The Unexpected Benefits Of Writing In Longhand - An author writes with a quill, messy pages spilling from her desk.

The Unexpected Benefits Of Writing Longhand

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If you’ve been keeping up with our series of articles on ways famous authors can improve your writing, you’ll doubtless have noticed that a surprising number of them recommend writing longhand. Rather than typing as quick as your fingers will let you, these authors suggest you pick up a pen and paper and record your thoughts the slow way.

Now, while most of these aforementioned canonical writers are from older generations who didn’t grow up with laptops or iPads, I’m not sure that’s the only explanation for their love of pen and paper.

So what is it about writing longhand that writers including Martin Amis, Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, J.K. Rowling, and Paul Auster find so compelling? Let’s find out.

Longhand slows you down

Slows you down? But this novel is taking long enough already!

Hold up there, champ. While, yes, I’m willing to accept that your book is probably taking quite some time, and while writers such as Stephen King suggest powering through your book as quickly as humanly possible, there’s a lot to be said for slowing down a little.

Slowness means thoughtfulness; it means we have time to dwell upon our ideas and our sentences without having to go back and revise. The slowing effect of writing longhand was what made it so appealing to both David Foster Wallace and Susan Sontag and, while those two geniuses probably had speedier brains than most of us, it’s likely we could all afford to slow down a little and think about what we’re writing.

A slower pace also lends itself to deeper engagement. Instead of tapping away furiously beneath the blue light of a laptop screen, you’ll be doing something weirdly physical. This is a difficult thing to explain without getting eye-rollingly abstract and flowery (‘you can really feel the writing, man!’); even Paul Auster struggled when, in an interview in the Paris Review, he said,

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.

I think that’s the best we’re going to get! As anyone who’s had an office job can surely attest, it can be difficult to get engaged in typing. Writing longhand has a physicality that, somehow, draws us in. Give it a go yourself – you may be surprised.

Longhand is better for memory and learning

One thing some writers struggle with is really getting into their own writing. Trying to write Chapter 5, they forget what happened in Chapter 2; trying to bulk out their cast of characters, they forget who’s already been introduced and who hasn’t. Some writers even end up with manuscripts where the names and genders of characters change on a whim.

Writers who struggle with this should give writing longhand a go. 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. 

Now, I’m no scientician, so I Googled this. According to blogger Tobias van Schneider, the RAS ‘is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through.’ 

Elaborating on this while lending some scientific weight to Auster’s gut feeling, Patricia Ann Wade, a learning specialist at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, elaborated in The Huffington Post:

Writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters… the sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information.

This means that, by writing longhand, our work worms its way deeper into our brains. We’re able to internalize it, think more deeply about it, and recall its details. Perfect.

Longhand makes self-editing difficult

Another pro that seems like a con! But bear with me: self-editing, while a fantastic thing to do when your chapter/first draft is finished, can be the nagging obstacle that prevents you from ever actually finishing anything, especially if you’re a bit of a perfectionist.

When you’re writing longhand, you can’t keep painlessly pruning at your prose – you’ve got to scribble things out, rewrite them, and make a big old mess on that nice notebook of yours. Much easier to, oh, I don’t know, keep writing and, when you’re finally done, do a full redraft. This is how novels get polished.

The fact that words on the page can’t just be cut with the tap of the backspace key is predominantly why author Martin Amis favors pen and paper:

When you scratch out a word, it still exists there on the page. On the computer, when you delete a word it disappears forever. This is important because usually your first instinct is the right one.

Amis makes a great point here. When you hit backspace on a keyboard, the word you’ve cut is lost immediately to the void. When you cross something out, on the other hand, or even when you tear out a page, you can go back and recover those sentences. Even if you don’t reuse that cut content, it’s great to have a physical representation of your progression as a writer.

Longhand protects you from distractions

Anyone writing in 2019 knows that the internet is a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s an encyclopedia of mankind’s accumulated knowledge, but it’s also the home of Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc. You can sit down with the best intentions only to look up six hours later and realize you’ve done nothing but scroll through Instagram.

Correctly seeing the internet as a kind of Lovecraftian abyss full of alluring but maddening content, high-profile writers such as Zadie Smith do their best to avoid it when writing (and, in Smith’s case, more or less altogether.)

Yes, there are programs that prevent access to certain websites or even the internet altogether (I recommend Cold Turkey,) keeping you staring at Microsoft Word’s blinking cursor, but a determined user will find workarounds or ways to entertain themselves offline. You know what doesn’t have access to video games or YouTube or email or Tumblr? A notepad and a pen.

Now, this crippling lack of stimuli might cause some writers to panic a little. After all, we’re used to networked information, hyperlinks, and scrolling feeds. It’s how our brains are wired. But stick with it; it might take a while, but you’ll get used to the quiet soon enough. And then, that forgotten nirvana: singular focus.

Pick up a pen

So there it is. Whether it’s a coincidence that some of our best contemporary writers choose to write in longhand or not is for you to decide (after all, I’m sure there are plenty of rather less accomplished writers writing longhand too,) but there are certainly enough positives to warrant giving it a go next time you sit down to write.

So, if you want to deepen your prose, better engage with your ideas, actually finish something, or just avoid flicking back to Facebook every five minutes, try writing longhand. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve without your laptop.

