Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Writing by hand

[Advice for students]

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed by Shari Wilson, "The Surprising Process of Writing," jibes with my observations over the last few years: many students do better with in-class handwritten essays than with word-processed essays written outside of class. My evidence is only anecdotal, but it's consistent enough to suggest that writing by hand may have several significant advantages for many student-writers:

1. Writing by hand simplifies the work of organizing ideas into an essay. Compare the tedium of creating an outline in Microsoft Word with the ease of arranging and rearranging on paper, where ideas can be reordered or added or removed with simple arrows and strikethroughs. With index cards, reordering is even easier.

2. Writing by hand serves as a reminder that a draft is a draft, not a finished piece of writing. For many student-writers, writing an essay is a matter of composing at the keyboard, hitting Control-P, and being done. More experienced writers know that an initial draft is usually little more than a starting point. Without the sleek look of word-processed text, there's no possibility of mistaking a first effort for a finished piece of writing.

3. Writing by hand helps to minimize the scattering of attention that seems almost inevitable at a computer, with e-mail, instant-messaging, and web-browsing always within easy reach. Even without an online connection, a word-processing program itself offers numerous distractions from writing. Writing by hand keeps the emphasis where it needs to be — on getting the words right, not on fonts, margins, or program settings. Writing is not word-processing.

In some cases, of course, a computer is a necessary and appropriate tool for writing, particularly when a disability makes writing by hand arduous or impossible. But if it's possible, try planning and drafting your next written assignment by hand. Then sit down and type. Thinking and writing away from the computer might make your work go better, as seems to be the case for so many students.

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

Dr. Leddy, I agree. I think in a lot of ways composing texts on a computer is like math a student getting to use a calculator before s/he knows his/her multiplication tables. It is too easy to let the spell/grammar check do the thinking for you. I am a recent graduate (thanks for the congratulations in the library) and aspiring high school English teacher, and I feel that composing via the computer exclusively has been detrimental to my ability to write by hand. Knowing this, I made my students (during my student teaching) write rough and final drafts of essays by hand. Similar to national literacy levels amongst high school and college students, the ability to write by hand is declining; the level of writing presented by students (and their computers) is usually an inaccurate presentation of their writing skills. Students often lose their spelling and grammar skills, when a computer is always thinking for them. Why don’t English or at least composition professors ever assign hand-written essays?

tim said...

Dr. Leddy...

I would echo your sentiments and conclusions. I have found that I am more productive and am better able to articulate my point through writing when I first jot it down on a legal pad. There is something symbiotic about pen and paper. I love to go back through many of my old legal pads (I keep as many as I can) and follow the threads of thought that I put down. It makes it so much easier to type a more clear and concise draft.

Good words. In fact, I would have mailed you my written response, but...well...you understand.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments. Tim, I would echo your echo. Legal pads (and pocket notebooks) are my favorite ways to write.

Anonymous (I think I know who y'are), there are probably several answers to your question. Some profs no doubt dread reading handwritten work. Others have more or less conflated teaching writing with teaching word-processing. I suspect though that more and more profs will be turning back to handwritten work, in class, out of class, or both. (In-class writing also removes all sorts of problems with plagiarism.) There's little evidence, as far as I can see, that our current emphasis on technology has improved anyone's ability to think and write. I would like to think that those of us who emphasize writing by hand are in fact an advance -- not rear -- guard.

This page, A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check, makes clear that one cannot trust the computer to correct writing. It's on the sidebar of my blog too, as "MS grammar checker are no good." I share it with my students every semester (and wish I'd found it long ago).

Michael Leddy said...

P.S. -- Please feel free to call me Michael. : )