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I'm a member of a Discord server for people interested in completing an entire novel during NaNoWriMo (and Camp sessions). At one point, a discussion arose around writing by hand vs. typing out your story.

Someone mentioned that they prefer writing by hand, because it's fewer distractions, although it makes revisions harder and they still have to type it all out before.

I personally find that writing by hand makes flow harder, and I lose my train of thought more easily.

Then again, this could come down to me being younger and more used to typing (and I have horrible handwriting), and them being older and more used to writing stuff by hand.

Are there advantages either way? What are the pros and cons of both methods? (Should I give hand another shot?)

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    Please notice that asking this question on a forum where all answers will need to be typed may bias the pool of possible answers. – Pere Jun 30 '19 at 19:00
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    Battery-free portability. – SF. Jul 1 '19 at 7:57
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    Someone mentioned that this was "opinion based" and should be closed, but, although I don't have time (or access to the library databases to do it now), I know there ARE research papers done in scholarly works, especially in fields of pedagogy, creativity, and rhetoric studies about benefits of each mode, both for note-taking purposes and for creative writing. So I hope some people will find some of the scholarly studies about these modalities and share summaries of their findings. Thanks! – April Salutes Monica C. Jul 1 '19 at 13:40
  • Two word summary of all the good answers: "It depends". (In general, that's the answer to all good questions - those are the ones without easy answers.) – Ethan Bolker Jul 3 '19 at 12:53

12 Answers 12

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Please note that I used to hand write everything and only type up what I felt was worthwhile later, largely due to a rather slow typing speed. Now I tend to do one or the other, typing some projects and hand writing others depending on end use (material purely for my own reference usually being hand written and material that may later be shared being typed).

With that in mind in my experience typing makes rearranging things too easy and I end up spending far too long fiddling with the work already done when I'm supposed to be working on new material. This is also often necessary as the pace of typing makes format a foreign concept. I also find typing too easy to put down when the ideas slow down.

Hand writing is more immersive, I tend to stick with it for longer and get longer sessions even if I may have fewer words to show for it. Because of the slower pace I tend to get better results, requiring less editing, because I'm forced to spare some attention for formatting in the first pass. Because it's harder to make major alterations I don't so when I pick up an existing piece I get a lot more new work done, I may make a note to rearrange it later but I can't do the work there and then.

Neither format allows me to keep up with speed of thought, even speech-to-text can't do that, and I lose some stuff regardless.

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    Ironically, even as a programmer, I find this to be true. There are certain things people really ought to be writing it out instead of typing it out on computers. Drawing a flowchart by hand is a different process than doing the same thing in Visio, even though the output is the same. – Nelson Jul 2 '19 at 2:34
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    @Nelson Same goes for designing an user interface. I have a bunch of different pens, pencils, crayons, inks, etc. Fiddling with them to make a new user interface for my business is a complete bliss, and they look so much better than anything that I designed directly on Visual Studio. – T. Sar Jul 2 '19 at 12:24
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I remember what a huge deal it was when I graduated from elementary school (6th grade, age 12) and got my first typewriter as a gift. It was even an electric one! I already knew how to type because, when I was in 3rd grade, there had been an experimental program to see if teaching kids young how to touch type was worthwhile (I've retained all those skills for decades).

So I grew up in an era where anything important was typewritten but all the basics were done by hand. All my school assignments were neatly (ha!) printed. This is where we get the idea of drafts, because each draft was a freshly written (or typed) copy to hand in.

It wasn't until college applications that I was required to type essays (though I wrote articles and stories in high school and typed them for submission to publications...thinking back, I might have needed to type term papers, but I think it was optional). Even in grad school, our first year exams were handwritten (4 of us in the class of 15+ chose to do it on a computer, one that was of course stripped of files and internet).

Fast forward to today and I've got an Apple laptop attached to a large monitor and real keyboard/mouse, on a desk with a comfy chair. Where do I write?

Honestly, I almost always write at my computer.

I used to write tons of poetry but haven't much in the last couple of decades. When I do, it's usually with a pen and paper. I enjoy sitting outside to do it. Or when I'm out and have time to kill (usually I read books but not always). Sometimes I'll outline an idea on paper. A couple years ago I used the time of sitting in lawn chairs at the fairgrounds waiting for it to get dark enough for fireworks to hash out my story outline with my spouse on some scratch paper. For anything longer though, I always use the computer.

