Slow-reading; practice reading difficult texts on paper

I listened to this audio excerpt from WNYC’s New Tech City about reading on screens versus slow reading on paper. It’s hard not to conclude that digital media (like this blog?!) is an enemy of our brains insidiously dulling our comprehension.

Digital reading leads us to skimming and jumping around on the screen. The current thinking is that this changes our brains and the ways we think. Research shows that people reading on e-readers miss important details about sequence and cause and effect.

Slow-reading means reading closely and reading on paper. I prefer this kind of reading, and, unlike Popova of Brain Pickings who is interviewed in this piece, I am not challenged by the note-taking and annotating process from paper texts. The physical and material quality of a book helps us focus our attention on difficult and demanding texts. By pushing ourselves daily to try reading challenging and deep texts on the page, we can re-gain and hone the skills and cognitive abilities to do this kind of reading. It’s like exercising the other parts of our bodies—we improve doing things by continually and daily practicing it.

The assumption in this analysis is that reading on paper is somehow normative, when really it’s only been a dominate practice for humans for about 500 years (or a few hundred years more if you count papyrus and parchment manuscripts.) Sure, I’m a medievalist and 500 years seems like it was almost yesterday, but really, if you put this in to context within the 200,000 years our species has been in existence, 500 years is almost no time at all.

The physical operations involved with holding at text, moving our eyes across the page, and processing the visual data about where words are placed on a page and within the book are all fundamental to the cognitive processes of comprehension and retention.

I wonder if anyone is doing research on the changes in cognitive processes 500 years ago when printed books emerged as a new dominate way of reading? Do you have a bi-literate brain that can jump between skimming and slow-reading? I remember things better when I read them on paper, do you?



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.

Revising the writing process

I am still trying to learn something I should have figured out a long time ago: that with sufficient preparation and organization (or outlining) I can write a pretty good essay.

In previous posts I’ve tried to figure out what is my current process? What are better ways of researching and writing that include doing extensive revision? And how can I produce higher quality writing in less time? I am enough of an optimist to believe that I can learn to improve my academic writing. So, I’ve revised the sequence of steps and included them below.

  1. Dream and brainstorm; generate questions
  2. Hunt and gather
  3. Plan and outline
  4. Write out my research questions in the outline
  5. Research and take notes
  6. Outline, review, study, make connections with the material in my notes; this is basically what I would do if I were preparing for an essay exam
  7. Draft longhand while referring to my notes as little as possible; this is only possible if one actually does step 6
  8. Type and print out the draft
  9. Revise the draft (I work best on the hard copy); these are all sorts of edits, from major reorganizational changes, to editing how paragraphs are structured, and detailed proofreading each sentence for correctness
  10. Apply the edits to the digital version of the document and print it out again
  11. Repeat 9 and 10 as many times as necessary

Do I do this? Not yet. I tend to jump around too much which means I’m wasting a lot of effort by writing before I’ve done sufficient research and organizational work.

Are the first three steps really just the same things? No. I need to start with creative and expansive thinking that allows me to survey the horizons. Then I need to touch base with recent publications in my field. Reading material that’s not on my working bibliography might be considered a waste of time, but usually there are connections that help stimulate richer analysis. I consider the reading I have to do in preparation for teaching as part this category. (This relates to a much bigger issue about whether good scholars can be good teachers and vice versa.) The third phase is when I begin to think about boundaries and audience: what areas do I need to cover and where do I draw the line? Who is going to read this and does my audience have any expectations about this material?

In my master’s program I had to learn how to prepare for an essay exam. (This wasn’t an assessment method used in my undergrad program in studio art.) For one of my master’s courses we were given the exam questions about 2 weeks before the exam which meant we could prepare outlines and work in groups to study. I practiced writing the exam essays at my kitchen table with an egg timer set to the 45 block allotted for each exam question and wrote out the essay prosed on black paper with the outline off to the side. I did very well on the exam.

Usually when I tell this story to undergrads it’s because I’m trying to explain a study technique and how it helped me write awesome essays for the exam. I’ve overlooked the other learning from the experience that with sufficient preparation (doing the readings) and organization (planning and outlining) I was able to learn a lot of material and write some pretty good essays in a relatively short period of time.

Can I write faster?

