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.