In this age of typewritten communication, are we missing out on the advantages of writing by hand?
“There is an element of dancing when we [hand]write, a melody in the message, which adds emotion to the text."
― Roland Jouvent
In Praise of Penmanship
Like seaside cliffs that erode in specific patterns according to the movements of oceans and plates across the globe, the lines and twists of a written alphabet evolve over time. Each curlicue and truncation reflects choices made repetitively and increasingly over a period of time until they became the norm; deviations reflect creativity and innovation, responding to the rhythms of the language’s use.
This is the natural ebb and flow of linguistic evolution, and its record for so many thousands of years has been not via electronic machinery, but through the muscular manipulation of other low-tech items like pencils and pens and—at its most basic—bare fingers. There is a muscle memory to this, a storehouse of movements in the mind of every person who has written by hand. The way that there is a component to music that Beethoven could channel while deaf, there is a component to written language that is very physical, deeply connected to the minute movement of fingers upon a page.
Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, put it thus: “Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.”
This leaves our generation at a peculiar junction. In a June 2014 survey commissioned by a printing and mailing company called Docmail, 2,000 UK-based participants reported that they had not handwritten anything in, on average, the past 41 days. (This is a bit difficult to take at face value, since surely many people must have inadvertently jotted down handwritten notes here and there that they didn't recall at the time of the survey, but this tells us at least that they consciously reported not having done so).
Are we losing anything, as a society, by slipping into an almost complete reliance on typing and a renunciation of handwritten language? How does the muscular difference between holding a pencil and forming words by hand—the dexterity of it, the speed of it—affect our cognition differently than does tapping at keys? Does it feel more intimate or less intimate to share our thoughts via handwriting? Do we tend to communicate more or less sophisticated thoughts when we type, because many of us cannot handwrite a sentence as fast as we can think it? Does one tend to engage our memory or cognitive processing of material more effectively, and in what ways? Which method lends itself to poetic innovation rather than lyrical replication?
There are trends and studies that point to various conclusions, but—as it does in so many things—I believe it comes down to the individual. Language is as diverse as there are people to express it, and people may be better suited in whatever way for one mode of communication for a particular situation. This month, I invite you to use the exercises below to experiment for yourself: If you can handwrite items you otherwise would have typed (transcribing later, if need be), how does this affect how you process your thoughts? Practice this in your communications with people, to-do lists, notes taken during lectures and meetings, and—if you want to get very intense about it—even with phone texts! At the very least, even if you find your content is ultimately unaffected, the diminished screen time this affords you might be the greatest benefit of all.
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
For one full day (when your work schedule can afford you the time flexibility), write all of your emails on a notepad, by hand, before you transcribe them onto the computer.
Later, compare the nature of the handwritten-and-transcribed emails to other "regular" emails you have written. What differences did you notice? Were there any benefits to handwriting first that might have been worth the extra time and effort? Did the final email come out more polished, or did it come off as more inauthentic? Did the communication feel more like it was with another "human," or less so? Did you feel more vulnerable?
If you try this exercise from time to time, you may come across certain types of emails that benefit from handwritten rough drafts. (For instance, if you are a team leader giving out assignments, perhaps you notice your handwritten emails better convey your authentic humor, or your friendliness; you may also notice that you get to the point more quickly, or conversely, that you tend to include more detail.) If you find any of these differences to be helpful, you might integrate handwritten rough drafts into your email habits, or perhaps even suggest it to coworkers!
HANDWRITING FOR MEMORY Neuropsychologist Audrey van der Meer explains that all of the brain activity involved in taking notes by hand—accessing memories about the shapes of letters and the physical movements it takes to form them—"gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on."
In fact, studies have shown that people who take notes by hand actually process and remember the desired information better than they do if they type it. This is likely the result of several factors. For one, handwriting is generally slower than speech to the extent that one must decide in the moment what is worth recording and what is worth skipping; when typing, one can type everything and decide later what the important parts where. In the latter case, mental processing has been deferred to a later time, and the initial moment has not been used to its fullest cognitive potential.