I’m not crazy, but it is a head-game

I get more work done when I’m not crazy. I have invested wayyyy too much emotional energy into the quality of the finished thesis that I have a hard time exercising the necessary detachemnt from the writing to actually make the revisions I need to make.

I wish I could say that I didn’t pursue this degree because I wanted to prove something to myself and those around me about my intelligence. But, that would be false. I have an ego and need affirmation. I want to demonstrate my intellectual abilities and to stand apart from other people based on an ability or talent I’ve cultivated. I want to have my own place “at the table” with the other smart people, not because they like me or think I’m easy to get along with, but because they think I have a contribution to make.

These expectations about the process (and other people) are not helpful, and so I am trying to let go of them.

Revisions are harder than writing, at least for me. Sure, writing can get me down especially when I’m not clear about what I want to say. But it’s the process of doing revisions during which I have to keep at least two versions of the text in my memory—the old draft which was reviewed and commented on by outside readers and the current draft being formed by moving around and deleting portions of the text—that overwhelms me.  I’d probably be better at doing revisions if I had an outline in a separate document to which I could refer as I move stuff around.

Increasing writing fluency?

For me there is no “secret key” about improving my speed—it’s all about getting over or through or around the stuff that it keeping me from actually doing the writing or revisions.

When I am free, detached, and confident I can write. I get to this emotional space by exercising, by disengaging from the draining activities and relationships in my life, and by focusing on my goal (degree in hand). I also find it is much easier to write if I don’t fuss with “how it sounds” or whether the way I phrase something is sophisticated enough.  That is an editorial question, not a question worth getting hung up on during the writing phase.

A shared anxiety

This is an article from about increasing the speed and fluency with which we write.  I was chastened by this quote.

Like many writers, I take a lot of notes before I compose a first draft. The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

This highlights the issue of identifying what exactly one is doing at a particular time, about doing just that one task: writing, taking notes, or evaluating and commenting on the notes. While I’m supposedly writing am guilting of spending too much time and energy back in my notes reviewing and evaluating those ideas. Is this what it takes to write?

  1. Dreaming, brainstorming, writing in my thesis journal about general issues
  2. Hunting and gathering new ideas: I try to read new publications in my field that are beyond my thesis topic.  This keeps me fresh and up-to-date, and it helps me keep my thesis in perspective.  Even just a half-hour of reading a book review can help stimulate new ideas and motivation.
  3. Planning and outlining I often skip this step or breeze through it too fast and it backfires on me every time.  It is much more helpful to realize early in the process that I need to do more research on something than later in the process when integrating new research is more complicated. Note: this is also a good time to create a few other related documents for art history papers: the list of figures with their captions and copyright info (add numbers during the writing phase), bibliography, timeline of important dates or events, list of important names with alternate spellings, etc. This is also the best time to request books and scan articles.
  4. Write out the questions I want to answer and the keywords I want to use. It makes sense to put these directly into the outline document. I like to have a hard-copy of the most up-to-date outline with me most of the time.
  5. Researching, reading, and taking notes. I try to always comment on the readings in my notes. Sometimes something I’ve read will stimulate a big thought and then I’ll go to a fresh page/document and write out the idea into a paragraph (or more). When this happens the writing goes fast and the usually the core idea is important. I try to use this time to distill only the information I need to use that relates to my research project. My weakness is to take notes on everything—trying to be responsible and  comprehensive—but that backfires because then I have tons of notes but little that is relevant! This is a major hang-up of mine that I am getting much better about not doing.
  6. Write a draft longhand using the outline and referring to my notes as little as possible. This is what I’m supposed to do, but I’m not there yet. I try to go back to my notes only when I need specific details (page numbers, dates, etc.) I have a bad habit of leaning on my notes too heavily when I’m writing which makes it really hard to be free enough to write my own ideas and arguments.
  7. Type up the draft and print it out. For longer writing it may make sense to write out a section of the outline at a time, type that section out, and then write some more. I find I loose efficiency if I do any one thing for too long!
  8. Use the hard copy for editing. Focus on cohesion in the paragraphs and coherence among paragraphs. Concision is nice and correctness is a must. Clarity comes over time and from rewriting sections that are complicated.
  9. Apply the edits and print it out again.

Much of this is based on this post. There is no perfect way, but there are better ways.