Handwriting vs. Typing

I learned to compose on the computer when I became a full-time journalist. I had no choice; it was the only way I could write fast enough to earn a living. For years, the only time I wrote with a pen was when I woke in the middle of the night to record stray thoughts. In the last month, though, I have returned to regular hand-writing, and I conclude that there really is a difference between how my thoughts come when I write by hand and by the keyboard.

I am not writing on paper. Instead, I am writing on a Remarkable 2, a tablet designed to take the place of a notebook. The Remarkable company boasts that it makes the thinnest tablet on the market, and uses an e-ink screen like the one used by ebook readers, which means characters have a higher resolution than the average screen and a lack of glare. The company claims that the Remarkable 2 is the closest electronic equivalent to handwriting, and, from what I can see, the claim is true without any exaggeration. In addition, it has the advantage of organizing my notes and of transferring them to my workstation without the nuisance of having to write them twice. It is not an all-purpose tablet, but one designed for handling text, a hybrid of the best of handwriting and the computer.

That is fine with me. For years, I have had a notebook on a lectern beneath my monitor, for the simple reason that it is faster to scribble a note by hand than fumbling to open up a text editor on the computer in the hopes of recording a stray thought before I forget it. I replaced my notebook with the Remarkable 2 seamlessly, and immediately enjoyed the improved organization. At night, I carry the tablet into the bedroom, and use it to scribble the thoughts that might come in the night. The next morning, I carry the tablet back to my workstation, and upload any notes that seem worth preserving.

So far, I have only written short passages on the Remarkable 2. However, what I have done is to do a lot of planning and background notes on it. The planning always seems to come more easily than at the keyboard — something I had not expected.

I have been aware, of course, of the arguments in favor of handwriting. Authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have long shown a fascination with handwriting, especially, in some cases, when they use a fountain pen. Tentative studies have suggested that handwriting is useful for visual learning, that it helps with memory retension, has an aesthetic quality of it own, and minimizes distractions. But I have listened to these claims — claims I used to make myself, sometimes before I bought my first computer — and thought them nostalgic exaggerations, of the same kind that lead people to buy computers disguised as typewriters.

However, now I take them more seriously. My ideas seem to come more easily on the tablet. Part of the reason may be that when planning seems necessary, I often leave my work station to work at a table or sprawled on a futon or my bed. The change of locale may be enough to relax me, which in turn makes the ideas come more readily.

Yet I think something greater is going on. The motions of the fingers on the keyboard are very much the same. By contrast, when I grasp a pen — or, in the Remarkable 2’s case, a stylus –the muscular movements of my fingers are more numerous and subtle. In other words, handwriting carries more information than typing can. For this reason, I am more easily aware of my mental activity. Possibly, the relation between the muscular movements in my fingers and my brain activity are not one to one, but more channels are open. Just as importantly, because my muscular movements and much of my brain activity happen on a largely unconscious level, when I write by hand, I can more clearly access my mostly unconscious imagination.

By contrast, the muscular motions for typing are fewer, which means they can carry less information. Moreover, because they are regular, I ignore them more easily. It is not impossible to access my imagination when I use the keyboard — I do it all the time — but it takes more practice, and perhaps it is less efficient or at least takes more effort.

Some time soon, I will have to try composing a story or scene on the Remarkable 2. Meanwhile, it remains well-integrated into my work flow.