Monday, April 23, 2012

Writing by Hand in the Electronic Age

I recently read an article about Robert Caro, the American author who has spent 36 years writing the biography of Lyndon Johnson and has already published several massive volumes, beautifully written--and done by hand.

I am always surprised to read of authors who still write lenghty works in longhand or who use the typewriter since it seems from my experience as a writer and teacher of writing that the flow of my work, and my ability to revise, has been much improved over the past twenty years or so because of word processing.

In my earlier days, when I typed, I invariably wrote out every word, then would make minor changes in the typing, which was laborious. I cannot imagine having had to write by hand all that I have published in the past twenty years, but I know that, on some occasions, when I write a personal note, for example, the old, familiar pressure of the pen inscribing the words on the paper is akin to cutting into wood: there is pleasure in the slowness of the process. And in the very physicality of the act.

In reading some recent ruminations by Kevin Hartnett on writing by hand, I expected him to say more about the appeal of slowing down. Instead, he reflected on bigger issues: the relation of thinking and writing. (I found the article "High Wire Act in for April 16.)

Since Hartnett often finds that the blank computer screen is intimidating, he tried an experiment: writing a full article entirely in longhand before typing it. He suspects that the old-fashioned way might be better, although all the reconfiguring he does on the computer produces more sophisticated thoughts.

He has learned that he must always form a complete thought in words in his head before he can inscribe it on paper, so that the correlation between his thoughts and what he writes is closer than if he had composed the article on the computer.

So writing by hand "alters the relationship between forming a thought and recording it in words." On the computer, Hartnett finds that he begins (as I do) to type at the onset of an idea and then completes the idea/sentence, which he figures out in the process of recording it. His thoughts come out "cleaner" when he works in longhand, he thinks.

And he uses shorter, simpler words. I assume his sentences, too, are different and his overall style is more spare than if he used the computer since the complete thoughts he is able to hold in his head until he gets them down on paper are briefer. His cross-outs or revisions tend to be fewer by far than if writing electronically. This is one obvious advantage of word processing: that it makes changes almost enjoyable and, at the same time, facilitates the flow of interesting, expansive sentences, the kind that reflect the immediacy of unfolding ideas. This is why I value the computer for writing and have no interest in returning to the older technology.

Hartnett speculates that there is, for him, a higher reward in writing by hand, self-indulgent though it may seem. He may not be aware that academic research in the composing process of students has long been concerned with the cognitive aspects involved in his experiment. The complex relation of thinking, learning, and writing is still not fully understood, and Hartnett's article, which suggests some ambivalence about which method if preferable, is a valuable contribution to this field.

I would welcome the reactions of any writers who have a preference for writing by hand or by computer and the reasons for the choice of one over the other: write to me at (type "revision" in the subject line).

No comments: