Why does handwriting a novel spark the imagination?

To compose on the computer or by hand? That is the question.

dreamstime_xs_49909304About halfway through a major revision of my novel, I had an epiphany about getting my story into words. While revising, I needed to write new scenes, and I started out brainstorming those scenes in longhand. Once I had done that, I very naturally and easily moved to writing the scenes themselves by hand. Lo and behold: writing in cursive released words and images in a way that pounding them out on the keyboard did not.

Why, I wondered, might composing on the computer impede the creative process?

  • Discontinuity. This results from two things. First, I am not the best typist, and when I make spelling errors, I am tempted to correct them immediately. Furthermore, when I feel that I’ve not come up with the right word, I find myself stopping, even midsentence, to use the computer’s thesaurus to find the perfect word immediately. Either of these cuts off the creative flow of the narrative.
  • A racing mind. When I compose on the computer, my mind seems to out-distance my typing. I don’t attribute this to my less-than-stellar typing skills. Rather, my brain seems disconnected from my fingers when I type, and it feels free to run ahead unrestrained. The result, interestingly: I lose ideas.
  • Discourse mode. I also find my story at times becomes less narrative and more deductive in its telling. I seem to get out of my characters’ heads and write the story as a disinterested outsider. Words and phrases like “therefore,” “furthermore,” and “as a result” crop up more often, as if I were presenting an argument instead of telling a story.

Why does writing longhand enable the creative process?

  • Pacing. My mind keeps pace with my writing, or is it that my writing keeps up with my mind? Whichever it is, the rate of the physical writing is in sync with the rate at which ideas and words come. Because of this, I think I am actually more productive writing by hand.
  • Flow of words. Words come easier, and I have less of an compulsion to stop and use a thesaurus to find the right word. Not to mention that when I feel the impulse to word hunt, it is much more cumbersome and time-consuming to open up the thesaurus than it is to use the one on the computer.
  • Kinesthetics. By this I mean a sense of the words making their way from my brain, down the neural pathways to my fingers, and out onto the page as my fingers manipulate the pen to form the letters. Perhaps the metaphor, “pounding the keyboard” is rather telling. Sounds harsh and mechanical, doesn’t it? In contrast, I think of streaming in connection with writing.
  • Right-brain stimulation. Handwriting is akin to drawing and activates the right side of the brain. Since I already have the right side humming when writing by hand, my imagination opens up, and characters, dialogue, and action come alive. Furthermore, I have greater access to my characters’ emotions, and they pour out onto the page more readily. Julie Cameron, author, speaker, and encourager of writers, states, “Writing by hand, I give my characters time to speak.”

Writing by hand is not only beneficial for the creative process, but also for our overall cognitive functioning. Studies have shown that learning cursive writing stimulates several areas of the brain simultaneously. In addition, taking notes or rewriting notes by hand enhances learning and retention of information. Handwriting also keeps us cognitively sharp since it involves memory and physical movement.

So, what is your preference—composing on the computer or writing by hand? What insights do you have about drafting using one means or the other?

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