Burning Questions 1: Do I Have To Write By Hand?

by Judy Stone-Goldman on May 6, 2010

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Hand against paper, keep the pen moving

This is the first of several entries on questions posed at my recent ASHA Institute workshop, Reflective Writing for Personal-Professional Balance.

Up first, a question posed by a woman who said, “I went to a journal workshop and was told I had to write by hand.  I have terrible hand writing!  Do I have to write by hand?”

Here’s the quick answer:  No!  You don’t have to write by hand if you don’t want to.  The writing experience is yours, and you make the decisions.

So if the answer is so easy, why does every book on writing—whether for keeping a journal, writing novels, creating essays, or recording dreams—have a whole section on “writing utensils” or machinery?  Is there really something to think about here?  Does it make a difference whether you write by hand or some other means?

When we write reflectively, we want as easy and fluid a connection between our insides (mind/heart) and the paper as possible.  In our best moments, we can experience the writing process as being a direct transmission, or a pouring out of the thoughts and feelings inside of us onto the paper.  To increase the chances of this happening, we support ourselves in the best ways we can:  a pleasing atmosphere (whether you like quiet or background noise), privacy (no one peering over your shoulder), a comfortable seat (a supportive chair vs. a cushy chair—your choice), a sturdy writing surface (a table, a clipboard, a strong cardboard back to a pad).  But what about how the words actually get onto the page?  This brings us to the question of pen vs. keyboard.

For many of us, a keyboard offers us speed.  It is hard to go above 40 wpm by hand, yet that is fairly slow on a keyboard.  Obviously, if we can get words down faster, we are less at risk of losing our thoughts or falling into a slough of jumbled phrases that do not move forward.  Many of us spend so much time on a computer, we find it second nature to type and thus feel quite natural writing in this manner.  It is also easy to save and store our writing electronically.  At this point, I do most of my writing on the computer.

This might sound as if I’m recommending the keyboard over writing by hand, but I will now make the arguments for a more old-fashioned approach.  Writing by hand can feel deeply personal, even intimate.  Feeling the pen on the page creates a visceral experience quite different from that created by tapping on a keyboard.  The pen becomes an extension of our hand; even the sound of the pen tip scratching on the paper can be a comfort.  I find writing with a pen on a pad cozy.

Even better, a pad and pen fit easily into any bag and don’t require a decision (do I take the laptop?).  I realize that with smart phones, netbooks, laptops, and now iPads, we are a mobile electronic society.  Some of you may never be without a way to write electronically.  But I still like knowing that I can pull out a pad and pen no matter where I am.  Years ago, when I wrote every morning at the now-defunct Daily Grind Coffee Shop in Seattle, I simply opened my pad and began.  No one had laptops, and there weren’t any plugs.

My suggestion to you is that you experiment.  If you love the speed of keyboarding, take your laptop to different locations and write to your heart’s content.  Then switch—write by hand and compare the feeling.  (Unfortunately, the size and shape and style of writing paper to use is another huge decision.  I use top-spiral steno pads, size 6 in. x 9 in., with very light green-tinted paper, narrow rule.)  You may find that your mood dictates your tools or even that some topics push you in one direction or the other.  If you choose keyboarding one day, you don’t have to bury your pen and forswear writing by hand forever.

Let me conclude by repeating something I said earlier:  this writing experience is yours. Someone else can give you suggestions, but you are free to determine what is right for you.  The flip side of that is you may not be able to know until you’ve done enough writing to begin to be comfortable.  Whatever questions you have, you will find the answers by writing and then writing some more.

Questions for Reflection: Do you have experiences writing by hand as well as by keyboard?  What are your associations?  Do you have instincts towards one tool or another?  Why?

Writing Prompts: I write by hand and I notice ____________ (then keep writing). I write on the computer and I notice ____________ (then keep writing).  When I think about writing tools, I remember ____________ (then keep writing).  This topic of writing tools makes me start thinking about ___________ (then keep writing).

Additional suggested reading. Blog post that intersects with the topic of keyboarding: Caribou Coffee (November 2008, on Tower to Trenches).

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