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The Science Backed Benefits of Writing by Hand

Improved spelling and grammar, better memory, and increased focus. What do all of these have in common? They are the benefits of writing by hand.

As a writer, the debate between hand writing and typing intrigued me. Some writers prefer a notebook and pen, or even a typewriter, others like the ease of typing on a keyboard.

Having written drafts using both mediums, I wanted to figure out the key differences between the two. Is there really a correct or better way to write? Are there long term effects on the brain? What do you gain and what do you lose?

As I pondered these questions I thought back to a TedTalk I had watched years before that covered this very topic.

Why Write? Penmanship for the 21st Century

In this talk, Jake Weidmann covers three forms of literacy you gain when writing by hand:

1) Historical literacy. Human beings have been writing and creating language since the dawn of time. To learn to write is to take a step into our history and the origins of penmanship.

2) Intellectual literacy. I’d like to quote the Talk directly here because I think Weidmann expresses it best:

“Handwriting was also found to be incredibly helpful in small children who were learning to read, because by forming the individual letters, they had a deeper understanding of the anatomy of each one and were therefore able to recognize it when it came time to read it on the page.”

I’ve always thought letters were like shapes. In the same way we recognize logos and icons, we recognize each letter for what it is.

Weidmann goes on to say…

“Moreover, cursive was found to be even more beneficial to the brain. Researchers and scientists have done brain scans on children learning cursive and found that the different parts of the brain which are engaged are similar to those adults typically use when writing and doing higher reasoning.”

3) Creative literacy. Penmanship can move creative efforts forward. Calligraphy is an art form in and of itself, but our handwriting is similar to that of a fingerprint, how you write is unique to you.

I recommend watching the whole video if you have the time, it’s one of my favourites.

In addition to this talk I also did some of my own research. Here's what I found:

The Benefits of Writing by Hand

Your Brain is More Active

One study found that, even when the participants (who were children and young adults) were writing with a stylus on a tablet or touch screen, the areas of the brain correlated with working memory and encoding new information were more active during handwriting than typing.

Your Focus is Better

One article stated that “those writing by hand are using their Reticular Activating System, a part of the brain that automatically emphasizes whatever the writer is focusing on at that moment.”

Your Memory Improves

In 2012, Washington University of St. Louis conducted a study on typing and memory retention. Students who wrote their notes by hand retained the information up to a week later and grasped the concept much more thoroughly than those who typed.

Your Creativity Flourishes

Another University of Washington study in 2009 of elementary students discovered that when writing creative stories, the students who wrote with a pen and paper excelled and finished faster than their typing peers. The study goes on to note that, “they also wrote longer compositions with more complete sentences.”

On a similar note, writing by hand means your ideas can’t simply be erased with a click of a button, the words must be crossed out manually, where they remain on the paper and in your mind. These crossed out sentences and ideas begin to form guidelines in your brain. What I mean by this is that it’s difficult to learn from your mistakes when you can’t see them.

Writing in Cursive is better for Dyslexic Individuals

I think the most interesting fact I learned is that those with learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia, perform better when writing in cursive.

Deborah Spear, an academic therapist, said this is because “all letters in cursive start on a baseline, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.”

While I am not dyslexic, there are individuals within my family who are, so I found this particularly fascinating.

Final Thoughts

When I write anything creative – a poem, a short story, an entire manuscript – I am more intentional about what I put down on the page, especially when I write with a pen instead of a pencil.

I used to think writing with a pen was too permanent and favoured pencils all throughout my early education. That changed when I started writing more and I began to enjoy the way the pen moved across the page (also not having to stop every five minutes and sharpen the damn thing was fantastic!).

I hope you’ve learned something new today through this post. I also hope you consider taking up the pen again if you haven’t done so in a while. It’s more beneficial than most of us will ever realize.


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