Pros of paper:

  • You can do it anywhere.
  • You don't have to haul any equipment with you (at most, a journal and your favorite pen).
  • Nothing has to charge up.
  • It's quiet and easy to put down or away.
  • You're not distracted by other aspects of your device.
  • It's socially acceptable to do during downtime with other people (like picking up a book).
  • You can draw diagrams, doodle, or sketch out artwork.
  • It can be very satisfying to circle bits you like, cross out what you don't, and use arrows to move it all around.

Pros of typing (typewriter or computer):

  • Older hands that haven't used a pen much lately cramp up when writing and typing overall is a lot easier with arthritis.
  • You can read what you wrote.
  • Other people can read what you wrote.
  • If it's on paper, you get the same joy of marking up your page, with the benefit that it's easy to tell the original from the markup.
  • Though it's easy for paper to get damaged or lost, it can last centuries. No computer disk will.

Pros of a computer:

  • You don't have to retype drafts; revisions are a piece of cake.
  • Once saved, you can't lose your work (assuming basic care and backups).
  • All your previous chapters are there for you to refer to.
  • All your notes are well organized and there for you to refer to.
  • If you are stuck on something you need to research, you can do it quickly (if you have internet access or you have reference books saved) even if you're not home or in a library.
  • Computers are pretty portable these days and you have a wide choice of where to write.

So, yes, how you were raised and what you did as a young adult does make a difference. But it's not everything. I hated manual typewriters even as a child and electric ones were not much better. I embraced computers from the beginning, even when they couldn't do much (anyone remember dot matrix printers instead of monitors?). The way my brain processes my writing flow, computers are a much better fit for me. They probably are for most people. I also have horrible handwriting but am a pretty fast and accurate typist.

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    I would add basic spellchecking to the pros of computers, and versioning provided you have the proper tools (and know how to make them work). – AmiralPatate Jul 1 '19 at 9:19
  • @AmiralPatate I never have figured out versioning. Spellcheck is my friend for sure. I'm a terrible speller but, with spellcheck, I'm a good editor. Though for a first draft it's nice to avoid those red underlines. And don't get me started on auto-correct, the bane of creative writers, or anyone with an extensive vocabulary. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 1 '19 at 14:31
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In my experience, writing by hand is better for brainstorming and first drafts, and typing is better for editing later drafts.

I usually work out new ideas on paper - I tend to have a lot of questions for myself right at the beginning. On paper, it's easy to quick scribble a question or note next to the relevant text. (If I type them up, I tend to leave them in by accident.) Or, if all you have is a small piece of something - a line of dialogue you'd like to use, for instance - you can just write it down then and decide if it's something you can use later.

You've already mentioned fewer distractions - it's easier to ignore the call of the Internet if I pick up a notebook and go outside. I find notebooks to be more portable (they're good at surviving being squashed, dropped, etc.).

Once I feel like I have enough to work with, I type it up. What's written in the notebook is going to need plenty of editing: this sentence moved to a different paragraph, this paragraph moved to a different location, this one into a completely different chapter. It's much easier to do this in a word processor than on paper. (You also have access to spelling and grammar checking tools.)

If you want someone to read over your work, I'd definitely recommend against giving them a handwritten copy. (I have terrible handwriting, too.)

It's really up to you to decide what process works best. If you find that handwriting isn't helping you in any way, you should probably just stick to typing.

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  • What's your recommendation for people who prefer to write and edit as a single, combined activity? – Kevin Jul 1 '19 at 21:51
  • @Kevin In that case, it's probably best to stick with typing. Handwritten revisions tend to get messy - and fast. – user36961 Jul 2 '19 at 0:17
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Answer: Yes, there are advantages in writing by hand

You can do this in more places. All that is needed is paper and pencil. Each word takes longer to write (processing speed of brain). You are less likely to surf over to the SE if you are writing in your notebook. You are primarily using your dominant hand--and so this 'fires your brain' uniquely. You can add arrows, drawings, circles, images to embellish upon for later. (A picture is worth 1000 words.)

Are different parts of the brain active when we type on a keyboard as opposed to when we draw visual images on a tablet? Electroencephalogram (EEG) was used in young adults to study brain electrical activity as they were typing or describing in words visually presented PictionaryTM words using a keyboard, or as they were drawing pictures of the same words on a tablet using a stylus. Analyses of temporal spectral evolution (time-dependent amplitude changes) were performed on EEG data recorded with a 256-channel sensor array. We found that when drawing, brain areas in the parietal and occipital regions showed event related desynchronization activity in the theta/alpha range. Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning. When describing the words using the keyboard, upper alpha/beta/gamma range activity in the central and frontal brain regions were observed, especially during the ideation phase. However, since this activity was highly synchronized, its relation to learning remains unclear. We concluded that because of the benefits for sensory-motor integration and learning, traditional handwritten notes are preferably combined with visualizations (e.g., small drawings, shapes, arrows, symbols) to facilitate and optimize learning.