Do you write in longhand? How has it affected your writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out ‘Free Writing’ Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here’s How and Why You Should Finish Your First Draft As Quickly As Possible for more on this topic.

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17 thoughts on “The Unexpected Benefits Of Writing Longhand”

  1. Rosamund Clancy

    If I am writing poetry I use longhand and write out the poem maybe 5-8 times. I think better that way. It is more peaceful. I might also write a children’s picture book longhand and for limericks, -longhand.
    I like to write short stories, novels, biography timelines, life stories and roleplays directly onto my computer, but often from handwritten outlines or interview notes. I chose to write horticulture course work by hand.
    I wrote my thesis longhand and paid for someone to type it for me while I sat at his elbow. These days I would use a computer. I like to write notes from interesting internet articles longhand. I have a stack of such information in cardboard files of different topics beside me. My diary is longhand. Inspiration for creative writing as it comes into my head is longhand. Slow mail letters, -longhand.
    I find the spell checkers and such distracting when I am thinking and do not want to know when I am in creative mode as opposed to editing mode. However, I dislike typing onto a computer from a handwritten copy and like a typed version.

    1. Hi Rosamund,

      It’s interesting how different writing methods work best for different forms – thanks so much for sharing your own processes.

      Best wishes,

      Fred

    2. Hi Rosamund,

      That’s very interesting – it’s odd how certain forms demand certain methods of writing. Have you always written your fiction on a computer, or did you step up from writing in longhand?

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      Fred

  2. For a long time, I wrote my books in longhand. When I transferred the writing to the computer, I did editing, at least first round, but then I decided it was too slow and I taught myself to write on the computer. It is true I need to keep more notes about characters, incidents, etc. to remember. Now, I’m addicted to writing on the computer and I will make notes of something I might want to check out to add later. Enjoyed the comments.
    Good luck to all of us however we write.

    1. Hi Mary,

      That’s interesting – do you ever miss the longhand process, or the extra drafting process of transcribing written text onto a computer? And yes, good luck to us indeed!

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      Fred

  3. Great article! During Hurricane Ike, we lost power in Houston for a week and a half, but I had candles, a legal pad, and a pen. No distractions, no going to work (they were without power, too), and only a huge window to gaze out and think. I roughed out an entire novel, longhand. When I finally got the computer up and running, I was ready to transfer it onto the screen and edit as I did so. Trust me, it works.

    1. Hi Jane,

      Frankly, that sounds like a dream – I’ll have my fingers crossed for power outages in Scotland!

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      Best,

      Fred

  4. This is a mixed bag. Writing longhand in pencil still allows for a slight edit from glaring problems. Composing on the computer certainly helps with spelling and low-level grammar errors real time.

    For me, dictating my thoughts into a portable digital voice recorder and subsequently transcribing it with Dragon 15 Professional works best. The story and the words are not impeded by anything. Massive editing afterword is such a pain that I force myself to carefully form my thoughts before I speak. This is a good thing in any case.

    When I do write longhand, such as waiting in a doctor’s office or an airline terminal is a welcome change, I like it but my heart medicine-caused arthritis (Clopidogrel with the brand name Plavix) really hurts. I’ll be glad to get off of it in a couple of months.

    1. Hi Clifford,

      Sounds like your system is a good one – the extra steps of recording and transcribing will doubtless help you slow down and engage, which is one of the main benefits of writing longhand, so sounds like you’re getting the best of both worlds. And owch, hope the arthritis eases up – that can’t be any fun.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Best,

      Fred

  5. Margaret O'Doherty

    Paul Auster’s comment reminds me of Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel winning poet, and his poem ‘Digging’ which ends
    Between my finger and my thumb
    The squat pen rests.
    I’ll dig with it.

  6. Appreciate your tips. I keep journals for organization and brainstorming. I finally caught on to using page numbers so I could find my notes again. But, if I had to write 80,000 to 100,000 words longhand, I’d never finish. As for self-editing, I find I’m far worse using longhand. I write a sentence over and over until I give up in frustration. On the computer, I just move on. As for, “When you hit backspace on a keyboard, the word you’ve cut is lost immediately to the void,” many software programs these days let you revert to previous drafts. I use Scrivener, which has several ways to save versions, and has all my character sketches, locations, and research at my fingertips. Google docs also has many handy features. I only use Word at the office for business writing.

    1. Hi Steven,

      Yes, the distinctly analog nature of pen-and-paper writing is a rather quaint disadvantage – it’s strange and frustrating not being able to search through at the tap of a button! Good thinking with regards to page numbers, I’ll have to start using those in my own journals. Notes upon notes!

      Thanks for your comment.

      Fred

  7. I write out all my notes and ideas longhand. I have been writing articles for a woman’s education publication. Then I can lay them out and begin to see if I have a pattern or need more research. I really like the feel of writing because it keeps me focused. I was helping my grandson last week on his school work. He was ready to go straight to his Chromebook to write his required poem. First I had him brainstorm on paper. Then organize, then do first draft, all on paper. I showed him my most current writing and explained my process. I hope it carried over in the future for his assignments. As for me, I believe in paper and pencil. Thank you for your great ideas.

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