The writing paradox


Having used keyboards, both physical and virtual, as my primary means of entry for "written" communication for almost two decades I am painfully aware of how poor my handwriting has become.

Holding a pen feels almost alien and writing anything longer than a birthday card greeting can be a real struggle.

This has long perturbed me but, apparently, never enough to do anything about it until recently when I vowed to carry a notepad and pen with me.

Part of me wanted to stop the rot, to regain my penmanship skills, but part of me selfishly wanted to use it as a source of inspiration - to see if writing in a different way would trigger different thought and creative processes.

Writing without writing

I have posted before about how we call it writing but the word has become largely disassociated from its meaning: we have the physical act of writing and then the creative process where the two used to be synonymous.

It has been a couple of months since I made that vow but, after a promising start, almost that long since my pen has touched the pages.


I'm not sure why it should be so hard to return to pen and paper; perhaps it is the years of conditioning and the convenience of a powerful, miniaturised computer in the palm of your hand.

We could argue that this is only natural, that the tools used for writing have been changing for millennia with the old ways getting left behind in favour of new technologies, but each of those old ways still involved putting an implement to a canvas of sorts.

With the ubiquity of keyboards we are at the first point in history, since writing was invented, that we are all but media-less. And I think we should be concerned, if not outright scared.

Why write?

It is acknowledged that handwriting plays a vital part in learning: the act of repeatedly tracing letter shapes whilst learning to write improves their recognition when it comes to leaning to read.

The physical act of writing is also said to engage different parts of our brain leading to cognitive benefits through the relationship established between thought and motion.

Advocates assert that writing by hand enhances creativity, leading to better quality work, thanks to the more measured and determined pace we must take when using a pen; the numerous studies undertaken to demonstrate this, however, contradict each other.

Others will focus on the lack of distractions when using a pen as we are not interrupted by notifications or tempted to switch to social networking apps every few minutes, although the same result can be achieved if we turn off the connectivity of our devices whilst writing.


As mentioned above, my wanting to return to pen and paper wasn't just to practice my handwriting, but to assess its impact on the creative process; whether an alternate workflow would affect how I wrote and, perhaps even, what I wrote.

Just as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are used to separate content from styles when creating web pages so using a pen separates writing from research. In this digital age, when our information sources are predominately online, does the ability to quickly switch between apps, between content and consumption, serve as a benefit or does that disconnect actually help by giving our thoughts time to breathe and settle?

Can the lack of distraction make for a better writing flow where we can leave placeholders to return to and fill in the gaps later?

Losing ourselves?

We are advised to always have a pad and pen with us as inspiration can strike at any time, yet our phones are invariably to hand (almost literally) and this, no doubt, is why it is difficult to make the switch back to drafting thoughts on paper.

We run the risk of being subsumed by our technology without making a conscious effort to the contrary.

Regardless of whether the pen is mightier than the keyboard, or cursive script is still needed in the 21st century, maybe we should be more worried about losing such an organic skill that helps to remind us of our humanity.