Thursday, 31 March 2011

Writing By Hand

I don't know about you, but I would be completely lost without the BBC and consider it one of the major blessings of civilisation.  In one manifestation or another it is on in this house most of the day and living in a time or place where that would not be possible is something I prefer not to contemplate.  As I expect most of you know, the BBC publish a range of magazines to complement the superb programmes that they put out both on radio and television and we in the Senior Common Room take three of them, BBC Music, BBC History and BBC Focus.

As you can see, the Focus magazine concentrates on issues to do with all branches of the sciences and technology and those of you who live in the UK won't be surprised to hear that the current edition is packed with articles to do with Brian Cox's series on The Wonders of the Universe.  However, it was a much smaller item that caught my eye over breakfast this morning. (I hope you're duly impressed - reading about science over the breakfast table - of course, you might not find that impressive at all, just terribly sad, but if that's the case I'm sure you'll be too polite to say so.)  The article was a report on findings from Norway and France about the neurological impact of writing facts down as opposed to reading them on the computer screen.  And I quote:

it's thought that writing is better, because when jotting down letters with a pen, the brain gets feedback from these 'motor' actions.  This is turn helps fix what's been written in the memory.

Well, I would have to say to start with that I'm not sure that like is being compared with like here.  Surely the comparison should be between writing notes with a pen on paper and typing those same notes onto a computer, however, I do have some sympathy with the view being expressed.  I have always claimed that, unlike those people who don't know what they think until they hear what they say, I don't know what I think until I see what I write.  Writing has always helped me clarify my thoughts and I find that that is the same whether I am writing by hand or typing onto a computer screen.  In fact, thinking about it, because I can do the latter faster I think it is possibly more helpful here.  When it comes to remembering things, however, having the experience of shaping the letters is, I find, extremely helpful and this has really been brought home to me lately by the arrival of my Kindle.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love my Kindle and I have no intention of being parted from it, but I am finding that when I make an electronic note while I'm reading I don't remember what that note was about in the same way as I would have done when I was jotting things in a notebook.  Oh, yes, it's very convenient to have all those notes collected together for me in one place, especially as the passages I've highlighted are there as well, but somehow I don't seem to remember the points I was making as well when I do it in this form as if I had written them, rather more slowly but with that additional kinaesthetic element, by hand.  Lately, I have found myself going back to the notebook even when I am reading electronically because the salient points of whatever I have been reading are proving to be less firmly fixed in my mind.

Clearly this isn't just my experience or the article wouldn't have been written, but I found myself wondering how other e-reader users felt about this.  Are you using the annotating function to any large extent and, if so, do you find it as easy to fix points in your mind this way as you did when you were writing them down?  I would be interested to know.

And, an additional note for those of you of a certain age who might feel that you are finding it difficult to remember anything.  Yesterday morning that same wonderful BBC brought us Professor Lewis Wolpert, himself eighty-two, explaining that it isn't that we forget things but simply that the act of recall takes longer.  I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly comforting.  


  1. I don't have an e-reader so can't comment on that, but I absolutely agree with you about the BBC. I can't understand why people grumble about the licence fee - I think it's a bargain! And I subscribe to BBC Wildlife.

  2. Interesting post! I don't use an e-reader, but I do find the experience of writing by hand versus typing to be somehow psychologically different. I used to be the singer/songwriter in a (very) small-time rock band, and I would do all my lyric-writing by hand on yellow lined notebooks. It was that kinaesthetic experience of shaping the words, crossing them out, making lines and revising and just digging into the words like having my hands in the dirt. What you say about memory makes a lot of sense here, because these songs were things that I wanted to completely internalize and know by memory inside & out.

    On the other hand when I'm writing something like an essay, typing is by far and away the better method. I can more easily rearrange large chunks of text; my typing is vastly faster than my writing, and I can more easily locate and clarify logical paths. In fact, I think that might be the dividing line: pieces that rely more on logic feel more natural in typed form for me, whereas pieces that are more intuitive fare better hand-written. For example, during the periods when I'm keeping a personal/private journal, it's always hand-written.

