Reflection: Writing by Hand

Writing by hand may seem like a low-tech, old-fashioned practice, but the cognitive process can’t be replaced by typing on a keyboard. I know several other academics who still work from hand-written notes and who are proud of their handwriting for its legibility, regularity, and style. And, even though we’ve eliminated hand-written texts from almost all of our lives, the handwritten signature remains an important mark of authorship and authenticity. With the increased use of digitized texts to communicate with one another, even in our most intimate relationships, we simply don’t use handwritten communications anymore. Do you know what your friends’ handwriting looks like? Can you read your partner’s handwritten notes? It’s hard for me not to feel a loss of intimacy and privacy when we make the switch to text-messages instead of post-it notes and love-letters. Computerized writing flattens the text so much and eliminates the changes in density of ink, spacing, and crossed-out words. Digitized texts eliminate much of the connection with the physical presence of the author.

I like the way writing by hand changes the way I think: the way it slows down my hand as I form the letters and the way it allows my mind to compose whole phrases at a time. Earlier in my thesis work I made the unusual switch to go backwards with technology. I stopped using Zotero, an online cloud-based service that manages bibliographic information, website URLs and screenshots, and notes. I felt disconnected from my notes because my research was all buried in the maze of links, tabs, and folders. I didn’t like scrolling and clicking through a bunch of links to get to my written commentaries. [Despite these critiques, I still think Zotero is an amazing resource and highly recommend it to all researchers!] So, I exported everything and went back to using spiral notebooks. Writing in the notebooks changed the way I was thinking about my readings and how it fit into my overall project. Handwriting takes more time than typing on the screen, and that time forced me to slow down and refine what I was trying to extract from my reading. I was much less likely to copy out longer quotes from the material and much more likely to include reactions or commentaries on what I was reading.

Apparently, these musings on how handwriting relates to mental processes are not just a manifestation of my self-obsession over my own writing process. This recent study (from The Week) highlights this cognitive change that happens when we write: writing words by hand activates our brains much more so than reading the same words. Sure, typing on the keyboard uses similar visual process of seeing what is on the screen (or paper). And typing on a keyboard involves many fine motor skills in the same way as forming letters on paper. The difference is in the cognitive processes involved, so when we are writing by hand we are remembering how to form the letters, which is very different from touch-typing on a keyboard. We select the whole letter with each keystroke on the keyboard, unlike the more gradual process of forming letters with sequential strokes when we write by hand. These sequential movements activate much more of our brains (see here for source) as we use language, memory, and thinking. This same study also highlights how handwriting engages motor-skills and memory, not just when we ourselves write things down, but also when we read what others have written by hand including musical notation and foreign languages.

I’m in a work/study environment that prioritizes speed in everything: read fast, write fast, edit fast, think fast. And there is something to be said for getting through a doctorate as quickly as possible in order to not prolong the agony any longer than necessary. By contrast, creative writers highlight the slowness that comes with writing by hand. Slowness forces writers to choose words and their order differently from someone who composes on the computer. Surprisingly, slowness in this way does not mean that all writers who use computers will necessarily write faster and more complete thoughts. Fragmentary thoughts are what keep many students from writing well and I often recommend to undergrads that they consider taking notes in class or from their readings in full sentences, not using bulleted points with only a few words.


It’s hard not to put teaching handwriting into the same category as other subjects rarely taught in schools like home economics and shop class. Now we have a revival of homemade crafts and do-it-yourself projects out there reminding us that creating and fixing things are important and even pleasurable. I’m ready for a revival of handwriting practice and Barchowsky’s handwriting method looks like a great place to start!

This image comes from a Wall Street Journal article that includes several links to sites offering hand-writing tutorials.

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