Why you should write by hand.

write by hand

Making time to write by hand can be tough. I know: it’s messy, and it takes longer. A whole page of handwriting only comes to about half a page of typing once you transcribe it. Handwriting can look sloppy and unclear. And an hour’s worth of scribbling on a page in blue ink doesn’t hold nearly the same crispness and efficacy of a double-spaced page of sentences set in Times New Roman.

And yet.

Here are my three reasons for writing by hand (check out some more benefits here). They’re all important, but honestly, the last one is the kicker.

1. It’s too easy to edit yourself brutally when you’re typing on a screen.

When you press delete on the computer, you erase your tender ideas before they even have a chance to take root.  When the deleted sentence disappears from the page it disappears from your consciousness.

Writing by hand creates a map of your explorations. Even if you scratch out a sentence, the remains of that sentence are still there on the page; their presence affects the next sentence you write, and the sentences after that.

When you are writing a first draft, divining your story as you go, you need these markers to guide your subconscious. They are your material! Taking them away is cruel, and makes creative work harder than it has to be. When you’re writing a first draft, you don’t know if what you’re writing is any good or not – you simply don’t have access to that judgment at this stage. You’re exploring – and that means turning off critical analysis. Handwriting allows this to happen more readily.

2. To your brain, writing by hand feels more like making art.

Drawing the letter B is making a mark with your hand. As you write, your letters turn into words and sentences, but the act of putting ink to paper activates the right hemisphere of your brain. This is the part of the brain that sees in pictures.

Try this: on a blank piece of paper, write a list of words that start with the letter “B.” Write the words very slowly, as they come to you. Print them in all capital letters, or make your cursive ribbon-like, as though you were a calligraphist. Line them up one under the other to make a word tower. Continue to play with the shapes of your letters as you write the words. Experience the peaceful, exciting bloom of creativity as it floods your right hemisphere. You’re working with language, yes, but you’re also playing, you’re drawing.

Then turn the page over, and continue to write by hand, this time using characters and voice. You’re warmed-up, now. You’re limber, your brain feels elastic. Do that for 10 minutes every morning. It feels so much nicer than powering up your computer, feeling distracted by your inbox, and trying hard to crunch out a brilliant page of sentences on your first brittle go in the Microsoft Word Print Layout View. But here’s my main reason:

3. Handwriting is more real.

It feels more important, in the way that counts. More special. If you want to develop a healthy relationship with your writing, if you want your writing to know that you think it’s real, important and special, then you write by hand. It doesn’t matter that it takes more time, or that it’s inconvenient -- when you love something, you write it by hand.

Think about the last time you received a handwritten thank you card in the mail. Wasn’t it lovely? Wasn’t there more emotion and feeling in those few loopy sentences than in all of the emails you’ve received in your inbox for the past month, combined?

That person wrote that note at least a few days before you received it. She cleared some space on a table and selected paper and a pen, and then she thought about you. She thought about an experience she wanted to share with you, and then she put it into words. Magically, when you opened the envelope, you felt that focus. It’s a time capsule, a transmission. There’s energy in handwriting, and your body recognizes it.

We so rarely get to feel this anymore, because email has metastasized our correspondence. Even birthday cards are emailed now (although I disapprove of this). At least handwritten thank you cards are still de rigueur for wedding gifts and sympathy cards. And why?  Because we want the emotion behind those events to stand out in our lives as real, important, and special!

Sentimental? Maybe. Inefficient? Almost definitely. But I’ll say it again: when you love something, you write it by hand.

xo,

Sarah” width=

Get rid of that jerk!
Be a good letter writer = be a good writer.

24 comments

These are exactly the reasons that I make handwritten notes. I will share this article (with your attributes, of course) in my eNewsletter. Thanks, jdp
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Most often, I write first drafts by hand, but if I start out on the computer and then get stuck, I go back to pen and paper and it helps break through the writer's block. :)
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Sarah, this is such a lovely reminder of the power of writing by hand. I have not given up reading real books, why have I so quickly abandoned hand writing? Efficiency I suppose, but it’s true, it feels less like art or self-expression and more work on the computer. Thanks for this. Laura
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Oh, this post makes me want to go out and buy myself a brand new journal, a smooth writing pen and start writing again every morning. I think it's time...
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Jennifer Louden

i am writing by hand but finding myself so getting behind typing in my writing and also my handwriting is so awful... but I persist! 10 minutes a day almost everyday except vacation and sundays since we chatted!
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you!
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Sarah Selecky

Carla, this is how I do it too. A mix of both - but paper for when it really counts.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Laura! Let me know how it goes if you move back to paper and pen.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh thank goodness. :)
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Sarah Selecky

