Is the Pen Mightier Than the Keyboard?
In one’s mind, stories are often a weightless, windblown force. They are half-ideas, plot fragments, the sunned profile of a character’s smile. This is where any story begins–the molten metal of endless possibility, not yet bound by shape or form. Forging this form, however, is a task met with equally endless tribulation. Piecing these fragments together is careful work, frustrating to hands that don’t quite know the best path for such piecing. Every writer has been there. A sentence that just doesn’t flow. A description that fails to truly communicate the image one so clearly envisioned in their mind. Before it even touches the page, writing is a mental battle between the beating heart of a story, and the winding path braced to make this beat heard. But for all that occurs within the mind in forging a story, where does such a struggle echo in the real world? How does this struggle echo not only in what an author writes, but in how they write it?
At the end of the day, such a choice lies in the hands of individual discretion. There will always be constraints of circumstance; afterall, Shakespeare didn’t quite have to make the particular choice between a ballpoint pen and a favored quill. Though, as a whole, for all the choices a writer makes–for all the unknown bends in a story yet traveled–the mode one uses in writing their way might be seen as a focal decision in itself. One that is based on preference, mood, and the writer’s own will–not simply the wills of the characters they write. The author’s choice of pen is akin to a knight choosing their mount, armor, and blade, before a quest. Deciding between writing by hand or keyboard may seem small, but to the writer, it can be anything but. It is more than simply asking how one will write a story; it is a matter of how one will equip themself to scribe that story’s every move, expected and not. The material mode of writing, whether by type or hand, is often the unseen and unsung joint for swinging a story into something real: a key choice that must weigh the efficiency, creativity and liberty it affords the writer along the long path to storyforging.
Efficiency Through Type
One of the first questions a writer must ask themself in deciding their literary mode is how deeply they value speed. A certain tortoise and hare have long taught the value of taking things slow, a lesson equally applicable to the world of writing as any other facet of life. Though in a fast moving world, one must make room for exceptions–just as the pen and pencil were asked to make room for a new mode of writing in the 16th century. Typing and writing are loaded with their own unique set of connotations. Writing encompasses the entirety of storytelling on the page–it drips with creativity and trials and triumphs. Afterall, most storytellers would refer to themselves as writers rather than typers–even if every work they’ve written started as a word document. Typing, on the other hand, seems to have maintained an air of clericality. This is likely driven from the typewriter’s earliest impression on the social scene, those that denoted it as “an essential tool for many businesses” where quick logging was key: administrative work, bookkeeping, court transcribing (“Production on the…”). Even following the inescapable rise of the computer in the 80’s–even as typing has worked its way into the faculties of current daily life–something about typing maintains officiality. This association is likely driven from claims such as that of the New York Tribune in 1901, naming the revolutionary typewriter an “almost sentient mechanism” (“Production on the…”). But the name that typing has made for itself over time–especially in today’s pallet of writing tools–spans beyond mechanics.
Type’s Topical Advantages
The very uniformity and efficiency focal to typing’s clerical identity are also what make it very appealing to certain writing–and storytelling–approaches. This is a shift that has encompassed both a change in how typing has been used, but also in its view to the wider public. Efficiency is the core of this device–of typing as a whole. It exudes speed without sacrificing legibility. It allows even the messiest ideas a clean presentation through uniform font, size, and spacing. Creating a story can be anything but a straightforward, linear process–the complete opposite of neat, type print. Yet typing allows for the quick capture and easy reorganization of even the smallest details: a spark of a trait, a plot twist, a keystone image. For many, typing is the only match to a racing mind–to a story that wishes to be told on its own time, whether the author can keep up or not. Afterall, as Gabriel Robare of the Daily Princetonian notes, typing is simply the “far faster” mode of writing when “the average American can type 40 words per minute, but can only handwrite 13 words per minute” (Robare). And in a world where time refuses to slow for anybody–any author–such speed is an essential ally. With typing, quick jotted ideas can be easily rearranged–copied and pasted into something whole. With the right story burning to be written, whole pages can fill in a matter of moments–an encouraging sight when there’s long trails of story to trek. And while handwriting is by no means molasses slow–especially when it comes to modes such as shorthand or cursive–typing’s speed is hard for handwriting to match. Afterall, this form of writing even uses two hands instead of one!
