There are different opinions on handwriting (longhand) vs typing. The arguments boil down to either personal preferences about speed and efficiency or theories about retention and immediacy. I’ve used longhand for decades, and I’ve used laptops, tablets, phones for years. The analog and the digital both have their advantages and disadvantages, but for me, personally, based on my experience, the old pen/pencil and paper wins every time when it comes to drafts, notes, ramblings.
Here are 5 reasons why I think everyone should use longhand (or cursive, or print, or whatever works, as long as it’s pen(cil) on paper).
- The Emotional Link
Emotions and immediate reactions to the act of writing can be captured, and later felt anew, through strokes, line thickness, pressure. When something is physically underlined, maybe twice or thrice, with a flourish, it’s easy to see its importance. It is NOT an italicized or underlined typed word it’s more, and the line(s) from that very moment in time are immortalized. Strikethroughs are essential to capturing the instant meaning of the writing. The mistakes, retries, frustrated attempts are all captured, frozen, ready to be revived whenever you read your notes. None of this exists in the digital, erase-as-you-go world.
Writing on paper gives you the ability to add drawings, flow charts, arrows, bullets, palimpsest-like notes over notes. You can circle, reorganize non-destructively, reformat without losing the original intent as it came from head to hand. A list of points, say 5 reasons to slow down and write, can be written in the original order produced by the brain. Then, with a few lines, arrows, scribbles, the order can be changed, however, the original intent is saved. Maybe it was better the first time. If reorganized on a digital platform, the genesis has long vanished. Tablets and styli come closer to giving the writer the ability to mimic pen(cil) and paper, but the urge to cut and paste neatly may be too hard to resist. Also, see point 3…
- No Distractions
Your notepad will never beep, run out of batteries, notify you that your friend posted/ate/procrastinated something/somewhere/sometime. No email will pop up, no text message will ding, no weather alert will take your eyes from the task at hand. Also, you will not accidentally hit a wrong key, drag another app from the edge, swear at the screen when your devices freezes up even for a second. Apps have tried to push “focus” modes and “clean writing” interfaces, but, it is almost guaranteed something will pop up and mess with your train of thought.
- The Retention of Flow
Error and juxtaposition can subconsciously contribute to a final piece. If those connections, be they side notes, eraser-ghosts (you won’t catch me erasing), aren’t preserved, a big part of the reason for a piece of writing can be lost. I have caught myself wondering what the hell did I mean here? More than once. When everything is retained in a longhand draft, the answer may be right there. Forget about answering the question if all that’s left is a clear, focused, clean version on your device. The list order, the birth of that original idea, the bastardization thereof, the tangent that became more important than the first premise, all of if contributes to the flow and eventual feel of the final work. Give yourself the chance to capture all of it.
- Longevity and Legacy
Notebooks will never need updates. Notebooks will never disappear when a company decides to pull its cloud services. Notebooks will never be obsolete, replaced by new compression or encryption methods. With sufficient care against rot or fire, the paper, the ink, the graphite, all should survive, legible and complete. On a more sentimental level, the notebook is a legacy. It is a genuine, physical artifact that tells a story. The best example would be gramp’s notes about the war, or grandma’s cookbook, passed from generation to generation. The mistakes, scribbles, drawings, they are all as important as the entries or recipes. They are a snapshot of a place, at a specific time. The same wouldn’t hold true for gramp’s Evernote login or grandma’s OneNote account.
The real story is in that notebook with the dirty spine, the one that ate pencils and drank inkwells dry. There is a life in there.
the dry well echoes
every sunday afternoon
with a coin secretly
palmed from the
the tinny reverb plinked
all the way down
to the dirt
in the empty bucket
the child mutters
amid cicada shells
twice-dead and desiccated
picked from nearby trees
on the backs of
dancing at his feet
the old man
from the bowl of his pipe
looking at his boots
speckled whitish-grey –
kid they all look for water
before they die
you’re just wasting
and that money
wishing her back
she won’t come –
you may as well’ve been
praying for rain
From Sonofabitch Poems, R L Raymond, 2011
If you know where to look…
The question “why” is always loaded, especially when it deals with poetry. The inquirer always expects a lofty response.
“I write poetry to satisfy my muse…”
“I must write poetry, it comes from my soul…”
“Poetry is the true language…”
To me, any answer like this, or anything flowery, contrite, haughty, misses the point. Poetry is not an end but a means. Poetry is a tool, a structural element to just plain writing. It provides a framework to
juxtapose elements that need
juxtaposition to show some
When looking at line breaks, line lengths, stanzas, really focus on the reason. Does it add to the meaning or
is the line
break simply random to
make the writing look or sound
Poetry isn’t divine, or pure, or mystical, nor is it just chopped up prose. It is a lyrical, metrical, and content-driven building block.
So my answer to “Why do you write poetry?” is pretty simple: I use poetry if the piece requires it. I use poetry to bring meaning and interest to my writing.
So use your “poetry” for a good reason.
Don’t make poetry the reason.
