Paul Auster. Neil Gaiman. David Foster Wallace. Susan Sontag. J.K. Rowling. James Patterson. They all wrote longhand. (And of course all the greats of literature that lived before the invention of the typewriter in the 19th century.)
As the world changed, so did the way we communicate. What was once done in longhand writing with pen and ink, or with a quill and parchment, has now become a thing of the past. Typing has taken over as the preferred method for writing.
And despite feeling as outdated as floppy disks or rotary phones, there are good reasons to resort to longhand writing even in 2023:
Recent studies suggest that the benefits of longhand writing go beyond nostalgia and tradition. From boosting memory retention to enhancing creativity, writing by hand is a powerful tool that can positively impact our lives in numerous ways. In this article, we delve into the art and science behind longhand writing and explore the benefits of putting pen to paper. Whether you’re a digital native or a fan of the traditional approach, read on to discover how the simple act of writing by hand can transform your life.
The benefits of writing longhand
It might feel outdated, but that’s part of the appeal of writing by hand. In an age where the pace of change is constantly increasing, writing on paper has an almost meditative effect on the mind. Whether you’re interested in the scientific, aesthetic, or emotional benefits of writing longhand, we’ll cover them all in this section.
There’s something beautiful about writing on paper. Even when your handwriting is ugly as a doctor’s scribbles.
Longhand writing feels, and is, personal. The exact opposite of the impersonal printed word, words that by now AI tools like ChatGPT can produce in practically infinite amounts, and which will flood the internet in quantities we’ve never seen before. To give you a rough idea: In March 2021, OpenAI’s GPT-3 was spewing out 4.5 billion words per day. Given how much more widespread OpenAI’s technology is adopted today, I can’t even guess how many words it generates every single day.
So while “beauty” and “feeling personal” might seem rather hard to quantify, they’re no less valuable.
Better memory recall
Writing things out by hand is one of the best ways to commit new knowledge to memory, according to many scientific studies.
A 2020 research article from the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology of Norwegian University of Science and Technology concluded that “because of the benefits of sensory-motor integration due to the larger involvement of the senses as well as fine and precisely controlled hand movements when writing by hand and when drawing, it is vital to maintain both activities in a learning environment to facilitate and optimize learning.” They found that specific areas of the brain in the parietal and central regions got activated to a larger degree when writing by hand compared to typing, which suggests that handwriting helps with the memorization and encoding of new information.
A 2021 paper published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience showed that writing on paper lead to greater brain activity when recalling information, and suggests that “the use of a paper notebook promoted the acquisition of rich encoding information” and improved memorization.
Another 2021 study published in Psychological Science found that writing by hand was a far superior method for learning the letters of a foreign alphabet than typing or watching videos.
A much-quoted 2014 study titled The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard concluded that “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand”.
A 2013 study found that, while note taking on a laptop in the short term benefitted students, ultimately the students that wrote notes by hand fared better. The researchers believed that this was because taking notes by hand generally requires the students to summarize and synthesize the information, whereas students who type notes more are simply transcribing the lectures, and it’s precisely the act of putting the information into your own words that helps form long-term recall and a deeper understanding. No mindless transcription can equal that.
“Studies have shown that writing (and rewriting) information in longhand is one of the most effective ways to retain new information; this is apparently because writing the old-fashioned way stimulates a part of the brain called the reticular activating system, or the RAS.”
It feels good and meaningful
This is very similar to the first point we covered, that it’s beautiful, but it also differs enough to make it worth spelling out. Charles Simic expressed it so well in “Take Care of Your Little Notebook”:
No question, one can use a smart phone as an aid to memory, and I do use one myself for that purpose. But I don’t find them a congenial repository for anything more complicated than reminding myself to pick up a pair of pants from the cleaners or make an appointment with the cat doctor. If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class. Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing than typing the same words down, since writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.
I admire Simic for how well he’s expressed this, and couldn’t agree more.
Distraction-free zone & better focus
A blank piece of paper offers a lot less distraction. Compare that with the internet, where you’re just a click away from everything the internet has to offer you, billions of bytes of distractions, infinite interests.
When you take away distraction, you hone concentration. You create mental space for focus.
Slower, but better writing
It’s true, writing longhand slows you down. It takes longer to put the words on paper than it does to type them. But it’s not the number of words that determine how good your writing is. It’s what it does with the reader.
I’m a huge believer in practicing prolifically, but that’s not about the number of words. It’s about the quality of focused attention you dedicate to something, and to some degree, yes, the amount of time too. I would much rather spend an hour writing 400 really beautiful words than spending that same hour typing 2000 words that no one will ever care about.
Here’s a little story that illustrates this point: I often visited Koh Phangnan, a little island in the Gulf of Thailand, and I always rented a scooter to move around the island. One day the scooter broke down half-way, and there was this stretch of the road that I had driven along a dozens of times. It was completely uninteresting to me. Walking through it now, I found that for some reason, there was a corner of the road that had the most wonderful smell. It must have been the combination of different flowers growing next to each other—I couldn’t quite make it out. But that smell was magical, and it lingers fondly in my memory until even now.