OTOH processing the words is easier in a WP. Computer. Powerful. Revising, redrafting, much easier. Sometimes composition is easier too, depending if you are in the zone or not. Word count is easy to track when typing on a laptop.

My suggestion: use both. (I use both.) Merge them.

Heck, add in audio. Tell a story into a recorder of some sort.

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I’m trained as a designer. This debate reminds me of the frequent advice to “always draw your idea on paper before you get it on the computer, because it’s faster and less limited”. That is hogwash, to the point I’ve seen people make intelligible scribbles on a piece of paper just to conform to the “sage advice”.

I can’t draw well on paper — things never come out as I envisioned them — but I’m great at designing on the computer. I’m faster and more precise than many hand drawers, and tend to get better technical results because I work on the final medium from the start — I’m intimate with its limitations and strengths.

You do you. When you take advice on methodologies, always be aware that in artistic settings there is no one method to create. There may be rules and constraints on how to present the work, but the doing is individual. Get the advice, see what resonates with you, try variations on that.

Neil Gaiman, in an interview with Tim Ferriss, mentioned he writes longhand with fountain pens. He writes in a different colour every day so he can look at the pages and get a feel for his progression: “Five pages in brown. How about that? Half a page in black. That was not a good day. Nine pages in blue, cool, what a great day”.

Another important reason why he starts on paper is the first edit, which he does as he types the work. By starting on paper and transcribing to the computer, choosing what stays feels like work saved instead of lost: “What I love, if I’ve written something on a computer, and I decide to lose a chunk, it feels like I’ve lost work. I delete a page and a half, I feel like there’s a page and half that just went away. That was a page and a half’s worth of work I’ve just lost. If I’ve been writing in a notebook and I’m typing it up, I can look at something and go, “Oh, I don’t need this page and a half.” I leave it out, I just saved myself work, and it feels like I’m treating myself.”

Those ideas resonate with me logically. I understand them and why they work, but I’m also confident they would not work for me. Neil likes to write longhand. He likes how fountain pens, of which he is a buff, feel in his hand. If writing on paper isn’t enjoyable to you, forcing yourself to do it may not bring the other benefits.

Finally, I often see paper touted as superior due to the constraints on editing, which allegedly kill flow. I have two points to make on that:

  1. If that’s your sole reason, get writing software that doesn’t allow editing. Such tools do exist, to combat that precise complaint. The feature is often referred to as “typewriter mode”.
  2. Every person is different, and I don’t believe focusing on editing while writing to be inherently bad. I’d go as far as saying it is a positive in my case. When I write, editing early helps me define how I’m going to lay out the idea by refining the tone. Editing gets me into the flow, not out of it.
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    Props for the Neil Gaiman examples! I'm currently watching his MasterClass videos, and they are wonderful. – Ken Palmer Jul 2 '19 at 12:45
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To me this depends on the writer, usage of the writer's voice, and the genre of the literary work.

With handwriting you have a richer way of expressing yourself. Every feeling you have gives a unique handwriting pattern. When reading back your story it can become easier to get back in the feelings behind your story.

For instance, when I have angry feelings I start to write slightly bigger. So, when I read back my story I will be more easily remembered of the feeling behind a sentence.

For this reason handwriting might be more suitable for stories that are close to your heart such as stories with a main character that closely resemble yourself.

Using a computer you are forced to use a limited amount of typographical characters which limits the richness of expression. When you write (blindly) without reading back much there is little reason not to use a computer.

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The pros and cons of this choice are already covered in other answers from an objective perspective but I think it's important to consider the subjective assessment as well.

Ultimately, the best solution is the one you find most comfortable.

When I was young computers were a rarity; those who learned to type did so on mechanical typewriters, which is very different to touch typing. Being interested in computers meant I spent more time around them than most, but I never learned to type on them when programming. I found that for most of the things you wanted to do back then the 'hunt & peck' two fingered typing approach was just fine.

Back then when I wrote, hand writing was far more comfortable because it was faster for me, and therefore I didn't lose my train of thought so often. Remember here, that the average person can think at around 300 to 400 words per minute (WPM) but can only speak at around 120 to 150 WPM, and often type at between 40 and 100 WPM depending on skill. Hand writing is the slowest at no more than 20 WPM for the average person.

