William Least Heat Moon (don’t you just love that name?!), the author of the classic, Blue Highways, writes his first draft in pencil so he won’t be too invested in and his second draft with a pen. He writes by hand because he believes that it encourages both sides of his brain to work together. It turns out that there’s a lot of neuroscience to back up his intuitive approach.
In fact, new evidence suggests deep links between handwriting and educational development in kids – and the findings also reinforce our friend William’s belief that writing by hand gives a boost to creativity for adults. This is the jist of “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades,” an article in The New York Times (June 3, 2014), that definitely caught my attention.
According to the story, kids not only learn more quickly when they first learn to write by hand but they generate ideas and retain information more effectively. The message: how we write that matters. “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the College de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain. And it means that this circuit is contributing inunique ways that we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”
A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychiatrist at Indiana University, bolsters this view. When children in her study drew a letter of the alphabet free-hand, they showed increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read or write. By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter showed no such powerful an effect: activation was much weaker. Why? Dr. James believes that it’s because the inherent “messiness” of free-form writing engages the brain’s motor pathways – and forces kids to plan and execute what they’re doing in a way that’s not required by typing on a computer. Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington demonstrated that when kids composed a text by hand, they produced words faster than they did at a keyboard and also came up with more ideas.
The benefits of writing by hand extend into adulthood according to researchers. Adults may find typing faster and more efficient than composing by long hand, but typing may actually impede our ability to process and retain information.
All this is good news for me, since I’m definitely a pencil, pen, and paper gal. I actually crafted this post with my trusty, beloved Mont Blanc fountain pen, which is filled with bright blue teal ink: it makes me happy just to see it flowing onto the page. I’ve always loved paper, pens, ink, notebooks, notepads and have lots of this writer’s paraphenalia cluttering up my office.
How about you? Many writers I know seem to compose on the computer, but I’m hoping that this post will encourage some of my KWD readers to try sharpening their pencils and pulling out their pens. What works best for you when you’re in draft mode? I’d love to know. But whether it’s long hand or key tapping, let’s all write on!