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The surprising benefits of writing longhand

Updated: May 13, 2021

If, like me, you’ve spent too much time going through author interviews looking for

advice, you’ll probably have noticed that a surprising number of successful writers

recommend writing in longhand. 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 their Luddite love for the humble pen and paper can be explained simply by

shrugging and saying, ‘Eh, that’s old people for you.’

So what is it about writing in longhand that writers including Martin Amis, Susan

Sontag, David Foster Wallace, J. K. Rowling, and Paul Auster find so compelling?

Let’s find out.

It 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 in longhand was what made it so appealing to both David Foster Wallace and Susan Sontag and, while these 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.

– Paul Auster, in The Paris Review

Paul Auster, American Novelist

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 in longhand has a physicality that, somehow, draws us in. Give it a go yourself – you may be surprised.

It’s 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. I’ve even worked on novels where characters’ names and genders change unannounced!

Writers who struggle with this should give writing in 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, explained that,

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.

– Patricia Ann Wade, in The Huffington Post

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

It 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 in 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 English author Martin Amis favours 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.

– Martin Amis

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.

It protects you from distractions

Anyone writing in 2019 knows that the internet is a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s an encyclopaedia of mankind’s accumulated knowledge, so is pretty useful for research, 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 realise 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 computer programs that prevent access to certain websites or even the internet altogether (I’d 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 a few of you younger writers to panic somewhat. After all, we’re digital natives – 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 in 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 in longhand. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve without your laptop.

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