So for me it came down to speed. I could write faster than I could type, so I wrote. That meant it was easier for me to keep up with the story in my head through writing than it was to type.

But then I went to work, and ended up in a role where I was writing reports, briefs, guides, and many other forms of documentation. So, I taught myself to type. That was 30 years ago, and I don't even think about typing now. I'd say that I'd be close to 80 WPM in touch typing so that means for most of the writing I do, I do it on a computer because now that's the fastest way to get words down and it means that it's even less likely again that I'll lose my train of thought.

So over time, I changed preference but I did so because of the speed at which I get things down. Ultimately, to me that's the deciding factor. We can all think faster than we can transcribe, whether by typing, writing or speaking. It's up to our personal experiences which of these we can do faster than the other but to me, that's going to be the deciding factor as the closer we are to our thinking speed, the more likely we'll keep our train of thought.

For the record, I still write with a pen, and often. But I do so more for the joy of writing than for any serious recording of a story or article. When writing for work or fun, speed is a factor and the editability of the output when typing is an added bonus. There is still something tactile that I love about marking a paper with ink from a fountain or inkwell pen that you'll never get from a keyboard, but I have to say that my productivity went through the roof after I taught myself to type.

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    I agree with your relative ranges but not sure about the actual numbers. 120 wpm typing speed?! That's insanely fast. I'm a pretty fast typist. As in when I applied for temp office jobs the agency would be satisfied with my speed. I do 55-60 wpm IIRC. Also, I think there's a typo (speak instead of type) in your 4th paragraph). – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 1 '19 at 4:15
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    @Cyn, no speaking is only supposed to be between 120 - 150 WPM. I've mixed up the numbers for my typing speed so I'll edit it. It's very high though by comparison. – Tim B II Jul 1 '19 at 5:06
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Great points above. I'll add that when handwriting you gain these benefits:

  1. You engage different areas of your brain, which can lead you to different ideas.
  2. You never lose what you write. When typing electronically, immediate self-editing can cause you to freeze up, worried that you'll delete a good idea. For this reason, handwritten documents may wind up messier, but your ideas are preserved in a permanent record.
  3. Handwriting reduces the urge to edit. Electronic documents feel more permanent, and can lure you into formatting traps, like reducing widows and orphans. This is especially dangerous when you are trying to break a new story.
  4. Handwriting is slower than typing. Consequently, you may find yourself conserving words as you write so that you can get to the next idea. I do this frequently, and a positive side effect is that your writing becomes more concise. As Strunk advised, "Omit needless words."
  5. It gives you no writing excuses. You can write anywhere without special equipment.
  6. Handwriting won't interfere with your circadian rhythms. For that matter, neither will typing on an old-fashioned typewriter. But if you work on a monitor, then you will fatigue yourself by writing with a monitor at night. Even when I write in the morning, I avoid turning on the computer. Instead, I do my Pomodoro's while handwriting. Editing on the computer is reserved for daytime and early evening hours.
  7. If you work on your penmanship, handwriting becomes an enjoyable experience. My penmanship was terrible a few years ago. I improved it by spending 15 minutes a day hand-tracing letters (as we did in elementary school) for about a month. That was a painless process. It improved my penmanship and made handwriting a joy.
  8. When handwriting, you can run off on tangents knowing that where you go won't impact your final document. This can lead you to new ideas.

Hemingway used a combination of both handwriting and typing. When working on description, he would write by hand. When writing dialogue, he would type. This nugget came from the book, "Ernest Hemingway: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations."

Good luck with Camp NaNoWriMo this month!

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I do prefer handwriting during the early draft stages where the ease of non-linear notes (remarks at the sidelines, drawing arrows between pieces, adding sketches, etc.) tops other thoughts.

The other advantage is that I can bring a pen and notebook everywhere and continue my thoughts.

This early draft stage means that my notes are basically pieces, not full sentences and I almost never just type them into a computer. Rather I sort them and then write them out into full parts. So there is little double work.

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To augment the other answers, I feel it is important to highlight how subjective and writer-dependent some of the 'advantages' may be to different people:

"Are there advantages to using a screw driver rather than a hammer?"

  • Writing by hand, vs writing on a computer, vs writing at a typewriter, are all different tools to achieve the same overall end goal: Record your thoughts and ideas into a readable media for reuse or sharing.

All of the options will have their pros and cons, however some of the pros or cons for a given tool may be highly subjective.

Example:

  • Someone easily distracted by social media or Wiki-Diving may view the lack of connectivity of pen and paper as a highly valuable positive aspect.
  • Someone who consistently makes use of online research, such as digging deep into the history of a given word before setting it 'in stone' for their project may view the lack of connectivity to external resources as an extreme negative.

