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Although we had computers when I was in college, I was in the habit of writing my many papers longhand. I would spend hours in the library with research material piled up around me, taking meticulous numbered notes, which I would then compile into a detailed outline. Once I had polished my outline to the point that I felt like I needed only to add punctuation and transitions to turn it into an essay, I would scrawl out my first draft by hand. Next I would type my first printed draft and edit it and subsequent printed drafts by hand, riddling them with corrections and notes and editorial notations until I felt like I had a piece worth reading.

For years after college, I wrote very little prose other than the occasional blog post or personal email. When I did begin writing more formal or structured prose for public consumption in the last few years, I shifted to electronic mode, adapting easily enough to staring at the blank screen until my fingers set to work filling it up. I would do many edits as I typed and often wouldn’t print even the things that merited printing until I had something resembling a final draft.

Lately I’ve suffered a bit of a block. I have many stories rumbling around in my head, but when I’ve stared at that blank screen, I simply haven’t been able to spit out any words. It’s funny how stingy you can be with words even when it’s so easy to put them on the screen and take them right back when they turn out to be duds. It’s not as if we’re 10th-century monks copying out illuminated texts in dim rooms, after all.

Yesterday I hurt my pinky. I have no idea what I did, but the knuckle is swollen, and using my left pinky to strike the keyboard was excruciating. So my options for working on personal writing projects and for putting together this post were basically as follows:

  • write a lipogram avoiding letters such as “s” and “a” and any upper-case letters on the right-hand half of the keyboard
  • write a longhand draft and hope for less painful typing later

So I whipped out a notebook and picked up the story I had begun drafting onscreen the night before. And something about the physical act of putting my pen to a piece of paper helped the words flow. I pretty effortlessly scribbled down three pages of prose and then broke for a few minutes to draft this post by hand.

In retrospect, I should perhaps have known that putting pen to paper would be good for me — I’ve always preferred hand-written to-do lists to task management software. I wonder if there’s not also something freeing about scribbling out a draft. Maybe it’s akin to doodling in that you’re doing creative work but feel less like you’re committing yourself to the sometimes daunting task of making a final product.

Whatever the case, if you find yourself blocked, consider trying a hand-written draft if only for a change of mental scenery. It’s been a welcome and refreshing change for me this week, if one resulting in a mildly sore hand and the realization that I earned every poor hand-writing grade I ever received as a child.

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  1. Thanks! I appreciated that. It’s true. There is something about the fluidity of writing long hand that is different from the pecking on a keyboard. It is definitely more soothing. I love writing handwritten letters. Of course with personal notes, typing them is so impersonal anyway! Thanks again.

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  2. So true, when I was writing papers at N.Y.U I still had the typewriter and long-hand was it. I am such a poor typist that it was only when I was 100% sure that I was done that I spent the agonizing hours putting my words through the process of pounding on keys.

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  3. I hand wrote a story the other night so as not to have to turn the computer on again. An hour later I was done. It felt good and satisfying except for the cramp I developed in my hand. The next day I went to type it in and after copying the first few sentences, the story went off in a different direction. Such is life. The stories never come out the same way twice even when you try.

    I much prefer handwritten lists as well. There is something quite joyful and satisfying about drawing a line by hand through something completed!

    Thanks for the post.

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  4. Putting pen to paper always brings me back to my childhood memories of my grandmother teaching us how to hold the pencil correctly. I love those memories an revisit them often.

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  5. Well, looks like I’m the fly in the ointment. πŸ™‚

    The ONLY time I prefer longhand is when I’m writing lists, or (before Penzu) writing in my diary.
    I’ll be 50 on my birthday so I remember writing everything longhand. It was ok for short writing tasks, but for longer ones, my fingers gravitated toward the typewriter! Trying to write stories now longhand cramps my fingers as well as my brain. I find that my fingers can’t keep up with my thoughts when I try to write longhand. I end up losing ideas, UGH!!
    So, while I’m pretty old-fashioned for the most part: no Kindle for me! Give me books; forget about Swiffers, I’ll take the straggley haired mop and squeeeeeze – I’ll take the keyboard over the writing pen as much as technology will let me have it! πŸ˜‰
    Thanks for this post!

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  6. I enjoyed reading your post and chuckled. The reason I was amused is just recently I have noticed so many people seem unable to write in English!! What I mean by that is that their spelling and grammar is just terrible, even on web sites where they are hoping to get business. I wonder if it might be due to texting and computers. I wouldn’t be surprised if longhand is a lost art.

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  7. I really enjoyed reading your post! Sorry you hurt your little pinky..hehehe Great advice on the scenery change though, I agree with that a great deal!!!! I get blocked and like to do longhand as well, always thought I was weird and alone on that one, nice to see that “others” do this as well besides myself! Thank you!!!! (sighs)

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  8. If you’ve lost the art of long-hand writing–it’s probably because I’m holding it hostage in the corners of my house. I’m a thinker, a schemer and a full-day dreamer. I have notebooks, pads and little back books a’plenty within a fingers reach of me at all times. Is there such a thing as a Post-it fetish? Meh… old-school is cool.

