What is it about longhand?

Eli Cranor, Edgar Award-winning author of Don’t Know Tough and Ozark Dogs, visited Tombolo Books in Saint Petersburg recently. While discussing his work habits, he said that he writes his first drafts by hand in the morning. He types those pages later in the day. There’s something about writing by hand that stimulates his creativity, he said. Typing is fine for transcribing, but it aligns better with editing than creation.

The same is true for me. I’ve learned that when I type, my mind isn’t engaged in the same way. I can write more words by typing, but I lose focus and the quality suffers. Longhand still produces the best writing outcomes. I wanted to know why. What’s going on in my brain when I put pen to paper?

It turned out that the answer lay in a network of neurons found in the brain stem: the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS plays a pivotal role in various aspects of human cognition and behavior, including controlling attention. Handwriting is a complex process that engages multiple cognitive and motor skills. The physical act of forming each letter requires a unique combination of fine motor coordination, muscle memory, and spatial awareness. This level of engagement stimulates the RAS, heightening attention and focus on the task at hand.

The RAS’s activation during handwriting leads to deeper processing of what I’m writing. Deeper processing enhances learning and memory. The slower pace of handwriting also allows for increased reflection and critical thinking. Those elements are key for fostering greater creativity and insight.

Typing is a more automated and streamlined process. Each keystroke requires less cognitive effort than forming a letter by hand. Lower cognitive effort means less RAS engagement. The decreased attention and focus during typing leads to shallower processing. It also reduces the amount of time for reflection and critical thinking.

Of course, typing is faster and more efficient. As a fast typist, I can capture a rapid flow of thoughts and ideas more easily than handwriting. For some people, this is a more accurate representation of their thought processes. For me, it leads to a runaway train. I need the benefit of slowing my thoughts down that longhand writing provides.

Cranor’s method combines both handwriting and typing. (He also reads his work aloud to his mom each night over the phone). By combining longhand and typing, he balances the benefits and drawbacks in terms of engaging the RAS.

Even though I know that handwriting is better for my creativity, I sometimes push myself to shift from pen to keyboard too soon. I’m going to resist that compulsion for writing first drafts. Writing the first draft slower should help me write higher-quality drafts.

Getting the Most Out of Journaling by Dictation

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I recently shared my experience with dictating journal entries. I prefer handwriting to any other method of journaling, but it’s not always practical. I don’t always have a notebook handy or my hands free to peck out a note on my phone. Dictation gives me the opportunity to capture thoughts that otherwise might escape. If you want to try dictation for journaling, you can maximize its benefits by paying attention to a few techniques.

Be Mindful and Focused: When dictating, it’s essential to maintain a mindful and focused state, even more than you would when writing by hand. On a page, your eyes can flick back to what you’ve already written. These regressions help ground you in what you’re writing. Dictation doesn’t offer the same luxury, so you have to focus. Take a few deep breaths before beginning to center your thoughts and enhance your concentration.

Speak Slowly and Deliberately: Speaking at a slower pace can help you engage more deeply with your thoughts, allowing you to process and analyze them as you dictate. This mindful approach to dictation can mimic the attentiveness required when handwriting. Plus, going too fast can overwhelm the software and introduce a lot of errors. Garbage output won’t help you when it comes to the next technique!

Review and Reflect: After you’ve finished dictating, read the transcribed text. It’s easier to correct transcription errors while the topic is still fresh in your mind. In addition, this technique engages the structures in your brain that filter and focus thoughts. That will help fix what you’ve written in your mind for your next session.

Dictation engages the mind differently than handwriting. Adopting mindful and intentional strategies can help you achieve cognitive and emotional benefits similar to those from writing by hand.

Dictation and Journaling

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Recently, I tried dictating some notes during a bout of insomnia. The results were encouraging. I was curious to see how dictation would affect my journaling practice. Capturing my thoughts and emotions via voice offered a few benefits and drawbacks that I’d like to share.

Speaking my Mind

Speech is our most natural form of communication. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that dictating journal entries felt natural. (Mostly. See “Punctuation Errors” below for the exception.) Switching from handwriting to dictating my journal entries enhanced the flow of my thoughts and emotions. Verbal expression has helped me delve deeper into introspection. There’s no physical barrier to slow the articulation of my experiences, feelings, and insights.


When I write by hand, my eyes can easily track back to check in with what I’ve already written. While dictating, I don’t look at my screen. It’s easier for my thoughts to wander away from my topic. Using dictation has encouraged me to order my thoughts more carefully as I work through a topic. After only a few voice entries, I found that my handwritten entries were also more coherent.


