May 09, 2013
"Handwriting slows us down......"
As the academic year winds down, many of us academics and scholars are engaged right now intensively in either grading or writing. I just finished grading a group of final papers from my Consumer Law students. I was, as usual, pleased by some of the excellent, elegant writing that I saw, but frustrated by some of the writing that showed signs of the cut-and-paste-from-electronic-sources-and-hope-the-structure-will-be-evident approach that seems to characterize a lot of writing these days. (And not just student writing. This is a frequent complaint I hear from my husband, a judge who increasingly encounters this in court filings.)
I'm also working intensely on some of my own writing, and I find myself this morning at my computer, surrounded by piles of note cards covered with my handwritten scribbles, organized into piles that correspond to the themes I want to address in my paper. The process of scribbling out those note cards while I research something is never efficient. It always takes much more time to get through books when I'm taking these sorts of notes than it would be if I just read the book & tagged important sections with sticky tabs, or even if I typed the 'important quotes' directly onto my computer. I often think there must be a quicker way to do some of this, but I can't bring myself to work any other way when I'm really trying to think something through.
This morning, I read a book review in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I think will ease my mind about this process, and explain why I was so happy to drive my 12-year old daughter to Target to buy her some more note cards that she wanted to use for studying. It was a review of a new book by Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. Robert Bliwise, the reviewer, explains:
Hensher's overarching idea is that we're at a cultural tipping point: This is "a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether," he writes. He wonders whether that vanishing act will point to a more profound phenomenon. "Is anything going to be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper? Will some part of our humanity, as we have always understood it, disappear as well?"
I haven't read the book yet, but the review focuses mostly on Hensher's concern that what will disappear is all the signals about the individuality of the hand-writer -- in Catholic terms, perhaps, the aspect of the words that reveals the human person behind the ideas. I wonder, though, if the transition to an all-mechanical world of writing might also carry some cost in terms of the content of the writing itself. Bliwise writes:
Hensher says his creative-writing students increasingly resist the idea of the handwritten journal and the practice of taking notes by hand. Handwriting, he suggests, slows us down, and we can't think deeply without slowing down. The very best students are "the ones who take out a piece of paper and a pen" in the classroom—the ones who "write down the things that they think are interesting as you talk, making sense of it as they go."
If all op-ed authors had to hand write their opinions before they could be published, if T.V. and radio pundits had to hand write their thoughts before reading them on air, if all bloggers had to hand write their posts before posting, might that positively influence what is commonly seen as the 'cheapening' of public discourse? ( ..... I write, on-line, mechanically, without having put pen or pencil to paper myself yet today...)
I generally agree with the statement that handwriting, or at least less technological writing, aids in the learning and deliberative process. As a law student, I was confronted with the choice of taking handwritten notes or typewritten notes during class (which is what the majority, if not all, students do). My initial inclination, born from my undergraduate experience in seminars, was that handwritten notes forced me to prioritize and synthesize what I was listening to due to the very fact that I could not write as quickly as others spoke or the professor lectured. My handwriting technique and how the words appeared on the paper (spacing, dashes, other signifiers) also helped me remember my thought process at the time. However, I do not think that sort of prioritization, synthesis, and "making sense of it as they go" is impossible with a computer or laptop. I soon realized that I could be just as discriminating with typing notes and developed a new system to signify my thought process. With all of that said, I still prefer looking at ink and paper than bright lights and a screen.
Posted by: Brian | May 9, 2013 11:18:39 AM
The opening Wolfson College Lecture at Oxford by Father Walter Ong, S.J. in 1985 was entitled "Writing Is a Technology That Restructures Thought" which can be accessed at:
The piece is replete with useful observations about the "technology" of writing, including:
"Writing was an intrusion, though an invaluable intrusion, into the early human lifeworld, much as computers are today. It has lately become fashionable in some linguistic circles to refer to Plato's condemnation of writing in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter. What is seldom if ever noticed, however, is that Plato's ohjections against writing are essentially the very same ohjections commonly urged today against computers by those who object to them...Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can only be in the mind. Writing is simply a thing, something to be manipulated, something inhuman, artificial, a manufactured product. We recognize here the same complaint that is made against computers: they are artificial contrivances, foreign to human life."
"...Human knowledge demands both proximity and distance, and these two are related to one another dialectically. Proximity perceptions feed distancing analyses, and vice versa,creating a more manageable intimacy.
As a time-obviating, context-free mechanism, writing separates the known from the knower more definitely than the original orally grounded manceuvre of naming does, but it also unites the knowerand the known more consciously and more articulately. Writing is a consciousness-raising and humanizing technology. So is print, even more, and, in its own way, so is the computer. But that is another story, which has yet to be told or written or printed or processed inthe course of this series."
Posted by: dfb | May 9, 2013 11:24:16 AM
I just read a piece in The Guardian about the novelist Anne Tyler and she explains how she writes:
"For a writer who is so protective of her privacy, she is unusually open about her routine, which is so exacting that it might have been devised by one of her characters. A "very mechanical process", it involves revising tiny sections in "quite small and distinct handwriting – it is almost like knitting a novel" (she insists on white paper, no lines, and swears by "the miraculous Pilot P500 gel pen"). When she is happy with each section she types it up, then writes the whole manuscript out in longhand again. She then reads it into a tape-recorder to listen out for false notes or clumsiness. "You think a character would never say that, but you only know it when you speak it out loud." To avoid typing it all out again, she ingeniously plays it back to herself on a stenographer's machine with a pedal to pause so she can put that comma exactly where she wants it. One of the reasons she doesn't like her first novels is that at the time she felt that to revise them was unspontaneous. "Spontaneity is not always a good thing.""
I also remember an interview Brian Lamb of C-SPAN was doing with some writer. Lamb was asking the writer about how he wrote -- did he use pencil or pen or computer, where he sat, really getting into the mechanics and details. Lamb said something to the effect of "I hate to ask all these silly questions" but then he quickly corrected himself and said something like "Who am I kidding? I like asking these questions." Those type of questions seem important.
Posted by: Anon | May 9, 2013 12:09:33 PM
As a person who has often had to re-write assignments for illegibility, or come into a professor’s office and read a test out loud to them, I eagerly await the day when handwriting is all but obsolete. However, I do think that there is a special place for hand written materials at certain points. And I think Elizabeth correctly points out why, the need to add a touch of humanity to what we are writing. I would never send a personal letter that was not handwritten or give someone a card without a handwritten message on it.
I think it is just as easy to become a stenographer when writing as it is when typing. When there is a computer present, there are always opportunities for distraction.
Posted by: Michael A. | May 9, 2013 1:29:21 PM
Thank all, Elizabeth and those who comment. It shows me that there are people out there who are thinking about writing by handwriting before throwing the baby out with the dishwater.
Posted by: Nan Jay Barchowsky | May 14, 2013 6:55:52 AM
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