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Why Writing Longhand is Still a Good Idea

16 January 2024

Barbara read The Case for Writing Longhand: It’s About Trying to Create That Little Space of Freedom by Sara Bahr and appreciated affirmation for something she loves to do—write with a pen.

Tags: barbara read, writing

This article was so much fun to read because it was about a great journalist for The New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson, who does some things I already do and others that I long to do. He recommends writing first drafts longhand. I’ve loved writing longhand ever since I learned cursive. I adored the teacher who taught it to me, and I could copy perfectly what she put on the black board.

I’ve also felt that writing by hand pulled ideas that were not quite formed out of my brain, down my arm, and onto the page where they got better as they hit the page. Taking notes by hand rather than on your computer can also lead to better retention and learning.

Bahr said “Mr. Anderson, 44, …grew up writing by hand, before the computer was common in American households. He likes that the process slows him down and puts him in touch with his thoughts. Drafting by hand lowers the stakes, he said, because it doesn’t feel like “official” writing yet, which helps him avoid writer’s block.” He said it also keeps him away from the computer where there are “…17 million options for distraction.”

I immediately labeled Anderson a great writer because Bahr’s article had a link to a profile he had written for The New York Times Magazine on Kevin Durant. I clicked on it and read every single word of his very long article, and I didn’t even know who Kevin Durant was or care that much about basketball. I just couldn’t stop reading Bahr's beautiful story telling.

As we can do these days, I then Googled Anderson to try to find out where he grew up, what kind of childhood and education he had that had turned him into someone who could put such wonderful words together. I found exactly what I was looking for in interview with Will Schwalbe titled, Sam Anderson: How The Art of the Personal Essay Changed My Life.

Anderson told Schwalbe that reading was his best skill when he was young, and he spent every minute he could doing it. He would go to libraries any chance he could, and when he was old enough, he worked in them. “…when I was supposed to be shelving books, I would mostly be pulling books out semi-randomly and just reading the first page and seeing if a voice caught me. I was just looking for voices to catch me, and help me feel out who I was and what kind of writer I wanted to be.”

With my question answered, I turned back to Bahr’s article. Anderson is as specific as I am about the instrument he uses to write. “He begins all his stories by free-writing on paper with an extra fine black Pilot Vballpen—or, sometimes, with a stylus on a reMarkable 2 digital tablet—though he never writes an article in order from beginning to end. He writes scenes in chunks and then spends hours trying to arrange them.” (Free-writing or freewriting as Peter Elbow coined the term changed my life forever when I learned about it in graduate school in the early 80s.)

I love the smooth flow of a Paper Mate blue Ink gel 0.7 pen on my wide rule paper in a 5 subject spiral notebook where everything I write goes (drafts of articles, book chapters, to-do lists, confirmation numbers for on-line orders, what I want to do in the next 15 minutes, how I feel). If it’s in that notebook, I won’t lose it. I might have to turn a lot of pages to find what I’m looking for, but it won’t slip off my desk into the trash can or recycling basket.

I also write in chunks and then arrange like Anderson, but what I so envy about him is his fabulous writing voice. I’ll keep reading his articles to see if he can influence me the way others in that library long ago influenced him.

How could writing longhand help you? If you aren’t sure how to get started, try this.


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