Another factor is that physically forming letters, as one does in handwriting, increases visual recognition capabilities. This is because the mind must categorize as the letter "h," for instance, many visual marks and movements that correspond to the letter "h," even though the letter is not drawn identically each time.
This month, try to handwrite everything that you otherwise might have typed (notes to yourself, emails, to-do lists, etc) and observe whether your sense of recall seems improved.
"Words on paper bring something that one person has touched to the touch of another; they metonymically figure the human body by transporting its combination of persistence and perishability."
-Siobahn Phillips, associate professor of English at Dickinson College
Choose 10 friends and send each a handwritten postcard—even a simple "How are you?" can seem like an event when it shows up in your physical mailbox in the handwriting of someone of whom you are fond!
THE SHAPES OF LETTERS
"Because the messenger's mouth was heavy and he couldn't repeat (the message), the lord of Kulaba patted some clay and put words on it, like a tablet—Until then, there had been no putting words on clay." -from Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, a Sumerian epic (c. 1800 BCE.)
The invention of systems of writing allowed for the flourishing of societies in ways that were not previously possible—knowledge could be recorded and passed without intermediary (that is, without the necessity of someone needing to remember and orally convey the message) between people in different geographical spaces or different eras.
A personal, intimate element, then, is already baked into the practice of writing (particularly in writings directly penned by the originator, not a scribe). There are clues about the writer not only in the thought conveyed, but in the state of the clay in which it is inscribed, the neatness of the script, the shapes of letters serving as regional accents do now in the expression of cultural diversity.
Handwriting contains components of expression that cannot be conveyed by visually uniform letters, such as those sterile creations one might find on the computer. Type the letter “A” when you’re angry, when you’re sad, and when you’re joyful, when you are frantic or when you are calm, and it will look exactly the same (perhaps someday soon an algorithm will be able to capture these moods through our keyboard and leave a visual trace just as the pen does, but as of yet we are beholden to the uniformity).
Personal letters leave a string of visual evidence—where the writer slowed down or sped up, where their energy was flagging and where they felt rejuvenated; where they pressed the pen deeply into the page, emphatically; where they lightened their grip, timidly. Any teacher who has graded essays in piles of blue books can easily spot the messy scrawl that indicates when students realized they were running out of time, or where they write in looming letters to fill up space because they don't have enough to say. These handwritten emotional cues are absent in electronic communication; such uniform text does not contain a visible record of the moments of its creation. This means, in a sense, that certain information is being lost.
But this is not all to say that the current mechanics of writing should entirely be shunned. There is much to recommend the typing of our thoughts—it is faster, is often less harsh on the fingers, and can be more egalitarian (if you choose to look at it that way) in the sense that when penmanship is taken out of the equation, only the thought content remains.
Of this evolution of handwriting as "progress," Anne Trubek, associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College, writes:
“What we want from writing—and what the Sumerians wanted—is cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts... This is what typing does for millions. It allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: we want more time to think.”
Recognizing this difference allows us to decide what method of writing works best for us in any given situation. Just because there is a newer technology for something doesn't mean one has to use it, nor does it mean one should instinctively shun it.
There is much to recommend typing: It leaves us the time to possibly explain ourselves in greater detail before our hand gets tired, possibly freeing our writings from the physical limitations of dexterity and endurance. It applies useful pressure to express originality through the content of the writing since the personal touch of penmanship can't do the trick.
Just as the Sumerians did not dispense entirely with visuals and graphics and oral communication when they developed a new mode of transferring thoughts, so might we not unequivocally discard the practice of writing by hand—in certain times and in certain places, it might yet prevail.
"Handwriting vs. typing: Is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?" by Anne Chemin [The Guardian]
"Should you feel sad about the demise of the handwritten letter?" by Siobahn Phillips [Aeon]
"Three Ways That Handwriting With A Pen Positively Affects Your Brain" by Nancy Olsen [Forbes]
"How Handwriting Trains the Brain" by Gwendolyn Bounds [The Wall Street Journal]
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