A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed by Shari Wilson, “The Surprising Process of Writing,” jibes with my observations over the last few years: many students do better with in-class handwritten essays than with word-processed essays written outside of class. My evidence is only anecdotal, but it’s consistent enough to suggest that writing by hand may have several significant advantages for many student-writers:
1. Writing by hand simplifies the work of organizing ideas into an essay. Compare the tedium of creating an outline in Microsoft Word with the ease of arranging and rearranging on paper, where ideas can be reordered or added or removed with simple arrows and strikethroughs. With index cards, reordering is even easier.
2. Writing by hand serves as a reminder that a draft is a draft, not a finished piece of writing. For many student-writers, writing an essay is a matter of composing at the keyboard, hitting Control-P, and being done. More experienced writers know that an initial draft is usually little more than a starting point. Without the sleek look of word-processed text, there’s no possibility of mistaking a first effort for a finished piece of writing.
3. Writing by hand helps to minimize the scattering of attention that seems almost inevitable at a computer, with e-mail, instant-messaging, and web-browsing always within easy reach. Even without an online connection, a word-processing program itself offers numerous distractions from writing. Writing by hand keeps the emphasis where it needs to be — on getting the words right, not on fonts, margins, or program settings. Writing is not word-processing.
In some cases, of course, a computer is a necessary and appropriate tool for writing, particularly when a disability makes writing by hand arduous or impossible. But if it’s possible, try planning and drafting your next written assignment by hand. Then sit down and type. Thinking and writing away from the computer might make your work go better, as seems to be the case for so many students.
Michael Leddy teaches college English and has published widely as a poet and critic. He blogs at Orange Crate Art.