It is also important to look at why some of the stated advantages are viewed as such:

Example, the view of "Writing by hand removes you from distractions" is somewhat of a misplaced idea due to its failure to address what the root of the problem is.

Computers aren't distracting. They're really little more than overly fancy pocket calculators with more accessories and expansions attached. What you do with them is what causes the distractions, rather than the computer itself.

  • If you don't log out of notification-generating programs/sites while using a computer, or allow yourself to connect to the distractions, then you will easily become distracted.
  • If you allow yourself to bring your "Distractions-Connected Phone" with you while writing by hand, then you have not really addressed the actual problem people claim 'the computer has', and writing by hand in a notebook won't likely bring you any benefits in that regard.

When looking at a stated advantage of a writing tool it is important to also consider how that advantage might be achieved in another tool, and what combination suits your needs and projects. The goal after all isn't to use "the best tool the internet tells me to", but rather "use the most effective tool for me and my needs."

I have a custom laptop built out of a Raspberry Pi Zero, small vertical screen, a nice mechanical keyboard, and a pair of large battery banks. It boots directly to a command line environment without graphical support, and I can write 'distraction free' in a very low power device that lasts for ages on battery with a nice comfortable keyboard. And it works wonderfully for literature or basic coding and database interactions.

[We will ignore the number of hours spent tinkering with the setup and carving a custom wooden case for the whole thing as a form of procrastination from getting work done on actual projects...]


At the end of the day it is important to focus on what makes you happy and productive, but at the same time to avoid chasing your tail by finding new and creative ways of procrastination that you thinly veil as "Finding better solutions".

Having found the best solution possible will have done you zero good if you've spent all your time and project energy finding it...

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Both are valuable and have their place in the creative process . The brain to hand connection when writing, is important in terms of jotting down important fresh elements which could be easily forgotten. There is an intimacy as well about the act of writing- it makes you feel connected to yourself and this extends to the tangible world:-the eye to hand,pen to paper. It ignites your creativity . Ideas are fluid and spontaneous. Digital documentation of a story, being the final goal, requires that you formulate and polish your presentation from a chaotic state, into making sense.

I find that when a script is transformed from handwritten to typed , one streamlines the chaotic patterns of thought but in so doing the resulting organisation can come across as formulaic and pretentious. Thus the goal of a writer is to capture the authenticity of his/her initial written notes and thoughts, and channel it into a comprehensive form, without loosing it's freshness and originality.

The handwriting process is similar to the thought processing that happens when artists are hired by architectural companies to sketch the initial concept plan for a structure. The famous New York based architect Michael Graves,would often say that digital renderings could never replace the initial artist sketch for a structural concept. Because the hand to eye connection via means of a tool ie.a pencil/pen is necessary to stimulate the emotional connection to the creative process.

I think handwriting one's initial ideas allows the writer to tap into his/her more personal psyche.

I am a book illustrator and do all my renderings by hand. I have had great difficulty making the crossover to digital/vector creation because it feels too formulaic.But I also write free verse poetry and notice that by the time I get my ipad out and get typing, i've already lost my direction of thought. By the time I have typed a few verses I have gone in a different direction than otherwise planned. But interestingly, sometimes I may not like the "look" of a typed word or it's sound which I would not have noticed as much if it were handwritten. So both are important collaborative elements to me.

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Handwriting takes five times longer than typing, in terms of words per minute. Even if you could "write while you write" but you couldn't "write while you type", and assuming that transcription to an edit-friendly medium is instantaneous, hand-writing would be likely to take you at least bit longer than typing for a given final wordcount on average.

Handwriting is only cheaper if your (and the transcriber's) time is worthless and you get all your paper and ink for free.

There is a commercial advantage, however: If your process involves handwriting, you can store your "dead trees" until their value rises (assuming that your literary work becomes popular) and then have them auctioned. Computer files are less valuable for that purpose.

That, and writing under full sunlight around noon, is the only potentially significant aspect of handwriting that cannot be reproduced or optimized by using electronic devices.

Tablet input allows you to hand-write on a computer, which gives more flexibility than pen on paper (along with some unique problems).

Someone who is afraid of computer-based distractions during writing should temporarily disconnect from the internet, by unscrewing the antenna or unplugging the network cable or flipping the WiFi switch.

Someone who is afraid of misplacing or burning their handwritten paper should take pictures of it and possibly upload them to some form of cloud storage. Either that, or always write over carbon paper and send the copy someplace secure.

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