Modes Condusive to Creativity
Handwriting, in contrast, may lend itself more kindly to a second consideration of methodology: creativity. In no way can one say that typing is void of creative potential. Afterall, one’s method of writing is just that, one method. It is up to each writer to decide how they use it, and how useful it is to their writing style. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was born through type–a fast mode made even faster by the fact that every hour of type cost 10 cents (Bradbury). Though in the end, it was this speed–this pressure–that formed the diamond of Bradbury’s revered dystopian novel. For others, however, such pressure and speed are not the kind of conditions their story needs to grow. Every library, in this sense, is a garden–each story equipped with unique finnick and needs. Some do well under the efficiency that coaxed Bradbury’s stories to bloom. Others, however, find their creativity in other ways. As was previously established, handwriting is simply slower. But why is this? The reasoning lies in more than wrist cramps and dull pencils. According to Nancy Olsen of Forbes Magazine, “handwriting forces us to slow down and smell the ink” (Olsen). Handwriting’s lack of extreme speed might be cause to deign it as less efficient, though such slowness might also be this mode’s greatest strength. In the end, it takes a long time to get to know a story. It is a dance between character and writer–both of which might not know each other fully, even as words find their footing on the page. Yet the slowness of handwriting might be an asset in supporting the individual pace of a writer’s creativity–in learning to dance by one’s unique storytelling tempo.
Handwriting’s Hand in Storytelling
Something special happens to the brain with a pen and pencil in hand. Even if a story stubbornly refuses to happen, even if it may feel as though one has reached an insurmountable impasse of writer’s block, handwriting slyly asks the brain to come alive in ways one might not even realize. Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington notes the relationship between keystrokes, and the artful strokes necessary for crafting every handwritten letter. As outlined in Gwendolyn Bounds’ article: “How Handwriting Trains the Brain,” Berninger’s study claims that the very “sequential finger movements” of handwriting activate “massive [brain] regions involved in thinking, language and working memory” (Bounds). In short, handwriting is hard work that spans beyond the hand. The very motion of this mode tugs on all the stored up knowledge one has of language–the glimpses of personal memory one might be reforging into some new tale. Every story is a piece of the writer: a mosaic of imagination and dreams grown from very human roots. The Hunger Games sparked from a simple night of flipping channels on Susan Collins’ tv–from overlaid glimpses of reality television and modern war footage. Hogwarts was born on a delayed train to King’s Cross Station. Some of the most extraordinary stories we cherish are born of ordinary moments. And while every author has their preferred mode of organizing these moments, handwriting is especially keen on helping to mine them from one’s memory.
Writing One’s Way to Mindfulness
Every writer often carries more of their story than they realize. Sometimes it simply takes putting a word down–regardless of whether one knows which will follow–for a plot to spark. And in this sense, every handwritten word is akin to a step on this journey–fully known or not. Nancy Olsen further states that “the mere action of writing by hand unleashes creativity not easily accessed in any other way”–that handwriting in itself is almost a form of “meditation” (Olsen). A stalled story can be one of the most discouraging and frustrating things in the world–a stagnant lifeblood, a dammed stream. In these moments, the strained writer might wish for nothing more than a hammer to break the blockage down. Though instead, one might simply require an open hand–for some, one that holds a pencil or pen. Olsen notes that the act of handwriting is often associated with a sense of “mindfulness,” a delicate awareness, a willingness to pause and listen–even when one struggles to refind the melody of their tale (Olsen). Such mindfulness is the glue between slow pen strokes, between half crammed margins and headers.
Handwriting, beyond a mode of storytelling, can act as a mode for how many authors get to know their stories when they insist on remaining unknown. Its unique engagement of the brain tills the soil for new ideas, new discoveries–some buried in old memories, others forged by the act of exploring them. Writing by hand is by no means a cure all for a writer’s confusion. No pen can come up with the magic hook of the first chapter, the clean bow conclusion of the last. But the exercise of writing by hand is largely seen as a way of learning to reach a little farther, dig a little deeper, for those hard to find words. More than a method, it is a way many authors get to understand their tales more deeply–find more in their spark of story than they ever dreamed. It it important to note that typing is not, and never has been, incapable of such creative exploration. The creative processes experienced through each mode may simply look, and feel, different–whether by the expressive faculties they offer, or how a writer uses them. Amid how some writers may best tell their stories with typing’s organized speed, others may find that handwriting’s meditative nature is the route through which they can truly find their plot’s roots.
Liberty Above All
Between both creative and efficient appeal, the greatest consideration many turn to in deciding their literary mode is the liberty it offers. But this is also the most difficult trait to peg–the most difficult to generalize–because it belongs solely to each writer. Both handwriting and typing offer different degrees of freedom, different levels of accessibility and comfort. Tied to the values listed above, and many not named as well, liberty here simply means how well each mode facilitates the author’s free expression–something that all authors will never have exactly in common. For some, efficiency is freedom; for some, a blank document is an open highway, one’s fingers the new tires of a story eager to be told. In type, there is no weight of eraser marks–no shortage of paper or ink. It is a cosmos waiting to be filled–paired with a mode of writing that can be especially well-equipped to field each orbiting idea. Life is messy. Stories are too. Even the most well thought tales often struggle to translate into words–the right words. But for some, typing is the most efficient way to capture each fragment. It cuts through the simple inconveniences of other modes–spellcheck, resizing and restructuring a mere click away. And especially in today’s world, one more technologically dependent than ever before, typing has only made itself more prevalent and accessible. Any word document has the potential to harbor a story–and each writer the chance to fill it quickly with a flurry of keystrokes. Typing is direct, fast–and in this sense, freeing.
