Why should I write by hand?
In today’s letter, I answer a subscriber’s question about writing by hand. You know how I feel about writing by hand, right? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
I have found writing in my notebook by hand extremely difficult as I find it so much easier to write faster and see the words clearer when I touch type. I am noticing a real resistance to writing by hand. Can you tell me whether writing on a laptop is really getting in the way, and I have to keep up the notebook or can I type the 10 minute exercises?
Thanks for you helpful advice in advance,
While there’s nothing inherently bad about typing, I encourage writers to slow down and write by hand for several reasons. There are creative benefits to writing by hand. (I explain some of those benefits here.)
I get it: the act of engaging with each letter, word, and sentence on a slow, imperfect, ink-to-paper level changes the experience of writing entirely. It can be uncomfortable, especially at first, if you’re used to typing primarily. Transitioning from typing to writing by hand can even be painful — especially if you have arthritis or tendonitis.
You’re asking your mind and body to slow down. You probably won’t produce as many pages in handwriting per hour as you would if you were typing. But that’s not the point, especially not in a ten minute writing practice.
The point of writing by hand is to train yourself to become more receptive.
Writing practice is to train yourself in the art of deep noticing. My most honest writing comes from deep noticing. I buzz around most of the day, noticing things on a surface level. To write something that transports me, I cannot be distracted. Deep noticing feels like insight. In this state of mind, I can more easily receive true scenes, instead of thinking stuff up with my busy mind.
Deep noticing happens when I write in my journal, too. When I write slowly, by hand, to describe the light of the morning on the kitchen counter, my experience becomes more artful, less perfunctory.
When I slow down, I can sense images more wholly, and on multiple levels, not just the surface. A yellow buttercup, wilted, sitting on a table. A child blinks slowly, eyelashes so long, they’re tangled on the upper cheek. The sound of a click deep within a wooden trunk. What does it mean? I don’t have to know what it means. I just have to write it down. Surprise and clarity arrive at once. I pay attention.
I write by hand so I can do more than just write down details: I do it so I can become the details.
Ideas come, stories exist. The work of a writer is to collaborate with the creative source and then do the writing part of the job. It’s hard to do it all yourself — to make everything up and to write it all down. It’s much easier (and more edifying!) to feel a story come to you, and then do the work of writing it. But to have a story come to you, you have to be open and ready to receive it.
Being receptive is a vulnerable place to be. It’s full of uncertainty. Write without knowing what will come next? This is scary for your ego! It doesn’t know what to do with that. Going slowly and writing by hand is even scarier, because then you have to face the unknown. Of course your ego will resist, and try to keep you out of that scary, unknown zone.
Touch typing may feel like a way to outwit your ego, as though by typing quickly you can outrun your inner critic.
But I think there is a deeper benefit to slowing down — the fact that it will make you face your resistance. This will strengthen your relationship to your writing as a result.
Writing by hand is an intimate experience.
I think of writing as a relationship (and by writing I mean the action, not the finished product.) Writing by hand cultivates an intimacy with you and your writing. There is a weird, beautiful, unexplainable source that you connect to when you sit down to write (what to call it? creativity? magic?) Slowing down to pay attention to that source is a good thing.
This is what your source loves: when you make art. That’s what it loves the most. Try writing so slowly that you draw each letter as if it were a picture. Show your source that you love to spend time with it, and be conscious about it. Handwriting gives you quality time together.
One of our recent Story Intensive alumni made the switch from typing to what she now calls “slow writing” — she’s writing her novel by hand, and transcribing each scene into Scrivener. I think this is brilliant, because her deep noticing happens in the first draft, meaning that her scenes originate with depth. Then the first work of editing can happen in the transcribing step.
William Boyd wrote this about the benefit of writing by hand, in The Guardian:
"One great advantage of a longhand draft is that, in transferring it to the computer, every single word is written at least twice. Then the computer draft can be endlessly revised. Writing in longhand is important, I think — and not just because I’m a pre-computer novelist (I bought myself my first typewriter, an Olivetti, for my 21st birthday). In handwriting there is a vital head-hand-page connection that a keyboard and computer removes. When you write in longhand you’re unconsciously aware of aspects of your prose — such as sentence length, cadence, rhythm, repetition, prolixity — that I find keyboard writing doesn’t alert you to in the same way. Also you can see all the litter of the progress you’ve made that day — the scorings-out; the arrows; the insertions; the bubbles; the second, third, fourth choices. The page reflects the mental effort that the screen doesn’t.”
Writing by hand is my love. I could go on and on about it. Ultimately, though, this is just something to try. I think it’s always a good idea to explore resistance by pushing through it, and seeing what happens.
If you aren’t a writer who has any trouble with resistance, if your inner critic doesn’t give you chronic trouble, and if you already feel continually surprised, excited and enchanted by your own scenes as you type them, don’t worry about it. Everyone is different. You’re writing, and you feel connected and happy. Don’t break what doesn’t need fixing.
Here’s an experiment for devout touch typers: dim your screen while you type, or tilt the laptop screen down so you can’t see what you’re writing. This will give you a fun freewriting experience — the goal is to write without knowing.
One of our Writing with Horses participants let me know that writing by hand is painful, due to an injury. So she brought a laptop (usually a big no in my in-person retreats!), and dimmed her screen while she wrote.
What do you think? All this talk about deep noticing and source — does it make sense to you? How do you create a space for connection, if not with handwriting? Let me know, in the comments below.