The Power of Handwriting

Technology has helped writers every step of the way. The printing press revolutionized the distribution of books, the typewriter increased speed of writing, and computers have radically changed everything—from the way we edit to the way we publish. But could we also benefit from occasionally doing things the old-fashioned way?

When I first tried to start writing again, I used a laptop. My efforts stumbled and lurched their way down onto the page until I threw in the towel altogether. I blamed the fact that I hadn’t written in a few years. But then my laptop broke and I joined a writing group away from home. I had no choice but to show up with pencil and paper in hand to see where it would take me.

Surprisingly, it took me way farther than I ever thought it would.

Writers are artists, and all artists need to use their hands in some way to bridge the gap between their imagination and this reality. If you examine any artistic human endeavor, you will find a pair of hands acting as one of the primary forces behind the work. And that work might range from cooking a delicious meal, to playing an instrument, or even dancing or coding a new program.

All artists are creatively tied to their hands.

You don’t have to handwrite your work with pen and paper, and some writers are perfectly comfortable creating their stories using only their laptop. But if you find yourself feeling blocked, or stuck on a certain point, handwriting has the power to channel your subconscious in a way that can be enormously helpful. Every one of us contains hidden depths of emotion, idea, darkness, and beauty. Feeling the scratch of pen against paper lends a visceral dimension to handwriting that gives the subconscious permission to release a little more of the richness of these depths.

The other benefit of handwriting is that it’s not so easy to go back and edit as you’re writing. When you’re using a laptop the temptation is always there to quickly backspace, delete, and revise while you’re in the middle of writing. Any sort of editing—no matter how minor—interrupts your creative flow and is actually not helpful in the long run, even if it feels necessary in the moment. When you’re handwriting you might still catch yourself crossing things out, but overall it’s much easier to note things you might want to change later in brackets and move on.

And lastly, when you’re using a pen and paper you have the freedom to shut down your laptop and cut yourself off from countless social media distractions. Your mind isn’t pulled away by message notification bells and colorful windows popping up with something new and shiny to get sucked into.

Give handwriting a try in the next couple of weeks. As the weather gets warmer this spring, grab a journal and head for the park to see how much writing you can get done by hand.

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  • Reply Cami Decker 17 March, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    So true. I am working on a short story collection at the moment, and drafting all of the stories by hand before revising as I type them out later. I have found that writing by hand does help me not to get so stuck about phrasing things just right the first time around. Instead, it helps me get all my ideas out there to reshape later. I definitely have a tendency to over-edit when I write on my laptop, so handwriting actually makes me a lot more productive even though it might take a little longer.

    It’s crazy how much the tools we use to create affect our creations! Being both a writer and a student of communication theory, this stuff is so interesting to me!

  • Reply Robyn LaRue 17 March, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    I get so excited when people talk about this because it’s so true! I’m a firm believer in writing at least a few pages by hand every day because of the very reasons you list here plus one more. Handwriting slows down the brain a bit and it seems easier to slip into that place where words flow of their own accord. I’ve always wondered if there’s a direct link between hand and the writing part of the brain and some things only get written through that link.

    It’s also how I knew for sure I was a writer. Got my hand in a cast for three weeks and by the end of it, my own family couldn’t stand me. As soon as I could write again, I was right in all ways. 🙂

  • Reply Christine Pinto 18 March, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Absolutely true for me too! Handwriting frees the subconscious in ways that the laptop just can’t. Handwrite first, then type it in and mess with it. My writing is always richer when I do it this way.

  • Reply Setsu 18 March, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    The light from a screen can be draining in and of itself. Even with programs that shut down your internet connection after a set amount of time, being on the computer sucks my energy away. Paper feels much more neutral.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 19 March, 2014 at 9:20 am

      Yup, I always forget about that one. I get drained just from having a screen on in my vicinity even if I’m not watching it.

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 20 March, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Sound advice, as ever, Lauren. Here I am commenting on your blog when I’m meant to be writing! Long ago, I wrote my first attempt at a book by hand. These days, I write a great deal in my notebooks but it’s the laptop that does the donkey work.

  • Reply James Stone 21 March, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Thank you so much for the article. I am living proof that using the computer become a major distraction when I write. I always use the excuse that I need to research something and then find myself checking emails, facebook, twitter, etc. Uggghhh! I think you have inspired me to break out the pens again! God bless.

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