For others, writing flows more freely through ink and graphite that it can through a cursor. For others, handwriting is simply easier than type–whether by preference, or in how well it supports the creative stream. Some find peace in the orderly lines of Times New Roman, double spaced–though what is orderly to some might seem overly rigid through different eyes. As the age of typing began, so did a new definition of what first drafts could look like–where a story could begin. Though nothing in typing can replace the curve of quick flowing sentences–the staunch, boxy nature of words slower to come. Handwriting allows the sprawl of snowflake letters to come exactly as pictured–no two alike–to match the emotion that brought them to life. There is something very human about the relationship between pen, paper and palm. It’s a kind of magic, to wield one’s pen, a leaf thin page, and paint it with worlds of story. And there is nothing to say that typing can never allow the birth of such worlds. Though there is also something to be said for half jotted notes on the side of the page–doodles of scenes, twice circled lines, the very image of what it is to write one’s dreamed up tale into something real. Something perfect–all the more so for its smudges, creases, half erased notes. Something miraculous about writing that first line, and holding it in one’s hand. For just as many, this is writing in its most free form.
A Balance in Braving the Gap
Ultimately, how a writer writes is like a kept secret between the author and their piece. It is a dance of fingers through keys, a twirled wrist alongside an ink veined companion. An act of trust in passing one’s wish of a tale through such mortal, ordinary means. But is this not the way of writing? The axis struggle of every author, to try and paint their dreams into reality with the human tools available to us. At the end of the day, these means are steadfast and quiet soldiers–trading their voice for that of an author desperate to make their writings real. Perhaps quills are meant to wear, perhaps keys are meant to grow sticky and brittle. Perhaps pencils are meant to dull–because they have given their whole selves to the story they bear. Perhaps, not unlike an author, every mode of writing gives itself away in some way–gives itself to a story they believe in. I sign off from having written this article wholly in type, though I can’t help but wonder how different it might have been had I written it by hand. But in the end, typing and handwriting are two paths diverging towards the same peak–the same glistening hope every writer holds in venturing their own tale. The hope that their tale might touch a life, open an eye, awaken a dormant heart.
Efficiency, creativity, liberty–all valid considerations for a writer trying to bridge this hope, trying to weave their own story amid the many once upon a times of this world. All considerations that stand not at odds, but side by side. Carefully weighed, keenly chosen, and someday wielded in forging a story. Nobody can truly say if the pen is mightier than the keyboard. Perhaps the better question is, how wonderful is it? How truly wonderful that a couple keys, a bit of ink, can bring whole dreams to life? How absolutely and truly wonderful is it that the beating heart of a story can turn these simple means into something akin to Excalibur’s legend? How absolutely and truly and undeniably wonderful to piece a story together however one can–all for the hope of creating something that lasts far longer than a sweep of words over fragile paper. A sweep of story over the heart of a reader the author may never know, and who may never know them, but who will know the story unknowingly connecting them both–even as the means fade like ink amid sun and time.
- Bounds, Gwendolyn. “How Handwriting Trains the Brain.” The Wall Street Journal, 5 Oct. 2010, www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704631504575531932754922518#articleTabs%3Darticle. Accessed 15 July 2023.
- “Fahrenheit 451.” American Writers Museum, exhibits.americanwritersmuseum.org/exhibits/ray-bradbury-inextinguishable/fahrenheit451/#:~:text=Ray%20wrote%20the%20first%20draft,it%20is%20illegal%20to%20walk. Accessed 15 July 2023.
- Olsen, Nancy. “Three Ways That Handwriting With a Pen Positively Affects Your Brain.” Forbes, 15 May 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/nancyolson/2016/05/15/three-ways-that-writing-with-a-pen-positively-affects-your-brain/?sh=467655e05705. Accessed 15 July 2023.
- “Production on the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer Began.” Library of Congress, guides.loc.gov/this-month-in-business-history/march/typewriter-productionbegan#:~:text=In%20the%20U.S.%2C%20one%20of,patent%20in%201878%20US%20207%2C559%20. Accessed 1 June 2023.
- Robare, Gabriel. “On Handwriting.” The Daily Princetonian, 7 Sept. 2021, www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2021/09/handwritten-versus-typed-classnotes#:~:text=Some%20students%20can’t%20handwrite,handwrite%2013%20words%20per%20minute. Accessed 1 June 2023.
- “Timeline of Computer History.” CHM, www.computerhistory.org/timeline/computers/. Accessed 1 June 2023.
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