While multitasking is the bane of my workday, dictating my journal is different. I can dictate a journal entry while I do chores around the house and yard. Washing dishes, dusting, and watering plants takes no concentration. In fact, the tasks seem to go faster because I’m focused on journaling.

Punctuation Errors

While the iPhone’s text-to-speech tool inserts some punctuation, it’s not perfect. Sometimes, it produces run-on sentences that are difficult to parse afterward. Other times, it disrupts the sentences with extraneous punctuation. It also has no clue about when a new paragraph should start. Because of these inaccuracies, I sometimes have trouble interpreting my own thoughts when I read them afterward! To get cleaner output, I have to verbally insert punctuation and new paragraphs. That can disrupt my flow.

The Need to Edit

Because dictation isn’t 100% accurate, I have to edit what I’ve dictated to make sure that it makes sense. Punctuation is only one factor. I find frequent errors with homophones. The tool usually gets whether I mean “to,” “two,” or “too,” but inserts “right” when I mean “write,” for example. I always check hand-written entries, too, but dictation introduces more errors than handwriting. Editing those entries takes a lot more time.

Worth a Try

I dictated at least one entry each day for the last five days. While I still prefer writing by hand, dictation has elevated my journaling practice. If you’re considering a change in your journaling routine, give voice dictation a try. You may be surprised at the new levels of insight and self-discovery that await you.

Dictation and Thought

Last night I awoke at one A.M. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I wanted to write, but I was loathe to turn the lights on. Nor did I want to stare at a screen in the dark. That would only make my sleeplessness worse.

I decided to try dictating my thoughts into an iPhone Note. I didn’t know how well it would work, but I was happy with the results. The dictation wasn’t 100% accurate. For some reason, the app transcribed “thoughts” as “farts.” When I read it in the morning, I found fun sentences like, “My farts are all over the place.”

I also found it weird to have to dictate punctuation. It sort of disrupted the flow of my thoughts. (Not my farts). When I’m typing or writing by hand, I insert punctuation as part of the flow. I don’t think about it. But while dictating, I had to verbalize periods, commas, and new paragraphs.

Punctuation and transcription errors aside, the content of what I wrote/dictated was very good. I identified a psychological hang up that I’ve never been able to get my head around before, and the line of thought was steady and coherent. Maybe I should dictate instead of writing more often.

Why Sammy Can’t Blog

I have been remiss in blogging for several weeks, in spite of my best intentions. I had a good run for seventeen days. I accidentally broke the streak when I wrote a post but forgot to publish it before bed. That set the stage for skipping a day, then two, and then two weeks went by in the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.

In spite of what this lapse suggests, blogging is important to me. That’s why I keep coming back to it.

I write at least one entry in my journal every morning. That exercise limbers up my mind. Often, those entries are not good writing, but the discipline of doing it prepares me for other forms of writing. Sometimes an entry helps me work through a scene I’m struggling with in my fiction. Sometimes I write about work problems and find a solution that way, or at least come to understand the problem better so that I can solve it later. Rarely, I can revise an entry for a blog post. (That’s how “Letters” began.) That’s never the intention, though. When I sit down at my keyboard with a cup of coffee at hand each morning, I am writing for an audience of one, and that one is myself.

I like the idea of blogging because I crave a different type of discipline. In the journal, I allow my thoughts to wander wherever they will. With blogging, I want to channel my thought into a specific topic and construct a coherent narrative or argument. Publishing that effort forces me to be accountable to an external audience.

Why do I struggle to do it, if it’s so important and I want to do it?

Fatigue plays a large role. I haven’t been sleeping well for the past few weeks, which means I start each day with limited energy reserves. I reserve mornings for writing fiction. I spend my workdays engaged in cognitive labor. By the time evening rolls around, I don’t have a lot of mental energy left to spend.

I don’t know how to solve my sleep problem. If I did, I would have solved it already. But I’ll keep experimenting until I find the solution. Until then, I’ll blog as often as I can muster the energy.

Connecting past and present

Last December, I was in New York City for a night, so I arranged to meet my friend Don for drinks. He teaches in Connecticut but is often in the city. We shared an office when I was in graduate school and have maintained the friendship for almost a quarter of a century.

He asked about the novel I’m working on, role-playing a busy publisher whom I had to hook. I said I was writing the best prose of my life. He asked what had made that possible. “I guess I needed to care about what I was doing,” I joked.

