Okay, don’t shoot – I know the suggestion that anything should be written longhand is like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We live in an online world full of technical innovations and digital everything. Suggesting that writing longhand should be done at all – let alone that it might actually be more efficient – is, to most people, akin to suggesting we all get around in horse-drawn carriages, and that those carriages are faster than jet planes.
But hang in there. Hear me out for a minute. I promise I’m not talking nonsense.
My Complicated Relationship with Longhand
I fought longhand for a great while. I’d heard about its benefits, and I’d witnessed many of those benefits first hand. I know how nice it is to unplug. To get away from the humming of a computer, sit in the corner of a cafe with a latte, and write. With a pen. In a composition book.
But to actually commit to writing that way? I wasn’t sure I could do it. As much as I loved it, all the while in the back of my mind was that voice whispering Couldn’t you be getting so much more done on the computer?
Yes, I thought. Yes I could. I type at 115 words per minute on a slow day. Of course typing is faster.
As it turned out, that idea was completely wrong. I even did the time studies to prove it. I’d set the time for an hour and then write. At the end of the hour I checked to see how much I’d written.
When I did a one hour study, I got about 100 more words written longhand. Not a ton, but enough to make a difference.
However, once I got up to three hours at a time, my productivity writing longhand skyrocketed. In fact, it seemed that the longer I spent writing, the more longhand paid off.
How could this be possible?
I thought about it, reviewed everything, and came up with four reasons that writing longhand is faster than typing.
I realized that it’s not so much about the physical act of typing or writing, and it’s not about one being faster than the other. Clearly typing is faster from a purely mechanical standpoint. But when it comes to actually working on a project and getting ish done – efficiency – writing longhand takes the cake. This doesn’t answer the question of why, I realize, but it’s important to realize that speed and efficiency are two different things, and that the latter is far more important than the former when it comes to productivity.
1. The Land of Distractionless Focus
Have you heard of it? It’s this beautiful place you go to when you unplug, open a spiral notebook or composition book, and start writing. It happens when you turn off your software and start writing on physical note cards with a real pen.
I believe the number one reason that writing longhand is so much more efficient than typing is simply because my composition book doesn’t have the internet in it. I can’t “go research this real quick” and come out on the other end of four hours scrolling through puppy videos on Facebook wondering how it happened. Because: no internet.
That means when I have a question, I jot it on a Post-It note, and I keep rolling. I can look things up later. I now have a scheduled time for that. And it’s absolutely not during my writing time. I stick the Post-It inside my composition book where the sentences I need that research for will end up, and I keep going.
Another distraction I get to avoid? Finding an outlet. If I want to take my composition book to that abandoned corner of the library that nobody sits in because there’s no outlet, I can. Why? Because I don’t have to plug in my paper and pen. Were I using my laptop, however, I would have to hunt outlets and be a wall hugger like everyone else.
Not having to seek out a place to plug in my computer saves me a ton of time, meaning I can get to work quickly.
My composition book doesn’t have notifications. It doesn’t send me email. It doesn’t taunt me with clickable thingies or pop-up gizmos. No, it simply opens its cover and greets me with quiet, blank lines. My only job is to fill them.
Bear with me. I won’t make this too technical. However, they’ve done studies that show just how good it is for your brain when you write longhand. Specifically, it’s really great for your creative center. When you write with a pen on paper, it wakes up a part of your brain that’s connected to creativity and productivity. When you type, however, that creative portion of your brain isn’t activated as much. They think it’s because typing is more of a mechanical process – kind of like how you can drive somewhere you visit frequently on neurological autopilot and get out of your car wondering how you got there so fast. It’s robotic and your brain can chill while you do it.
Writing by hand, however, lights a fire in the creative portion of your brain, literally sparking your creativity.
For those of you who like mind-bending questions to ponder, consider this. If your creative center is ignited by writing longhand but not so much by typing, is the draft you type out a different draft than what you would have written longhand? In other words, would your story have been different had you written it longhand?
It’s a trippy question to consider, but it almost demands an answer in the affirmative.
I’ve tested this out, and it’s very interesting. Take a writing prompt – any writing prompt – and answer it two times. Write one response by hand, and one response on the computer. Do the handwritten sample first so you can’t claim “well I just had more time to think about it so that one was better”. Compare your two drafts, and be amazed.
The quality of my writing is, hands down, exponentially better when I write by hand. Which leads me to my next point.
3. A Better First Draft Means Less Editing
Here we go, saving time again. Whether you’re writing content for a client or working on your next fiction novel, writing longhand produces a better first draft. Every time. If that’s the case, then the logical conclusion is you’ll have less editing to do. Less editing means tons of saved time, meaning, as mentioned before, you’re more efficient. That makes the process faster as well as more efficient, because when you cut out all the time you would have spent distracted and, later, editing, you’ve shortened the writing process by scads.
4. Clearer Thinking, Tighter Content
In a paradoxical twist, writing longhand saves you time because it slows you down. I know, it’s a mind bender, but think about it. Part of the reason writing longhand is so efficient is that it forces you to really think about the words you’re writing.
If you’re anything like me, typing tends to be a pile of word vomit. This is truer the faster you type. When you can pretty much type at the speed of thought, you wind up with a lot of rambling nonsense that you have to edit later. You’re also bound to skip over important information because you’re going too fast.
Writing by hand allows you to slow that process down, allowing you to think more clearly – away from distractions – and allows your brain to filter out the fluff words before they ever make it onto the page.
If you’re not a believer, that’s okay. But I urge you to try it. One of my new practices for the new year is to do almost everything by hand first. I do blog right into the computer, but that’s mostly because this blog is more of a conversation. I don’t want it to feel written, if you know what I mean. I want you to feel like we’re having a conversation. So I’m fine with the fact that these blog posts are just as long-winded as I am. That’s the vibe I’m going for.
But for my other blogs, my eBooks, my novels, and my articles, I really want to commit to writing longhand. I know it works, even though it feels like it’s slower. Feeling slower, though, is part of the charm, especially when it yields higher productivity rates.
Here’s your challenge for the next week. By next Friday, complete the exercise I mentioned above. Find a writing prompt you like, write your response in longhand, and then write another response by typing. Compare the two, and comment below to let us know your results.
I bet you’ll be surprised by what happens.