We have always been told to learn from our mistakes. It’s a simple enough concept: don’t repeat things that don’t work or things that are bad for you. Wear shoes when you walk on gravel. Don’t stick your tongue to the pole in the schoolyard in winter. Simple.
When it comes to writing, the concept is a little more confusing. Picture the stereotypical frustrated writer, sitting alone in a room, staring at a blank page. Then inspiration strikes! Frantic writing… then, a page is torn, crumpled, tossed across the room in disgust. Zoom in on the pencil. This time, the author is on to something… a sentence, and then, SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH, SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE… blacked out in disgust, as illegible as a classified document. Maybe another ball of paper, thrown away. Zoom out. Scribbles. Balls of paper. Frustration. Fade to black.
For writers it is almost second nature to destroy what we don’t like about what we just put to paper. Why? Maybe we worry that someone will read these unacceptable lines (and care). Maybe we think that the bad stuff will corrupt everything around it, like an algae bloom in the crystal clear pool of our genius. Nonsense.
Never throw away
Reread your drafts
Reread your journals
If you’ve thrown away a draft, or erased parts of it in one way or another, you can never learn from it. And don’t pretend to yourself that you’ll remember why it was ‘terrible;’ most times you can’t remember, a few hours later, that good stuff that comes to you as you fall asleep. If it’s gone, it’ll be repeated.
There is also another great reason to make your mistakes visible. When you reread your draft, your notes, your journal, you’ll see the
worlds words (wow, an example right here! I meant ‘words’ but typed ‘worlds’ so I’m going to leave it) under the strikethrough. Those were your original thoughts, your original gut instincts. Once you’ve removed yourself from the critical, “this sucks,” heat-of-the-moment hatred of your words, maybe you’ll see there was something salvageable.
Maybe it’s even better than just salvaging a little bit of writing. Maybe you’ll see an error, juxtaposed beside another word, another concept, and it will spark something totally new and fresh and different and inspiring. I remember writing feverishly, writing and crossing out (because I actually take my own advice and never erase), and coming up dry. A page of, well, nothing. But, under one pencil line, I read the word ‘ghost’ which had been either a written-typo (whatever those are called) or a weird mental connection I’d lost as soon as I’d written it. Whatever the case, in the nonsensical context, the ‘ghost’ idea became a fun little poem, using bits and pieces of the unrelated stuff that happened around the error. The original had NOTHING to do with what I eventually wrote. And the word ‘ghost’ didn’t even appear in the final piece.
If I had thrown out the page, or blacked out the ghost, I would never have found those interesting, accidental interplays that made the mistake worthwhile.
Keep the paper smooth, in your journal, notepad, binder, and cherish your strikethroughs, for there may be nuggets of inspiration in those words you originally thought garbage.
A photograph that captures a scene, a person, a place that no longer exists takes on a certain gravitas. Can the same be said of writing? Through detail, description, vibe, and voice, can the writer immortalize something? Is the image of the piece strong enough to create the same gravitas as a photograph?
Using an actual image of something long gone may trigger the kind of emotional detail that gives writing its power.
The photograph above will figure prominently in an upcoming story of mine. Whenever I come across it, the scene replays itself like a movie. Everything from lighting to smells comes back immediately. Through it I am transported, and now I just have to write it all down.
The most important aspect of writing is voice: that feel, sound, or signature thing that makes a piece identifiable as a particular writer’s work. Inevitably a writer just starting out will copy a mentor’s voice — subconsciously or not — to start understanding what makes it interesting. Then, through craft, experience, more reading, more experimenting with different mimicry, the writer begins to sculpt a signature vibe. Because it can only develop through careful, calculated practice, true voice may take years to articulate.
Read some of your own juvenilia; does it sound different? odd? bad? not like you? Most likely, that old writing was not crafted with your current voice. Note that your writing will change slightly, as does the way you speak: maturity, lifestyle, location, all will creep in. But this is honing of your voice. This application of life differs from the first stages of development. Early Hemingway (or King, Munro, Yeats, Garcia Marquez, Alexis, Doolittle, McCarthy…) has a different feel than later Hemingway, but the voice is there, loud, clear, identifiable.
Read. Read again. Read something different. Read something you dislike.
Write. Write some more. Write in a style you aren’t used to. Write in a style you detest.
Although the intangibility of voice can be frustrating, the importance of voice is paramount. When writing, ask yourself: what makes the story yours; outside of physical detail, could someone identify it as yours; what could you add, change, delete, to make it more yours? Eventually all these mechanics, these nuances will start to flow naturally, giving life to your own inner rhythms, rhymes, metres, in the form of voice.
Images on their own are sometimes strong enough to tell their own stories. They can fold in on themselves, complete, self-contained, requiring no further description.
All images © R L Raymond, 2021
Why do we write? To make sense of the world? To create our own worlds? Whatever the case, I think this quote by Cormac McCarthy is the perfect place to start my journey in trying to figure it out.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, Cormac McCarthy, 1985.