“But you’ve always cared,” he said. “Don’t you remember how much you wrestled with ‘Charlie’s Heart?’”

“Charlie’s Heart” was a story I wrote in graduate school about a young boy who discovers that he has literally lost his heart. (I was experimenting with magical realism at the time.) It took me months to finish, because I was determined to tell not merely a “good” story, but one that was honest, as well. Don read multiple drafts and helped me see it through when I despaired of finishing it.

That reminder was such a precious gift. Sometimes I doubt myself when I write. Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier doing something else. Sometimes I feel as though I have made no progress as a writer. Don reminded me of who I am and who I have always been.

The right priority

I played my guitar for the first time in years last week in honor of John Prine. I haven’t played it since and although I want to play more, I probably won’t.

It had been five years since I last played. I was rusty, for sure, but I thought I hadn’t lost much skill. I could get back to where I was five years ago without much effort. The trouble is that I wouldn’t likely get much better than that, either. The reason I stopped playing was that I reached a plateau. I couldn’t increase my skill any farther without devoting more time to practice than I could spare.

Broadcaster Ira Glass talked the fact that as beginners, creative people often have less skill than taste. The gap between what they want to create and what they can create is disappointing. That disappointment is why many quit. That is where I was: unsatisfied with my skill, but unable to improve. If I’d had the time, I don’t doubt that I could have been a very good guitarist. But writing called to me more than playing did, and so I decided to focus on fiction.

I’m almost halfway through revising my latest novel, with the working title Faithless. It is the best thing I’ve ever written, and when I finish this revision, it will be better still. For the first time, I look forward to trying to find an agent because the story is good. I believe there’s at least one agent out there who will see its potential and find it a home. And my next novel (already percolating in my mind) will be better still.

I miss playing guitar sometimes, but I made the right choice to set it aside.


I miss letters.

During my first year at college, going to the mailbox was often the best part of my day. Mail arrive twice each weekday at ten and three. People swarmed the campus post office like addicted gamblers fighting to place last-minute bets at the track. I knew it was foolish to join them. Why not wait fifteen minutes until the crowd evaporated? I plunged in anyway. I had to see what awaited.

In my first quarter, the girlfriend I’d left behind wrote to me almost daily. Even after we broke up, though, I could count on something being there more often than not. A letter from my parents (if I was lucky, with a check). A packet from my sister containing a week’s worth of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips cut from the Orlando Sentinel. (The local paper didn’t carry it.) Postcards and letters from friends at other schools.

Letters were treasure.

After I transferred schools, I kept up steady correspondences with the friends I’d made in my freshman year. It kept me connected to a world I missed with all the longing of an unwilling expatriate. I wrote letters in big batches every Sunday night. I looked forward to the responses throughout the week.

It didn’t last, of course. Someone would forget to write back. Or I would. The flow of letters slowed to a trickle. By the time I got my first email account, I was only getting regular letters from one person. Then she got an email account, too, and we shifted our correspondence online. It didn’t last much longer after that. Email lacked the warmth, personality, and permanence of letters. I still have many of her letters. I don’t have any of the emails.

Blogging more

I wrote a blog post every day for the past seven days. This is a big deal for me. I go for long stretches during which I don’t post anything, but that’s not for lack of desire. It’s for lack of confidence that I have anything to say worth saying.

That feeling usually takes the form of being unable to settle on a subject. Even when I have one in mind, I can’t select a focus. The result is either a rambling mess or a series of false starts. When I don’t have a specific topic in mind, I’ll look through my notebook for ideas I’ve jotted down. Usually, I reject them all before becoming frustrated and giving up.

Last Friday night, I decided to experiment with blogging every night. I needed a way to select a topic quickly and focus on it. A gift from my wife supplied the method: the “Hemingway Deck,” which is a deck of cards with a writing prompt on each card. Some of the prompts aren’t relevant to me, so I didn’t want to commit to selecting one at random and hoping for the best. On the other hand, if I tried to select one, I knew that I would reject one after the other.

I chose to select three cards at random, and then select one. That way, I had some choice, but not so much that I never settled on a topic. This method took away one of my excuses not to write. I had a topic. I didn’t give myself a target length, so a few sentences was enough. As a result, I wrote several posts, including one that didn’t come from the cards but occurred to me before I sat down to write.

I intend to maintain the momentum this week. I would like to get to the point where I can write deeper posts than my typical response to a prompt. For now, though, I’ll settle for establishing the discipline of publishing something daily.


Revision under way

Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.

I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.

I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.