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Have You Tried Writing by Hand?

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I taught myself to type, and for a very good reason. I was starting my introductory journalism classes in the fall, and typing was a requirement. So, in whatever free time I had that summer (I was also working a summer job), I could be found sitting at my desk in my bedroom, following a self-instruction manual, pecking away on an electric typewriter my parents had bought for me.

I took my electric with me when I returned to college. My first day in my basic news reporting course, I discovered we had typewriters at every seat – old Royal manualtypewriters. My fingers, used to the needed light touch on an electric machine, had to learn how to pound on a manual.

Gradually, I got used to typing on a manual for journalism writing. All other writing – papers, research texts, history and English assignments – were typed on my electric in my room. At times I felt I had a bit of a split personality, but I made do.

I graduated, and my first job was as a newspaper copy editor. The copy desk used IBM Selectric typewriters, which, fortunately, I was familiar with from my father’s printing and mailing business. For the next decade, the IBM Selectric was my friend, first at the newspaper and then my work in corporate communications.

In 1984, my IBM Selectric was replaced by an IBM 286 computer, with a floppy-disk drive. In the days before email and networked computers, I could copy a document to the disk, hand the disk to a secretary, and watch her print what I had written. For someone like me, with speechwriting and regular revision of texts was standard operating procedure, that IBM 286 was something close to miraculous. We bought our first home computer, an Apple IIGS, in 1988.

In the late 1980s, I was working on a speech. It wasn’t just any speech; it was one of those groundbreaking speeches that would likely change a lot of things. (It would eventually turn an industry upside down and become known as “the speech that refused to die.”) And I was having trouble – how was I going to bring the speech to a close? Up to the last two pages, the text moved and soared – and then went completely flat.

I had seen a program on PBS whose subject related to the subject of the speech. We obtained a copy of the program, and I brought it to the television and cassette player in our conference room. My desktop computer stayed where it was – on the desktop (this was before laptops had appeared). I watched the program, and I suddenly knew how to end the speech. With nothing to type with, I started writing by hand.

And I learned something. I wrote differently when I wrote by hand as opposed to typing on a typewriter or computer keyboard. The revelation startled me. Could technology affect how I wrote?

After typing the new conclusion to the speech and sending it off to the executive for review, I took a hard look at the text. And, yes, I could see the difference. The most emotional part of the speech – the part that packed the biggest wallop – was the part I had written by hand.

I tried this with other speeches and other kinds of writing. And it held true. From then on, if I needed an emotional section, I would write it first by hand.

I still do that. Virtually every poem I write is written first by hand. Several sections of my three novels were first written by hand. Even parts of my non-fiction on poetry at work were written by hand.

I can’t explain it, but writing by hand connects me far more emotionally to what I’m writing than simply typing the text. I’ve also found that writing by hand helps when I hit a wall or dead end.

It’s one reason I carry a journal with me wherever I go, including church.

Have you tried writing by hand, or using writing by hand to help you through difficult parts of a text?

Photograph by Adolfo Felix via Unsplash, Used with permission.

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