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  9. If you’ve lost the art of long-hand writing–it’s probably because I’m holding it hostage in the corners of my house. I’m a thinker, a schemer and a full-day dreamer. I have notebooks, pads and little black books a’plenty within a fingers reach of me at all times. Is there such a thing as a Post-it fetish? Meh… old-school is cool.

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  10. Give me paper and a good pen and I can entertain myself for hours. Sometimes I can even entertain others. In my experience, longhand is the best way to collect my thoughts. Fabulous post. You remind me that it’s all about process…

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  11. Since the practice of writing longhand appears headed to the “things we used to do” pile, I make it a point of always sending out handwritten notes for any ocassion. Recently, I saw a news report in which it was noted that schools are shying away from teaching students how to write script. That along with the fact they (students) cannot tell time–unless they have a digital aid, sends shivers down my spine. A true tale from afterschool!

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  12. I enjoyed your post. I write on the computer most of the time, but realize that handwriting produces a more thoughtful rendering of whatever I’m crafting. Good luck with the finger, but you’re doing just fine writing by hand!

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  13. I love my computer, love my keyboard and love how fast I can make ideas flow…. but there is nothing, but nothing like good paper and an old fountain pen for stimulating creativity. πŸ™‚

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  14. What is the longest word in the English language that you can type with one hand?
    Stewardesses.
    Because of computers, penmanship is now a lost art in America, and is no longer required in school, but rather an elective.

    DS

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  15. There’s nothing more inspirational than killing a tree to get your thoughts out.

    Joking aside, I guess I’m not fond of writing on paper. It feels more ‘set in stone’ instead of typing into Word. You can easily change a few things in the blink of an eye on Word. On paper, you have to scratch stuff out or just be content with a sentence you wrote because it’s a pain to rewrite it when you think of something a second after you put a period at the end.

    Don’t get me wrong though. I do have a few composition books sitting around where I’ve written stuff out because I was away from the computer at the time and felt inspired. Hurts my fingers when I write though, when the pen/pencil sinks into the flesh and forms a purple groove if you’ve been at it for a while. Always hated that in school…

    Hope your pinky gets better soon.

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  16. Long hand helps the brain in the areas of speech, fluency, eloquence & motor skills! Read the book : “The Brain that Changes itself”, Norman Doidge MD. See pg. 41 for starters. Fascinating and mind expanding.
    I write 3 pages of free form stream of consciousness every morning…AKA Morning Pages…and I prescribe that to my students who usually moan and freak when their computer is away from them…and they are all over fifty…go figure. I am fascinated by the individuals hand writing formally known as penmanship. I also like hieroglyphics …but I digress, snort. Tactile pens can be sexy…or ..not! I love the purple groove on the side of the finger or the S & M of writing. Lists? Write them it’s faster =o)
    Love the article…Cheers!

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  17. Thanks Dazza (forgive me, I’m Australian). Being a hardcore Luddite I too enjoy whipping out the quill, inkwell and parchment and scribbling stories in the old school way. Really enjoyed this piece. Cheers.

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  18. I do most of my writing in a notebook and then type it up later. I always have a notebook with me wherever I go. With my blog it is imperative that I write it out first because the angels infuse the paper with their energy. I wish I could figure out a way to get that in electronic format. But for now at least I have a way of sharing their words with the masses.

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  19. The problem for me is that I’ve been blogging for so long (not just here on WordPress) that now, when I write in longhand, I can barely form the letters properly let alone write. I do a bit – in a paper diary, and brief notes – but I’m so used to typing now that longhand no longer feels natural to me.

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    1. I take enough notes by hand still that I don’t have this problem, but it would be interesting to look back a dozen years or so and see how my handwriting has changed as a result of how much less of it I do.

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  20. I wrote every college paper I had in longhand. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t feel as inspired or productive if I started with the computer first, despite being a pretty good touch typist. There’s something soothing and personal about writing my thoughts using my own penmanship. I have a cute little laptop for my writing now, but I still prefer paper. I’m surprised to see so many people still write their thoughts out versus using the computer first. Great post.

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  21. πŸ™‚ I prefer to write by hand, there is something freeing about seeing the ink glide onto the page, but it can also be daunting when your mind is running faster then your pen. This is when a keyboard comes in handy.. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the post. πŸ™‚

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  22. I love handwriting too. I wrote my entire first novel by hand and typed it in afterwards and loved it. I am currently doing the same for my second novel and having a blast. I also noticed that we share the same horrible handwriting that only a Nobel prize winner could translate without our dictation. Awesome post.

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    1. You know, my wife says I have horrible handwriting, and it would never have occurred to me to think it was anything but sloppy, but a coworker did once tell me I had beautiful handwriting, like that of an engineer. Maybe you can take solace in her comment too. πŸ™‚

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