Better Writing, Better Results

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,  “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

-Sir Philip Sydney

The advent of word processing began to change the way we write.  The coordination of word processing software with internet search engines, web browsers, and websites has, in some ways, transformed writing.  The chief manner in which digital coordination has done so is through the immediate access to sources of information that can be copied and pasted or linked to in written texts.  Gone are the days (for most of us) when writing was a monastic experience typified by time spent holed up in a library or an office with sheets of paper and source material strewn across a table top or desk while a piece was constructed by actually putting pen to paper.  Owing to the difficulty of altering a piece of writing once it was started, the writer needed to have a clear idea as to what she was going to write before putting pen to paper.  A writer composing on a typewriter faced the same challenges.

Writing no longer need be a monastic experience:  any place with an electric outlet and a Wi-Fi connection with do.  In addition, writing can be more ad hoc and free-flowing because digital text is easily and endlessly emendable and source material is instantly available from anywhere.  Copy and paste is always there to add information to any piece of writing.  There are obvious benefits to the technological change that makes this type of writing possible:  writing is more accessible to more people, research is (usually) easier, and the process of writing feels less daunting as matters of both dedication and cognitive load.  However, the technological changes have detriments as well.  Much writing is less polished because it is produced so rapidly.  Much writing also seems less thoughtful and more reactive.  Interestingly, the technological changes have seen a concomitant rise in plagiarism which may be due in part to the way in which writing is composed and source materials are integrated, i.e. by copying and pasting. 

Often technological change is cast in binary terms as an either/or proposition:  either technological change is good and must be embraced in its entirety or technological change is bad and must be rejected in its entirety.  This is unfortunate because technological change is almost never a binary erasure of past forms.  Neither is life generally an either/or proposition (whatever certain Danish existentialists may say to the contrary).  Rather, technologies coexist as does our ability to use them.  One way to improve writing in the current technological milieu is to incorporate older methods of composition into the way we write.  In short, we are likely to become more careful and polished writers if we compose at least a portion of what we write using pen and paper.

Handwriting has several advantages over composing at a keyboard.  First, there is evidence that writing by hand “may trigger more sophisticated processing:  the relative slowness of handwriting seems to promote ‘mental lifting’, a process of comprehending, mulling and digesting ideas…”  Second, writing by hand is generally less distracting because the page is not part of a gadget.  It is easier to think deeply about a subject when one is not bombarded by pings and notices (or is even working on a device that is tantalizingly close to all them).  Third, there is anecdotal evidence that students who wrote responses to questions by hand “produced better writing than those who typed them.” 

It must be said that no reasonable person would advocate drafting all communication by hand.  This would be stultifying, inefficient, and foolish.  Nevertheless, if handwriting can be integrated into some forms of written communications, the benefits to the overall quality of one’s writings will outweigh any minor efficiency costs.  Also, to the extent that writing a portion of one’s communications by hand improves the quality and clarity of one’s communication in general, handwriting can actually serve to make one more efficient in the aggregate.

To take advantage of handwriting’s benefits, one should look to communications that by their nature require more time, thought, and coherent organization.  A cover letter is a good example.  It is easy to copy and paste from records and prior correspondence to cobble a cover letter together quickly; however, the end result will often be disjointed, inconsistent, and confusing.  Composing the first draft by hand will force the writer to organize the letter thoughtfully and to stay consistent in the presentation of the relevant facts and in the questions to be answered.  Not every cover letter will lend itself to being written by hand, but some do and taking the time to create the first draft by hand will help produce a better cover letter and will help the writer to become a more effective communicator.  And more effective communications get the best results.

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