On writing by hand ...
Once upon a time when the United States had just elected its 41st commander-in-chief, I was tasked with writing a research paper on one of his predecessors. This was roughly a million years ago, so I have few distinct memories of the assignment. Those that have survived are tagged with vague sentiments: cautious enthusiasm in the wake of my first real presidential inauguration, some dread related to the interminable notecard process, and keen anxiety about landing the burden of a Millard Fillmore or Martin Van Buren. White House plumbing installation and popular advancement of the phrase “OK” notwithstanding, these men were favorable candidates for neither my careful attention nor the improvement of my craft. Or so I told my fifth grade teacher.
She was unmoved and I was charged with researching Lyndon B. Johnson, about whom I knew nothing and for whom I expected very little personal investment ...
At any rate, the other, more enduring memory I have of this assignment relates to its composition. After the meticulous effort of transferring research material to notecards and then structuring and paraphrasing that material until it fit the requirements of a formal outline, I drafted something that resembled an expository essay.
My mother, incidentally, has saved this piece of ephemera and so I have attached some images below in order to illustrate my purpose and to inform you about the life and times of Mr. Lyndon B. Johnson. The first iteration of my work, written on yellow lined paper that’s gone soft with humidity, is a fair approximation of the desired product. I’ve written in pencil, no doubt by the order of the teacher, but to this day I prefer lead to ink anyway. You can see the tempering of that particular lead tip over the course of the draft, the lines of script appearing flatter and looser than they had in my introduction paragraph. Sentences have been scribbled out, marginal notes scribbled in, and there appear in certain places to be the smudgy remnants of discarded language.
It’s all very messy.
I don’t really write like this anymore—or perhaps I should say that I don’t compose writing like this anymore—and I often wonder what might have been if I’d kept up with the process of generating and articulating my thoughts by hand rather than by way of a keyboard. Would I be more or less inhibited in my writing? More or less fastidious about the language I used? More or less original in developing a distinct voice that was all my own?
There is, of course, little chance that I’ll ever really answer these questions, but I find myself dwelling on them all the same. Today we live and learn and create content in a world that has experienced the digital revolution. For better or for worse, technology has transformed the way that we engage not only with the word on the page but also with the expression and retention of ideas—including our own.
I’m not advocating for some Luddite’s fantasy in which we revert to a pre-digital state; I’ve embraced my laptop and sometimes wonder how I could ever have been productive without it. We use these tools to access and process information, as important means of differentiation in the classroom, and to communicate immediately and efficiently with ourselves and others. Still, it must be acknowledged that immediacy and efficiency can be a hindrance to learning.
In his book The Missing Ink, novelist and art critic Philip Hensher questions whether “anything [will be] lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper” as we turn more frequently to the use of technical devices over the notebooks within which we once scribbled so furiously. Hensher, to be fair, is not particularly concerned with the concept of writing as a method of cognitive development. Instead, he worries about the loss of handwriting as a means of conveying the warmth and sincerity of human connection. He argues that the physical act of writing by hand—with all of the idiosyncratic ways in which one might hold the pen and chew the cap and angle the paper and doodle in the margins—is an expression of self. And if we lose the tactile process of forming the letters and committing them to ink, we also lose the chance to capture some elusive aspect of our own voices as writers. In “surrendering our handwriting for something more mechanical,” he concludes, we are “less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion” (Hensher 16).
I’m not sure I agree, but I do admire Hensher’s passion. His claim bears a certain poetic truth that’s entirely relevant to acts of creation and communication. As an educator, though, I think there’s a more practical argument for exercising the pen on a regular basis.
Referencing a 2016 study published in Psychological Science, NPR reports that there are distinct advantages to taking notes by hand. For one thing, doing so compels us to slow down and process the information that we are receiving. Note-taking by computer, on the other hand, entices us to capture material word-for-word as it is being delivered. According to study author Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University, students who type through class “have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can” whereas students who take longhand notes “were forced to be more selective” (Doubek). Simply put, students can type faster than they can write. Handwritten notes require them to determine the importance of information before transcribing it.
Mueller and her research partner, Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, cite two theories related to the benefits of note-taking: the encoding hypothesis and the external-storage hypothesis. The former claims that our ability to process material through note-taking aids learning and retention. The latter asserts that we reactivate and therefore improve learning by looking back at the notes we have taken. Ultimately, they hold that the extra processing time gained by writing proved beneficial to the students who participated in the study (Doubek).
Their research is confirmed by the work of other psychologists and neuroscientists who’ve sought to discover how handwriting connects to academic growth. Author Maria Konnikova references this work in a 2014 article for the The New Times. “Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand,” she reports, “but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information” (Konnikova). Handwriting facilitates information recall, then. It also promotes independent thinking.
My ten-year-old self may not have had much original insight into the presidency of Lyndon Johnson back in the spring of 1989, but the careful process of taking and rearticulating information by hand certainly impacted my relationship to the page and its contents. The importance of that particular task was not in the passive reception of knowledge but in the literal and figurative shaping of that knowledge into something that was entirely mine. The tortured cursive of my essay represents painstaking effort, the engagement and re-engagement of ideas, an organic approach to the writing process, and the fifth-grade equivalent of journalistic integrity. I have to think that writing by hand retains a value both in school and out of it, and nothing will convince me otherwise. Those who doubt me can expect a multi-paragraph persuasive essay on the topic. Written, of course, on lined paper. By hand.
Doubek, James. “Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away.” National Public Radio Weekend Edition, https://www.npr.org/2016/04/17/474525392/attention-students-put-your-laptops-away. Accessed 20 March 2018.
Hensher, Philip. The Missing Ink. Faber and Faber, Inc., 2012.
Konnikova, Maria. “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html. Accessed 20 March 2018