Amazing, Jen! Blank paper or lined? Just curious.
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I think that the fact that writing by hand is slower is an advantage more than a disadvantage as creativity or thought processing goes. I've gone back and forth with digital and paper journals in the past ten years (I've been writing for over 20 years), but I noticed that with hand writing, my ideas would form and change as I was writing; it's as if the ideas mature somewhat before the ink is spilled onto the page. It also does feel more real and physically connected to the "realness" of the paper and pen and ink as your hand glides across the page. The handwritten word contains more information than just a print one, because it can display emotion: "A hand written word contains a thousand words" so to speak. I've had to switch to digital writing only during the past year because I've developed focal dystonia ("writer's cramp" - who knew it was real?!) and have difficulty writing smoothly or even legibly at times. Frustrating, but I feel like it's been better this year than last. Going back to the hand written word always feels different and better, if less convenient. Thanks for the post.
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks, Scott! I love this: "The handwritten word contains more information than just a print one, because it can display emotion" -- so true. Those letters hold so much - how you're feeling as you write, the emotion of the scene, the weather, the time of day, your alertness or tiredness - and so much more, stuff that's harder to articulate. Our journals are rich with information, and not just in the way we might think.
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Lyle Pigeon

Sarah, I have been writing by hand for almost 4 decades and I find it Faster than hunt'n peck. I feel a true connection with pen and paper. I will always use this method to keep track of what's going on in my world. My question is can I do my books in this manner? If so, I have three that I don't seem to get around to doing on the computer, because it would take too long and I have the attention span of a gnat.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Lyle, Of course you can write books entirely by hand, if you like - that's what all writers used to do, after all! To get it into a manuscript form, you can always hire a typist to put it in the computer for you.
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Stephen D. Forman

Hi Sarah, Great advice as always...the result of which I feel a bit foolish for even asking the following questions, but here goes. First, "when you love something, you write it by hand". Fair enough. But many of your readers and SSM'ers are also business writers and columnists when we're not staring into the rain on a cat-nuzzled Saturday morning. When I've an article to submit regarding the latest features of some insurance product... is handwriting still recommended? My habit has been to knock out first drafts on OMMwriter-- a serene, elemental word processor-- but it's still decidedly *not* by hand. Second, I began my "great American novel" several years ago before writer's block struck, at which point I set it aside. One of the reasons I signed up for SSM was to unjam my inertia around that project. I'm feeling really swell now... but today's work is handwritten, while the first 100 pages are typewritten. Would you recommend going back over the original 100 pages and re-writing them by hand, maybe just to see what develops? Or should I not worry about the mix-and-match between the old & the new? Thanks for all your great wisdom Sarah! Steve
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Steve! Thanks for this. 1. The "love" part of writing doesn't have to be about content (although it helps) -- it's more about intention. So yes, definitely, if you feel your work writing needs a bit of love to be extra successful, then write your first draft of the article, copy, or column by hand. Simply jotting down your notes by hand before you type the piece will be useful. I use handwriting anywhere I want my ideas to feel special and important. I write my grocery lists by hand, for this reason (I love my pantry). That said, when you get into writing something gritty, technical, or otherwise need some extra left-brain for your work, the keyboard sometimes helps you "get it done." www.ommwriter.com is *excellent* for this. It's often what I use, when I write copy and I'm on a deadline. It makes me feel like I'm taking the left hemisphere of my brain to a spa for the day. Why not try using your handwriting for your articles, and seeing if you like the results? And by results, I mean how you feel as you write the piece, not just the final product. I'm all about bringing pleasure to the writing day. 2. Congratulations on picking up your novel again! I'm so happy SSMind has been a help. I've never written (read: finished writing) a novel, so I can't tell you I know how it's properly done. But here's how I would approach it: don't worry about what's handwritten and what's typed, for now. Eventually you'll want to transcribe your handwriting (I assume), and when you start doing that you'll be in second draft territory. I think what's best is to have a finished first draft. That will feel so good. Then you'll have the stamina and heart to go back to the old work, mix up the old with the new, rewrite, cut, paste, all that good stuff. For now - just write. If handwriting is getting you there, keep going with handwriting. I recently read an essay by Margaret Atwood, about how she wrote The Edible Woman. She said she got a spiral notebook, began writing Chapter One, and just filled the book. Got a second notebook, wrote Chapter Two, and so on. Inspiring.
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Stephen D. Forman