Slower writing fosters more well-formed thoughts and infuses your writing with consideration.
A more visceral, more engaged writing experience
When you type on a screen, the words seem as fleeting as rays of light. When you write, there’s a real physicality to it that adds another dimension to how you experience your own writing. It fosters a deeper engagement with the material you write, makes the writing voice inside your head clearer and louder.
This is all fine: better memory recall, more beauty and focus, and so on. But never will the full force of the memories hit you as much when, years later, you go through your old notebooks and read them. Like when a long forgotten scent suddenly transports you back in time, old notebooks are essentially intimate time-machines.
The magic of going through your old handwritten notes
Handwritten notes are often even more chaotic and less structured than anything you capture digitally, and reading through old notebooks is often a trip of its own. Reading my old notebooks from years ago can be a surreal experience. I feel a mixture of nostalgia and amazement as I look back on my thoughts and experiences from the past. I’m often surprised by how much I have changed, and also by how much has stayed the same. It’s a unique feeling, one that is equal parts comfort and wonder.
To quote Charles Simic once more:
Inevitably, anyone, including its owner, perusing through one of these notebooks years or even months later, is going to be puzzled or embarrassed by many of the entries, surprised by others he has forgotten (like a glorious meal in a restaurant for which he took the trouble to itemize the dishes and their ingredients), and impressed by an occasional striking passage, which, lacking the quotation marks, he is not sure whether to attribute to himself or to someone far cleverer, funnier and more articulate, whom he happened to be reading at the time.
This too has happened many times to me. Ultimately everything is a remix, and oftentimes these little one-liners carry so much more weight than pages upon pages of word-soup in Google Docs (or whatever your word processor of choice is).
Beautiful penmanship vs ugly handwriting
It doesn’t matter what your handwriting looks like—the only thing that matters is how you feel about it, and I have a personal story about that. I never liked my handwriting. Back in primary school, teachers would make comments on my poor penmanship, and it made me feel bad about the way I wrote. Eventually it turned into a rebellious foolish form of pride, and I started to tell myself that I don’t care what my handwriting looks like.
Fast forward two decades, and I built a habit of writing morning pages on large A3 sheets of paper. And somehow I loved it. I enjoyed writing in large letters on paper, giving my letters lots of space. And my handwriting started to improve. I actually like my handwriting now. Free-writing is a meditative practice I enjoy now.
I once paid for my stay at a little resort in the mountains, and the owner asked me if I wanted a receipt. I said sure, and he took out a piece of paper and a pen, and started to write the receipt by hand in the most beautiful cursive writing. It was amazing. I asked him how he learned to write this way, and he said he loved calligraphy. Now there’s not much I remember about that resort, to be honest, except for the views and the guys face and handwriting. And it sparked my own interest in calligraphy.
No new tricks for old dogs
Some writers, mostly age 50+ just write longhand because they’ve never learned to type effectively. There’s no shame in that. If that’s what works for you, you don’t need to master typing just to pump out more words. Again, focus on better words, not more words.
I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had that tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.
— Paul Auster, The Paris Review #167, 2003
I did the first draft in pencil. But then I typed. The two-finger minuet. I had to reach up to the counter to peck at the keys of my faithful Underwood Champion. Eventually, I hurt my back. That’s when I stopped typing and started writing everything in pencil again. I still write in pencil. I’m writing this with a number 2 pencil. The pencils were gifts from my old friend Tom McGoey. They each say Alex Cross Lives Here. My handwriting is impossible to read — even for me. Hell, I’m not sure what I just wrote.– James Patterson
You can be a prolific longhand writer. James Patterson wrote every single book longhand that he ever published, and he’s one of the most prolific authors out there, with 144 New York Times bestsellers under his belt.
Choosing your writing utensils
As far as materials are concerned, different people have different preferences. Auster liked to write in notebooks with quadrille lines. Patterson writes with number 2 pencils. Many authors prefer writing on legal pads.
Some people love Moleskin, Leuchtturm1917, Rhodia, or Blackwing Slate notebooks.
I personally like to write on large blank A3 sheets of paper—somehow I need the space, like the large letters. I don’t like squeezing my writing on the small pages of a notebook.
If you’re not sure which writing utensils are best for you, simply experiment. Try different ones and see which you like the most.
Try longhand writing for yourself
If you’re not already a longhand writer, just give it a try. Take out a piece of paper and fill it with words. Do a simple braindump, where you just freewrite whatever comes to your mind, or write a short story (I was amazed how much more fun it was to write a short story by hand than typing it). It’s great for creative writing and brainstorming.
Even if you prefer typing things for most of your work, you can enhance your writing process by sometimes playing with words on paper.