  3. Interesting! I think that I remember better when I've handwritten a note because it takes me longer than typing so I'm actually thinking about it longer.

    As for the annotating function, I haven't used it much as I find using the keypad distracts me from reading, although it's good to have my notes and highlights in one place. I like the search facility - that's a big help.

    And Prof Wolpert has hit the nail on the head!

  4. What would we do without them, Joanne. Radio 5 wakes me in the morning, Radio 4 educates and amuses me during the day and the Radio 3 soothes and restores me in the evening. We are so blessed.

    Emily, I have exactly the same experience with writing anything lengthy and which requires long thought strings. I wrote my Masters thesis by hand before the advent of the word processor (I'm not a good enough typist for typewriter to have been a possibility) but by the time I wrote my doctoral thesis the first tiny laptops had come out. It took me half the time to write that and I've been a convert ever since.

    Margaret, the Kindle is very awkward in that respect. But I find the same is true if I'm using the Kindle programme on my I-Pad where it is done by touch and much more user friendly.It's interesting, isn't it? And as for Prof W, he usually is right. I first had the pleasure of hearing him speak at a conference in Glasgow about twenty years a go and I've followed him ever since. He is always worth listening to.

  5. Great post Annie. I'm still trying to work out how best to make the notes function of the kindle work for me too ... like you writing is how I clarify my thoughts too. Much better than talking.

    And, I don't think reading that mag over b'fast is sad at all!

  6. Writing helps me know what I think about something too. I tend not to write very many notes on my Kindle, though I want to get better at this. Since I attend school online, however, I read all of the assigned articles and some textbooks online only. I find that when I can just insert a note beside the text, I don't remember it very well, but when the document or book does not allow notetaking and I have to take notes in a separate document I find I remember better because I usually type a portion of the text and then the note and then the page number so I can refer back to it. Because I spend more time making the note I think about it longer and remember it better.

  7. I'm very visual--I've been learning Spanish for a while now and while I can understand a word when it is spoken if someone explains the first time, I don't quite recall it well or know how to spell it correctly until I have seen it or better written it myself. I have a Nook, which also has the highlighting, note taking function, but I must admit to being less than pleased with it. I think maybe I need to look in the guide as maybe I'm not using it properly, but I can't seem to get to the notes--other than flipping through the pages, which is of course really inefficient! I try and keep a notebook handy to write notes, as that helps me remember the story better and make connections I wouldn't otherwise, but if I'm on the bus or riding the stationary bike, that's out of the question. Interesting article. Interesting about the act of recall--I wonder, though, what he would consider an inordinately long amount of time necessary to recall something.... ?)

  8. I suspect, Stafanie, that as well as having to do with the kinetic act of writing there is also an element of just how much time we spend with a task involved here. It does take longer by hand.

    Danielle,I don't know if the Nook works in the same way as the Kindle - Barnes and Noble wouldn't sell me one as I don't live in the US! I had to laugh about what you say concerning recall. I mentioned what Wolpert had said to a class I teach where most of the students are 70+ and one lovely lady who is well into her 80s said "the trouble is that by the time I do recall something, I can't remember why I wanted to know in the first place."

  9. WG, writing is definitely better. You should hear some of the rubbish that comes out of my mouth whenever I open it:)

  10. I think reading science over breakfast is wonderful! But then again, perhaps other people would think that's sad too ... I'm not much of an annotator these days (I'm losing my academic habits), but I annotate more with an ereader, because I don't have to have anything extra, such as a pen and possibly a notebook. It fits with my laziness a little better :)

  11. Dorothy, I thought it would work that way as well, but I find that it takes me so long to type out what I want to say one fingered that it disrupts the flow of my reading too much. I get on better on the I-Pad where I the Mac interface makes it so much easier.