How the Way You Write Changes the Way You Think

In 2012, New Yorker writer Judith Thurman wrote an impassioned plea for the American education system to continue teaching cursive handwriting in order to preserve the art of penmanship.

It wasn’t the first of its kind.

In 1935, TIME featured a story in which pencil salesman claimed typewriters and the romanticising of bad handwriting as a mark of greatness for the ill health of the craft. Another came in 1947, then five years later, when parents in Brookline, Massachusetts struck a revolt when the school system planned to ditch cursive to teach manuscript printing, which a local magazine called “a system that bears a striking similarity to the crude hieroglyphics of the ancient Phoenicians”.

Is there cause for such hysteria? In a time when nobody is ever far away from a digital device on which to type their thoughts, is an understanding of cursive useful for anything more than reading birthday cards from the grandparents?

Perhaps the question should be broadened: is there any benefit to writing by hand instead of a keyboard?

According to metacognitive science, the answer is yes.

A study performed by researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer sought to determine student ability to retain and demonstrate knowledge based on whether they took notes via hand or laptop.

Over three experiments, they showed that while laptop users wrote around 30% more notes, they were unable to articulate an understanding of the content.

This was especially notable when laptop users were asked conceptual (compare and contrast) questions that required them to put facts into context.

The reason? Laptop users were taking notes verbatim. Meanwhile, pen and paper notetakers were considering what they were writing as they were writing it, and reframing it in such a way that helped them better comprehend the content.

When the students were given a week to revise their notes before taking a test on the content, it was once again handwritten notes that proved the most beneficial.

In fact, laptop users who took the test immediately after taking notes performed better than those given an opportunity to study. The latter, having returned to their notes, struggled to find context in them, so while they proved better at recalling facts than pen and paper users who hadn’t studied, they performed significantly worse on every other question.

Also of note: though most worshipers of penmanship might scoff at the notion, doodling also can prove useful when it comes to memorisation. Though generally perceived as a distraction, it has actually been shown to improve concentration and recall up to 29%.

While the findings prove it’s worth carrying a notepad around, they don’t mean you should rely on it all the time.

Falling sick in the summer of 1797, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge retired to Ash Farm while on his way to Lynton, in England’s south-west.

There, in an opium-induced daze, he found himself inspired to write a poem about Xanadu, the palace of Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan. Half asleep, he penned the poem as fast as he could, so clear were the visions that he would set to paper.

Then came a knock at the door. A visitor was calling to him.

By the time he returned to the page, his vision had faded. The poem was never finished.

Then all the charm
Is broken—all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
And each mis-shape the other. Stay awhile,
Poor youth! who scarcely dar’st lift up thine eyes—
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! And lo! he stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.

– Coleridge, in the preface to Kubla Khan.

The average human hand, using a pen, can write approximately 13 words per minute. Using a keyboard, that rises to 41.

At 24 words per minute, the fingers are able to keep up with the brain. At 24 words per minute, Coleridge may have been able to complete Kubla Khan before he was called away on business.

The transcription fluency that typing allows is one of the greatest tools available to aid creative writers, whether they be a seasoned poet or a student writing an exam, and should not be ignored by those who revere pen and paper.

In short:

Receiving information? Write it in a notebook.
Creating information? Type it on a keyboard.

Balancing both is crucial to unlocking the innate power of the written word.

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