's Musings: Handwriting, Learning, and the Science of Writing Longhand

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Handwriting, Learning, and the Science of Writing Longhand

Longhand? Keyboard? Pen on parchment? Number 2 pencil on graph paper? Blood on strips of birch bark?

4564378252_35fe9897b5_bAsk a roomful of writers for their methods of putting words on the page, and you’ll spark a debate as passionate as the outline vs. seat-of-the-pants writing methods.

For speed, you can’t beat typing your story straight onto the computer—and that’s a skill I’m working on. When I hit a creative slump, though, I find that writing longhand lets me tap into my subconscious in a way that clicking keys don’t.

*Photo courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt at the Flickr Creative Commons

Researchers Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger Reading Centre, Norway, and Jean-Luc Velay of the University of Marseille, France looked at the relationship between learning and writing—asking whether people learn better if they write out something by hand or if they type it on a keyboard. For instance, if you wanted to memorize a million digits of Pi, would you do better to write out those numbers on paper or could you speed up the process (and save your hands) by typing those digits into memory?


The answer? Apparently different parts of your brain will be activated depending on which learning method you used. If you wrote those numbers longhand, the part of your brain associated with movement fires up. Other research shows that if you learned by writing those numbers longhand, you’ll remember more than if you learned by typing. The lesson: the multisensory process of writing longhand makes info stick in your brain.

Viewing this through my writer lens, I wonder if writing a story longhand activates different parts of my brain than when I type prose directly into the computer. Writing by hand is a multisensory event: the crisp feel of new paper, the silky glide of a gel pen, the twist and turn of muscles in your fingers all provide sensory feedback as you pour the story onto the page.  And in a way, when writing a story I feel like I’m learning it, especially at the outset when I’m trying to memorize everything about plot, world, and characters to make them all fit together in my head.

I will continue to cultivate the skill of writing directly onto my computer (see point #3 of my 2009 NaNo post). It’s faster, saves me tons of transcription time (read: faster), and, because it’s faster, lets me capture ideas when they’re flying too quickly for me to write them longhand.

However, writing longhand will continue to be a tool in my creativity toolbox, because whether it’s science or superstition, sometimes longhand takes me places a computer cannot.

What about you? Longhand or keyboard?

:-) Cheryl

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At February 11, 2011 at 2:31 PM , Blogger Jill Kemerer said...

Oh, I'd rather write in blood on strips of birch (funny!) than write longhand! I don't have good handwriting to begin with, and my hand cramps up after about 45 seconds. It's torture. Thank goodness for my laptop!

At February 11, 2011 at 7:24 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

I'm jealous! I can write some things straight onto my laptop (like articles and blog posts) but fiction I usually have to hash out long hand. My writing's terrible, too--I have to transcribe ASAP or risk being unable to translate my chicken scratch :P. Hand cramps definitely push me toward the keyboard, tho....


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