Writers at Work: Escape the Keyboard—It Has No Spirit or Soul

J.K. Rowling and her black pen.

Do you write by hand or on a computer?

J. K. Rowling: “I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one.”
By Barnard Law Collier

Write your serious work by hand. Escape the keyboard. Keyboards have no spirit and no soul. Your handwriting has both. Penmanship is the sport of the mind. Benjamin Franklin, the first great American journalist autobiographer, wrote about how he copied the handwriting of people whose traits and character he admired and thus he absorbed his heroes’ best qualities.

Select with care your writing instrument. No two pens or pencils are exactly similar. Choose by your sense of touch. Does it fit gently where you grasp it? Does the material of the body feel right?

Use a paper that best suits your personality. Yellow, lined, paper is a favorite of the lawyerly writers. Unlined paper is best for those who enjoy the freedom to choose their own lines.

Your posture ought to be comfortable and disciplined. The chair you choose—unless you stand up—should allow your back and legs to stay still while you are in the writer’s trance (which some call “the zone”). Develop a steady, slow, deep breathing pattern to keep your brain supplied with oxygen. Thinking and writing is honest-to-god work.

Take chances with your script. You needn’t confine your handwriting into a static font. “Messiness” does not necessarily mean confusion. It may signal creativity and independence of thought. Play with your penmanship and what you write may radiate energy.

Inflection is critical to narrative. While handwriting contains myriad inflections, the keyboard does not.

Transcribe your manuscript via keyboard to a digital file. You then may experience the ghostly impression that intelligence beyond yours actually composed the piece. This offers you the opportunity to edit your own text as if it were a stranger’s work. You get a cool degree of distance.

Archive your manuscripts. If you become a masterful writer, they may be of value.
Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.


  1. Barney Collier says

    There is a simple “practice lap” that biometric graphologists call “The Concentration Vortex.” In your normal size handwriting, write a sentence that says something you think is important that stretches fully across the top of the page. Under it, write the same sentence a little smaller, and the next one smaller still, and so on, until a tornado-like shape appears. When you get to the smallest line you can accomplish, your level of concentration will be sky high and the effects will last several hours. When your focus wanes, do the vortex again. Here’s a link to a site that shows how to do a practice lap:



  3. A good January 2015 post on handwriting by Chris Gayomali on mentalfloss.com:

    Today is National Handwriting Day! Although we don’t write like we used to, here are four ways handwriting is still helpful.

    One of the most effective ways to study and retain new information is to rewrite your notes by hand. That’s because putting ink to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, or the RAS. According to Lifehacker, “The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on that moment — something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront.” One study from 2010 found that the brain areas associated with learning “lit up” much more when kids were asked to write words like “spaceship” by hand versus just studying the word closely.

    Many famous authors opt for the meticulousness of writing by hand over the utility of a typewriter or computer. In a 1995 interview with the Paris Review, writer Susan Sontag said that she penned her first drafts the analog way before typing them up for editing later. “I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers,” she said. “I like the slowness of writing by hand.” Novelist Truman Capote insisted on a similar process, although his involved lying down with a coffee and cigarette nearby. “No, I don’t use a typewriter,” he said in an interview. “Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.” A 2009 study from the University of Washington seems to support Sontag, Capote, and many other writers’ preference for writing by hand: Elementary school students who wrote essays with a pen not only wrote more than their keyboard-tapping peers, but they also wrote faster and in more complete sentences.

    The computer in front of you is a time-sucking portal to puppy videos and ex-boyfriend/girlfriend stalking. That’s why self-imposed lockout programs like Facebook Limiter and Minutes Please exist in the first place. Of course, the internet isn’t all bad. In 2012, neuroscientists even suggested that taking five-minute breaks to browse Tumblr or BuzzFeed could make you a more productive worker. On the other hand, when you’re all GIF’d-out and it’s time to work on that dissertation, there’s something to be said for the elegant simplicity of having only a pen and paper in front of you… especially since that paper probably isn’t plugged into the distraction-laden internet. Try writing with laser-like focus for short 20-minute stretches at a time.

    Writing longhand is a workout. No, not necessarily for your wrist, but for your brain. According to The Wall Street Journal, some physicians claim that the act of writing — which engages your motor-skills, memory, and more — is good cognitive exercise for baby boomers who want to keep their minds sharp as they age. And if you’re looking to pick up a new skill, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that adults had an easier time recognizing new characters — like Chinese, math symbols, or music notes — that were written by hand over characters generated by a computer.

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