Hi again... thanks for taking so much time to write a thoughtful reply! You've convinced me in a stroke-- I'm carrying inside a particularly scrappy, belligerent article that may need the loving attention of a warm hand. It's curious-- I wouldn't have said I "love" my topics until you bounced it back at me and I remembered I truly wish to change the world every time I start typing my grandiose ideas. So why not write by hand? Let's see what comes... As for the novel, that's some practical advice right there... it'll all circle back 'round when I get to the next draft. Inspiration is finding me in the most thrilling ways nowadays... Thanks, Steve
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I have always written everything by hand. There is just something about pen and paper...that I need to feel the pen in my hand and turn the pages of my notebook. Since I am working on a couple of books.... I know that I will need to start typing my stories into the computer...this scares me a little. I am an avid reader...and I need to be able to feel the book in my hand and turn the pages....smell the paper too. No kindle for me..!
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Every morning I write the date, a thought, and the lesson outline on the board in my classroom. I write long hand. Aside from the emotional connection to writing by hand, and in particular, cursive, there's a 'let's use it, lest we lose it' connection too. Most of my students (grades 7, 11, and 12) struggle to read and to understand handwritten instructions and feedback (before I hear - dr's prescription pad illegibility comments, my penmanship is really quite superb! :-) ). They don't care to use it, they don't care to read it. "Can't you print Ms Gervais?" The debate whether the next generation needs to know how write by hand is ongoing within schools, between parents, teachers, students and boards. Some debate that it's unrealistic (read: a waste of time) to teach a skill that is becoming less useful or required because of technology. In fact, I think it's quite the opposite. Think of the number of people in NYC who couldn't reach family members during the recent floods - power was out and their contact information was pre-programmed into their gadgets making it unavailable. Many had no idea what their family or friends' phone numbers were! Sorry - that's not quite part of the writing by hand discussion. Well, I guess, sort of - these folks didn't take the time to write the contact information into their paper phone books. Point is, we can't let the skill die away. It's still, I think, a valuable skill to have. I've just 'discovered' your site, and I appreciate what you are doing. Thank you so much for your words. Sheryl :-)
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Sarah Selecky

Sheryl, thanks so much for your thoughts on this! I love your perspective and agree wholeheartedly. Lynda Barry was on a panel with two other book designers a few years ago, and they were asked, how do you do your work? What software do you use, etc. And Lynda just held up her hands. The other two designers looked shocked: who does design by hand anymore? Then they both got nostalgic: remember when you'd spill coffee on your drafting table, and the colour of the liquid set off the blue you were working with, and then you had an aha? It's similar with writing I think. When we stop using our hands, we limit the possibility of those organic (magic?) and creative happy accidents. Check out Lynda Barry's book on writing -- What Is It. She made the entire thing by hand, and her publisher scanned all the pages in. It's a rare piece of soul + art. Thank you again for your thoughts. xo,Sarah
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David Nelson

I'm not even sure you'll see this comment, since it's on an article from eight and a half years ago. But I wanted to say that I'm working on my twelfth book (among other projects). The first eleven I wrote were completely done on my laptop. The one I'm working on now I actually started in November of 2019. Health issues came front and center, and I didn't touch it again for right at a year. (And I also published a different book during that time.) I had the first four paragraphs in the laptop document when I quit. At some point in November of 2020, I was doing a search for something online, and I have absolutely no idea what it was. I came across an article about handwriting one's first (and sometimes second and third) draft by hand. The list was impressive. And that rabbit hole led to another one about fountain pens, because many of the authors mentioned used fountain pens. A few used pencils, like John Steinbeck. So I copied the four paragraphs I had already, then continued writing the story by hand. Ballpoint pen on narrow-rule notebook paper. That's when I came across the fountain pen articles, after I was 50+ pages in. I now have 50-ish more pages written in fountain pen, on Georgia-Pacific 20lb copy paper. I feel more connected to the story since I started handwriting it. I also much prefer the fountain pen over a ballpoint because of hand fatigue. I can write for hours with my fountain pen without my hand hurting. Fits, jerks, and starts with a ballpoint. I like the sound my FP makes as I'm writing; the scratching of the fine nib on paper as characters come alive and imagination becomes reality. I really appreciate your taking the time to write this article. I really enjoyed it. I just wish I had found such articles when I published my first book in 2011. Apologies for this being so long.
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Sarah Selecky

Hello David! I DO read comments, even ones on older posts, like this one! I so appreciated your story about how you came to love writing with FP ink. I do, as well -- so much so that my hand now cramps when I write with ballpoint. I'm so glad you found my site, and that this post has been of value to you.
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Cindy Bahl

Hi Sarah, I love this post. It wasn't until I got involved in your school that I learned about why writing by hand was so important. Since then? I have done as you suggested and bought a gorgeous pen that I love to write with. Matter of fact, I discovered this pen is much easier to write with than anything else I've tried. It helps make the entire process feel more like a luxurious experience. I admit I'm a bit of a tech geek. I also lack patience in getting my thoughts and ideas out. Meaning, I love to type instead of write by hand. However, once I began the process, I discovered I was accessing a part of my brain I hadn't previously tapped into. I know for a fact that some of my writing would not have been so rich and creative had I attempted to initially type it out instead. It does take a little getting used to, writing by hand. I admit I still have to force myself to do it this way. But once I've begun that session? I get lost in the words and hit a flow state I just can't access when I'm typing. Thanks for yet another amazing post.
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Cindy Bahl

Oh! I meant to add another note. I totally agree with you about OmmWriter. I'm not sure if I learned about it from your website or from elsewhere. I've had it for a while now. But it is gorgeous in design and, to me, is the next best thing to handwriting when helping my brain get into its flow state during the writing process.
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