Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.


with 5 comments

The Scripps National Spelling Bee

At last week’s National Spelling Bee, many observers noted a small but telling change that says a lot about the shifting role of technology in the lives of kids. In the past, competitors would often use a finger to write out a difficult word in the air or on the palms of their hands, as I sometimes do when I’m trying to remember how to spell something. (In fact, that’s probably the only time I still use cursive.) At this year’s bee, it was more common to see spellers air-typing at an imaginary keyboard, and at least one girl mimed the act of texting. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: children are exposed to keyboards at an early age, and their hands are wired to their heads accordingly, to the point where it’s more intuitive to type something out using muscle memory than to pretend they’re writing it out. My own daughter will probably be no exception. The other day, at the thrift store, she saw an electric typewriter for the first time, and she immediately started hammering at the keys, trying in vain to make it play “Let it Go.”

But at the risk of sounding like a total luddite, I can’t help feel that the decline of handwriting is a genuine loss, and its impact over the long term will be hard to predict. A widely circulated article by Maria Konnikova of the New York Times makes a strong case that the link between handwriting and such cognitive activities as learning, remembering, and creativity is very real:

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize…Learning is made easier.”

Even a quick glance at a homunculus—the figure designed to indicate the relative amount of brain space allocated to each part of the body—vividly suggests how important our hands are when it comes to the way we think, and any shift in how we write and interact with text is bound to have consequences. Of course, there have been many such transitions over the centuries, from handwriting to typewriting to word processing, and there are equally fundamental changes yet to come. (If anything, I suppose I should be happy that kids are still typing at all, given how many of us interact with written content solely through a touchscreen.)

Ted Hughes

That said, I’m not about to give up my laptop anytime soon, and I can certainly write more quickly and fluently with the keyboard than by hand. Still, that kind of facility can have negative effects. I’ve shared this story from the poet Ted Hughes before, but I can’t resist quoting it again:

For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W.H. Smith children’s writing competition…Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works…It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words on the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

The nice thing about writing by hand is that it compels you to slow down slightly, and if you’re writing in ink, you’re more likely to reflect on each choice before you make it. (As the psychologist Paul Bloom says in the Times article: “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”) This transition is similar to the one in film editing from flatbed machines to Final Cut Pro, with the result, as Walter Murch has pointed out, that it’s almost too easy for filmmakers to make changes. The editor Michael Kahn says much the same thing:

But I do think something’s been lost with digital editing, I really do—the cogitation, the level of thought about how you should cut something. You have to study the material more on film, because you don’t want to make that cut unless you’re sure. I thought a lot more when I was using a Moviola.

And the solution, obviously, is to make a conscious decision to preserve the older methods, even if they’re no longer the default. Half of my planning process for any story is still done with pen on paper, and although there are plenty of excellent software options for mind maps and notecards, I don’t expect I’ll ever stop. And it’s not just a matter of stubbornness. There’s something irreplaceable about writing by hand, for authors as much as for everyone else, and if we give it up, it spells trouble.

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2014 at 9:32 am

5 Responses

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  1. I don’t know how far I am right, but I am completely towards what you said… Even before I type anything jn my blog, I write long hand, edit long hand, re write long hand… Its just not possible for me to type good stuff directly. I feel only my hand can spawn good oeuvre. Very nicely written btw. Liked it. I am sure you wrote it long hand… LOL.


    June 4, 2014 at 10:06 am

  2. Hi Alec, really liked this. I’m going to tweet a link to it if that’s okay with you.

    Ripley Trout

    June 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm

  3. Thanks so much—please do!


    June 5, 2014 at 6:33 pm

  4. Hi Alec, typo in the first sentence “abut”

    Michael Roberts

    June 8, 2014 at 4:58 am

  5. Oops—well, that was unfortunately placed. :) Fixed!


    June 8, 2014 at 8:19 am

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