Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

In the age of the computer, the tablet, and the smartphone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that writing by hand is an obsolete skill deserving of the demise many pundits are predicting. However, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests it has many benefits that go beyond the usefulness of being able to jot something down when a digital device isn’t at hand.

Studies published in the last decade have shown that writing by hand enhances learning — it makes us process and remember information more effectively. It boosts creativity and ideation. And it helps children learning to read progress faster.

According to Suzanne Baruch Asherson, a Los Angeles-based occupational therapist, the benefits of writing cursive are even more significant. Not only does it lead to brain development in thinking, language, and working memory, it also, she says, “stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.”

When interviewing authors, I often ask about the physical act of writing — and most of them write their first drafts by hand. There are some exceptions — Henrietta Rose-Innes, for example, says: “People often give me pretty notebooks, but I hardly ever write things by hand and I never have a pen.” For Nthikeng Mohlele, his workspace “99.9% of the time” is his iPhone.

You are taking ink and using it to mar a piece of paper in such a way that that piece of paper will never be good for anything else again

Then there are those for whom it depends on the genre. Antjie Krog uses a sharp HB pencil and A4 page for her poetry, but her computer for her non-fiction; Edmund White does the latter too. His fiction, on the other hand, he writes entirely in longhand first.

Then he dictates to someone (“usually it’s another writer I admire, someone young, who needs the money”) — which is a form of editing. “There’s sort of a cringe factor — some things are so stupid that I’ve written that I suppress them when I dictate it, and other places I can see need filling in,” he says.

Once it’s typed up, he continues to edit on the computer.

James Meek told me that, when writing by hand: “You are taking ink and using it to mar a piece of paper in such a way that that piece of paper will never be good for anything else again.” There is, he says, an “extra responsibility that comes with that. And in the crossings out and insertions that come in as you write, you can see the difficulties and the effort that you’ve made. And that also gives the words more weight. Whereas writing on a computer screen is like writing on water — the surface is always smooth, is always perfect, and it doesn’t have any memory, really — I mean literally it does, but it doesn’t in the same way that a worked-over piece of paper would.”

John Hunt echoed this — when he tried writing first with his computer, he felt “a distance” — it felt “more foreign to me, more clinical” than writing by hand, which “feels more intuitive” and allows him to be “more connected to the page”.

“I normally write scrupulously by hand,” Damon Galgut told me — but his most recent novel, Arctic Summer, he composed entirely on a computer. “With the longhand rhythm, you take longer and it actually gives you a few more seconds to think about the words you’re putting down. The computer can carry you in a more glib, surface kind of way — which is useful sometimes,” he says.

Antony Horowitz is a big fan of fountain pens. He told me: “I find the act of writing — by which I mean the physical act of writing: scratching a nib on paper, the sense of the pen balancing in your hand, the flow of the ink — very, very satisfying, much more so than tapping on a computer which, apart from anything else, does terrible damage to your body. To me the most pleasurable part of writing, in a way, is that physical contact. Then I go to the computer for the second, third, fourth drafts.”

While I would never claim it is impossible to create a masterpiece on an iPad or laptop, it’s clear from a sample even as small as this one that there is something really special about handwriting’s role in the crafting of poems and stories — especially in their tentative birthing stages. If we abandon our pens and pencils we’ll be losing more than a skill — we risk diminishing our literature, too.

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