The Science and Experience of Analog Writing

May 20, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~7 mins

I began hand writing articles with a lot of skepticism mixed with hope. I didn’t know what to expect but I wanted a positive outcome. As much as I lean toward an integration of technology in every aspect of my work, I felt a sense that paper had benefits I had never understood.

I committed to writing five articles by hand, but after the first three I realized there was something powerful happening during the process of putting words on physical paper. It was like I had discovered a well of untapped resources within my mind that could only be used when analog tools were the chosen medium. And no matter how much I reflected and searched myself for the reasoning behind this, I couldn’t find the answer without searching for neurological science comparing pen and paper to the keyboard.

Brain Organization

I learned that it all starts with how our brains organize modes of thinking. It’s common knowledge that there are two hemispheres in our brains and that they operate in a transposed manner. The left brain controls the right side of the body and the right brain controls the left side of the body. We also know that modes of thinking occur on one side or the other. The left brain is known as the analytical brain because it controls the mathematical, logical, and scientific modes of thinking while the right brain - known as the creative brain - controls creativity, music, and imagination. The skills required to write (language, speech, and linear thinking) are found in the left brain.

Brain Dominance

Each of us has one side of our brain that is more dominant than the other. And the level of dominance is different for everyone. In part, this is why we find such a diversity of personalities and skill sets. Sometimes there’s a strong dominance, other times it’s hardly noticeable. Regardless of the level of dominance, this side of the brain reveals itself in your strengths. A left brain dominant person is likely to be a math whiz, analytical, and following a career in the sciences. Someone who is right brain dominant has a tendency to be good at relationships, art, and visualization. These are not hard rules, but guidelines and stereotypes. I’ve known that I’m an analytical person for a long time, which means I’m left brain dominant.

Hand Dominance

With rare exception, we all primarily use one hand or the other to write. How we develop or choose a specific hand for this task is genetic, but has cultural influences as well. The whole picture of how this comes about is still unclear, but whichever hand you write with is typically your dominant hand. And for most of us (90%), that dominance is found in our right hand.

Dominance Correlation

Things get interesting when you correlate brain and hand dominance. Being left brain dominant does not make you right-handed. Nor does being right brain dominant make you left-handed. But when you are left-handed, the right brain is controlling your writing hand and vice versa. So left-handers are using the creative brain when writing and right-handers are using the analytical brain. And since we know that language, speech, and linear thinking come from the left (analytical) brain, right-handers, like myself, are naturally engaging the portion of their mind that allows them to formulate words and sentences.

Obviously, this is not to say that left-handers cannot write well. The brain is much more complex than that. But generally speaking, it might explain some of the stigma around teaching left-handed children to write. It’s possible that it doesn’t come as naturally to them as drawing or creating art.

The Keyboard

The physical process of typing is much different than using a pen. Writing on paper is primarily a one-handed task. Your off hand may be busy keeping paper aligned or holding a pen cap, but the main work is being completed with one hand. Contrast that with the keyboard. The keyboard is designed for both hands, which is partially why it’s much faster to type than write.

By using both hands to type, we engage both sides of our brain more fully. That is not altogether a bad thing, but it does mean that we aren’t focusing on one mode of thinking. We’re switching from linear, language thinking to spatial, emotional thinking and back again. Some people are better with this dissonance than others, which is why some say there is no difference between typing and writing by hand. I personally struggle with this neurological bouncing during the writing process. But when I pick up a pen I can trace a thought and explore it without all the mental jumping around.

Studies

There’s a growing body of science exploring the comparison between hand writing and typing. Researchers have shown that writing lecture notes by hand gives students an edge over their typing peers. We know that kids with and without handwriting disabilities are able to write more when using a pen than when using a computer. There’s even a study from 1987 that hints at a potential influence on writing when done from a computer. If you search Google Scholar for “pen paper writing versus computer” you’ll have more than enough material to keep you busy for a while. But here are a few of the resources I found interesting when I began my exploration:

A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop - Scientific American

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades - The New York Times

The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children

The Contribution of Handwriting and Spelling Remediation to Overcoming Dyslexia - InTechOpen

A Study of Professional and Experienced Writers Revising and Editing at the Computer and with Pen and Paper on JSTOR

Does the medium make a difference? two studies of writing with pen and paper and with computers

How Handwriting Boosts the Brain - WSJ

Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter - Psychology Today

Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing - InTechOpen

The Benefits Of Writing With Good Old Fashioned Pen And Paper

My Experience

To say that I’ve enjoyed the process of writing by hand would be an understatement. Some of the benefits I was expecting did become a reality. By taking longer to write by hand I am able to formulate my thoughts more clearly and fully; I feel better about what I’ve written when I’m done. But going further than just quality of words, I’ve discovered a few other benefits and one glaring downside.

Distraction

As I expected, I’m not nearly as distracted with paper as I am with the computer. And it is primarily due to availability. Because it is so easy to take a quick peek at Twitter, I don’t stay on task nearly as well on the computer. Pen and paper affords me only one thing to do: put words on a page. It naturally allows me to focus on the task at hand.

Motivation

Previously I had to put tricks in place to bring myself to write. I’ve always enjoyed the accomplishment of having written, but the process itself has always felt like a burden. I had to write in the morning, my most alert time of the day, to focus enough to write. It was the only way to get it done. But when I started exploring analog writing, I discovered an innate interest in pulling out the paper. Most of the tricks and timing are unnecessary. There’s joy in inking a fountain pen, opening a quality notebook, and laying words on the page that allows me to write more without it being a hardship.

Time

Here’s the downside. It takes longer and that’s for two reasons. One, it takes longer to write by hand than it does to type. That comes with the positive of higher quality but it’s still a hit to the efficiency I had with typing. Second, I write longer articles when writing by hand. I spell out more detail and develop thoughts more fully. Again, I see this as a positive, but it means I need to be willing to cut time elsewhere.

Results

I’ve always felt that writing was synonymous with typing. “That’s how it should be done. It’s faster and more efficient.” But for me, the trade-offs aren’t worth it. I’ll be sticking with pen and paper. I’ve even gone to the extent of setting up a dedicated writing desk and purchasing a special notebook for it.