Why Writing With Our Hands Is Still Important

Had to share this although there was no re-blog icon that I could locate (the blogger is not on WordPress):

I first noticed something was off when I went to pay my rent one month. The window for a timely online transfer of funds was closing, so to get the money to my landlord in time, I’d have to do something unusual. I took out my checkbook, grabbed a pen and started writing the date.It felt weird. My hand cramped a little, churning out numbers and letters with the slightest – but still noticeable – discomfort. My handwriting sucked. It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t actually written anything by hand in a long, long time. Just a few years earlier, I kept a paper journal by my bed and would buy three-packs of Moleskin notebooks for brainstorming, sketching and jotting things down. What happened?

Over the course of the last four or five years, several little computers have found their way into my life. Bit by bit, my professional and creative existence made the transition to an entirely digital universe. At my old job managing digital publishing for a newspaper, the iPad soon replaced my spiral notebook in meetings. Then I left the print world to work on the Internet full-time. I could even sign my freelance contracts with my finger on an iPad.

Who needed paper? Isn’t the future amazing? Look, more tweets. Wait, what was I saying?

Our Pixel-Based Lives

Before long, my documents, journal, blog post drafts and photos were living in some cloud-based repository that was readily accessible from any of my devices, at least one of which I kept by my bedside (supplanting the paper journal, magazines and alarm clock with apps). Instead of keeping a “to do” list on paper, I tapped important items into the Reminders app on my phone, which automatically synced with my iPad and laptop, each of which would then buzz with a notification at a time and even place of my choosing.

It’s all pretty miraculous if you think about it. But while this digital transformation introduced heretofore inconceivable levels of convenience and productivity into my life, some things can get lost in all that digital noise. At the very least, I should be able to comfortably write the goddamn date.

Keeping One Foot In The Analog World


When I first met my girlfriend, we would cowork from cafes together. Even though she runs a popular local blog in Philadelphia and spends much of her time on the Internet, I noticed that she hadn’t taken the digital plunge quite as deeply as I had. As I typed away on my laptop in the cafe, periodically referencing a propped up iPad, she closed her MacBook’s lid and cracked open a Moleskin notebook and started writing down important-looking notes. She even had a paper-based planner, eschewing the cloud-synced, location-aware multi-device wonders of iCal and Reminders in favor of something decidedly more old school.

By this time, I had already resolved to hand-write things more often. And when I did, I found I was better able to focus on the task at hand, far away from the dinging notifications, crowded inboxes, social status updates and ever-proliferating browser tabs. Watching another digital citizen put a pen to paper and get things done just as effectively, if not more so, just confirmed what I already knew: Life wasn’t meant to be lived entirely in some company’s cloud. And when it comes to productivity, we need more than apps.

The Science Of Writing Vs. Typing

A few years back, there were a bunch of stories in the press about the science of writing things by hand. As it turns out, our brains work differently when we form letters with a hand-held implement – and we learn more effectively than when we type. This makes total sense. I’ve long noticed that when I’m writing in a paper journal, it mentally feels different than when I’m typing out my thoughts on a computer. I thought it had something to do with the more focused nature of paper vs. connected devices. As it turns out, there’s more to it than that.

Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on at the moment—something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront. 

Meanwhile, a series of studies conducted in the last few years have indicated that students learn more effectively when they form letters and shapes by hand as opposed to doing so digitally.

Technology has a way of augmenting our imperfect brains and making us more productive. Personally, I still prefer to have a notification ding with a reminder to do something I committed to several days ago. In some ways, all this tech does enhance our increasingly complex lives. It makes it easier to navigate, harder to lose track of things, more convenient to stay in touch and nearly effortless to discover new places.

But just like it’s still nice to curl up with a book made of trees or play a vinyl record, there’s still room for the analog in our productive lives. Sure, that IFTTT recipe connecting your Evernote account to Dropbox or Gmail looks awesome.

But don’t forget to pick up a pen from time to time. 


2 thoughts on “Why Writing With Our Hands Is Still Important

  1. A friend of mine is a high school teacher. She gave some handwritten notes to her students some time ago, and they shortly told her they were having a hard time reading her notes. It wasn’t that the notes weren’t written legibly, but they didn’t know how to understand cursive writing. Imagine how much historical writing will be unavailable to them. We will have to give them a digital copy of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s handwritten Gettysburg Address. Will they have to take Cursive Writing 101 as one of their first college courses?

    I have proposed typing class notes digitally (post via email to a WordPress site), but I still think “real” learning takes place when a student listens, processes, and then writes, with their own hand on a piece of paper. There is something about that process which embeds on the brain, what is written on the paper.

  2. I can relate to your friends scenario. When I was in Year 9 History, I vividly remember a lot of students complaining when presented with a copy of the teacher’s notes in cursive. Personally, I find practically any English-speaking child can learn simple cursive. It is no more difficult or challenging than learning to read and produce print in the earliest grades. Why deny any child a reading skill because some think it archaic or because in their own childhood it was difficult? Some people state that THEY never use it. I learned cursive in primary school and still to this very day use it when taking notes. Learning anything new is going to be a challenge! What a shame it would be for a young person NOT to be able to read a cursive document or letter, written in his or her own language!

    In the not so distant future Year 12 students will be completing exams on laptops. Hmm… what a lot of can of worms that will open up! What sort of security will be on these laptops to stop cheating? How will students learn the fundamentals of spelling without relying on SpellCheck? Also, how are they going to overcome the serious effects of RSI when they become older? The mind just boggles with some of these questions that it raises.

    There is something to be said about the old tried and true method when looking at consolidating information to commit it to long-term memory. There is an actual study in regards to this, however at the present I cannot recall who carried out the research. However, I feel that the way we are currently progressing students will not have the opportunity to explore outcomes at the different cognitive levels such as:

    I am all for technology and looking at ways of making lessons more engaging. However, the fundamentals of writing need to be learnt first and occasionally we need to take a step back from the PC before it consumes our lives at times.

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