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Pen Or Keyboard — Which Is Mightier?

The ‘thingness’ of handwriting

Pen or keyboard

To handwrite a whole novel might be considered a crazy, stubborn endeavour. It’s something that I, a fully paid-up member of the Apple revolution, had never considered, until I had to.

In summer 2023, I was in a taxi on my way to a six-day retreat at Chez Castillon in the South of France, where I would begin my new book in earnest. There, I had planned to write the first few chapters, a slave to the Scrivener progress bar. Reaching into my backpack I realised, with a sickening stomach lurch, that something was missing. ‘We need to go back!’ I told the taxi driver, who patiently explained the law around U-turns on a motorway. ‘But I’ve forgotten my laptop’, I wailed, close to tears. This didn’t move the man who seemed strangely unwilling to lose his licence for me and my laptop. Undoubtedly used to such things happening on the Gatwick run, he explained the maths of returning home, and pointed out that, as well as the exponential fare, I would probably miss my flight. Then, the driver said something that was maddening, but ultimately useful. ‘Everything we do, even the mistakes, is a decision.’

Was he right? Had I decided to forget my laptop? Certainly not consciously. As the next turn off approached, I thought about the friends of mine whose first drafts are always written in notebooks. I settled back in my seat with a sigh. I would, I decided, go old school. I would write, or at least begin, my first-ever handwritten novel. ‘Onward, James’, I told my philosophising driver.

And so, I had six days without a computer. For some authors this would be preferable. Many famous names have spoken of the warm relationship they share with the physical writing process, and an equal and opposite hatred of the keyboard. John Updike is reported as having written to his editor at the New Yorker, ‘I’ve bought a word processor and we’re slowly coming to an understanding. It’s quick as the devil, but has very little imagination, and no small talk’. Neil Gaiman said in an interview with Tulsa World that, while typing feels like work, ‘writing with a pen is like playing’.

The sense of an author’s own handwriting as almost a partner or companion in the process is common, but Maya Angelou’s description of her own visceral reaction to the medium sounds romantic, even lustful: ‘I have written 31 books, essays, plays and lyrics for songs — all on yellow pads. […] I see a yellow pad, and my knees get weak, and I salivate’.

Perhaps this is down to what Mary Gordon, in the New York Times, called the ‘flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that […] we inhabit a corporeal world’.

There’s some scientific evidence to back up the flesh-and-blood connection to writing in brain-imaging studies on children learning to write. In 2012, a study found that practising their letters by hand, rather than typing or tracing the shapes, activated the brain’s reading circuit. This suggests that the genesis of reading is directly connected to the concrete act of drawing the letters.

Jo Nadin, author of over 100 books, understands this need for the physical, and has developed an unusual method of work. ‘I download everything I know about the book from my head (from plot points to full scenes) into notebooks longhand, in no order. Then I type it up, cut it up, and move it around until it’s in the right order. Then I stick it down. That’s my first draft.’

Beyond the early days of learning to write, there is a good reason why highly skilled writers, such as Jo, find physical writing and scrapbooking so effective. A study has shown that the brain uses a different neural pathway when a person is handwriting than when they type. Importantly, this pathway influences the effectiveness of our learning and memory. A 2014 study entitled The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard, by Professor Daniel Oppenheimer and Dr Pam Mueller found that participants who took lecture notes by hand ended up with a better understanding than those who typed straight onto a keyboard. The researchers were able to show that writing by hand seemed to promote ‘deep encoding’.

But does the traditional method also lead to higher quality creative writing? Or do we (and I’m now including myself in the subset of handwriting authors) just enjoy the process more? ‘From what I’ve seen about creative writing, it isn’t so much the physicality that matters but about other affordances’, Daniel Oppenheimer told me. ‘For example, people can type much faster than they can handwrite, so they have less time to search their mental lexicon for the next word, before they’ve finished typing the current word. That means that they tend to use the first word to come to mind. Meanwhile, people who handwrite have more time to search their mental lexicon, so they tend to be able to think of less common/more obscure words. The result is that hand writers use a wider variety of vocabulary, while typers tend to use more basic vocabulary and tend to re-use words. This leads hand writers to be more mindful and thoughtful when writing, while typers tend to be more spontaneous and impromptu.’

My initial reaction to Oppenheimer’s theory is that it doesn’t chime with how I feel when first putting pen to paper at the start of the day. Where the glaring screen would intimidate me and often cause me to question my career decisions, the ‘friendliness’ and perhaps ‘thingness’ of the off-white page seems not to judge and I get down to creativity much faster.

Author Zoë Marriott agrees with my experience. ‘I find it’s much easier to just write on paper. If I’m not sure how to begin or how a scene needs to go, I can know that I’m “just scribbling for twenty minutes” and put down a few crap lines to start me off. When it’s official-looking, typed on a screen, I’ll agonise over the right way to begin, or end up going back and fiddling with what I’ve written instead of moving forward with the scene. Often, by the time I get to the end of said scribbling I’ll have a sense of what I’ve done wrong and how to fix it, so what ends up typed will be entirely different and better, meaning my first-draft document is really more like a second draft.’

However, when I review my work, as I type it into a Scrivener document every few days, I have to agree with Oppenheimer’s views on handwriting improving quality. Words on a screen may look better, but, if I say so myself, my handwritten output is of a higher, more useable quality. As Barak Obama stated in his memoir, ‘A computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness’.

According to Oppenheimer, using different media to write will change your work. ‘One style is not better than the other, but they do lead to different content being generated. So, be thoughtful and deliberate in your adoption of different media’, he advises, ‘so that it supports rather than undermines your goals’. He has one final warning, something that will soon begin to affect us all. AI-generated suggested text, he told me, may affect typists’ work in a way that it won’t influence handwriters. ’It remains to be seen how that influence manifests in actual writing, but there is evidence that even people who don’t accept the recommended text are still influenced by seeing it, so that will undoubtedly lead to differences in the content being generated.’

Setting aside the effects of handwriting on output, I sense that the big difference it makes for me is still the meditative nature of the physical act. Since coming home from the retreat, I’ve written chapters both by hand and on my laptop but have found that the chapters written in real blue ink, not pixels, are deeper and more raw, as if the words and story are made more real and vulnerable by my proximity to the physical writing process. Interestingly, chapters also tend to be longer, which could simply be because, with no word count taunting me, or emails tempting me, I’m more in the moment.

Overall, what I believe I’ve discovered in writing by hand is an intimacy with the words and the worlds they make. A notebook is a private stage on which to play out my characters’ lives, and perhaps this is what gives it the quality. Like a diary, it’s a small, secret place where my stories can germinate like little seedlings, growing steadily towards the light and hopefully, one day, the reader.

Nikki Sheehan is an author, journalist, writing mentor and teacher. She has published three Middle Grade and Young Adult novels, short stories, one biography, and two picture books. Nikki has been shortlisted for, and won, several awards, including being twice nominated for the Carnegie medal.

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