Computer: "the enemy of careful writing"

Actually, this is not true. There is a very interesting study that came out of Denmark and is being repeated here in the US. The scientists were trying to determine if teaching kids cursive is now a waste of time. They split the students into two sections. One which learned cursive and one that learned to type. They did a comparative written literacy study and a brain fMRIs on a subset. It is clear that the students who did not learn cursive had smaller vocabularies and less connections between difference parts of the brain associated with speech and reading (Wernike’s Area and two others… I don’t remember which…). The follow-up study is now in progress where they are teaching the students who learned to type first how to write cursive and the group who learned cursive to type. It may be that you DO need to learn how to both write cursive AND type to be the best and most efficient reader/writer.

I do both. Does this make me “ambitextrous?”



Apollo16: it seems the jury is still out. While some research suggests that learning new letters is improved by handwriting (Longcamp, et al., 2008), other research suggests that the quality of creative output is not affected (Wells, 2001). Hartley (2007) reported that method of writing had minimal effect on writing style for experienced writers. Another study (Masterson, 2006) suggested that mode has no impact on spelling.

Another study I read, but unfortunately deleted before recording citation, reported several studies that provided mixed evidence. If I am remembering correctly, it reported that some studies suggested typed essays were of lower quality than hand-written ones, but others suggested the way they were written differed but no difference in outcome was measured. The author noted that the studies were quite old, though (late 1990’s?), so may not reflect current computer use.

I have heard Norman Doidge speak on the radio a few times, and he seemed convinced that handwriting affects reading ability, but I don’t know on what research this is based. I believe he talks about it in his book on brain plasticity (The Brain That Changes Itself) but I haven’t yet read it.

Based on the research mentioned above, the tentative conclusion I would draw is that method of writing may impact on learning to read (consistent with the research you mentioned?), but will have minimal impact on writing quality for experienced writers (presumably all of us here). I would be very interested to know more about the Danish study, and US follow-up, you mentioned. Can you post citations?

Note: apart from geeking out over all this, I do have a professional interest.

Careful… experienced writers will almost always go through several drafts for any important piece of writing. I would expect that any tool-induced differences in the first draft would be gone by the final draft, as the writer transitions from “creative” to “editorial” mode. That’s certainly the case with my own work.

But that doesn’t mean tools don’t matter. A master chef doesn’t need good knives, but they still make his life easier. In my own experience, tools can have a tremendous impact on both the quality of the first draft and the amount of pain and suffering involved in creating it. That, in turn, would affect the writer’s productivity and overall satisfaction with the profession of writing.


Sorry. I do not have the citation. This isn’t my field. I noticed the article while reading the ASCD newsletter. The link to that organization is below.

They have a newsletter that they send out that highlights educational research-related articles. You click on the link and it goes to the actual article. I do not know where the link sent me. (It was NOT the primary source but that would give you the names of the investigators.)

The reason I remembered the study was that my husband and I had just argued over teaching cursive in school. He took the position that it is a waste of time and I took the position that it is not. A few days later, the article popped up and naturally I had to shove it in his face… er I mean… continue the intellectual discussion of educational pedagogy.

I also read about studies on calligraphy increasing literacy. Have you tried the art education literature?

Sorry again for not being able to locate the original citation.


I like that chef analogy and I think it really makes the point. The tool may not matter relative to the potential of the creative, but some tools remove barriers to that potential. For me, being able to actually make out the letters means typing as my handwriting is so horrid. But I find that scribbling with a pen is more “enjoyably creative” as I can doodle in the margins to pass time while thinking.

My current “solution” is to keep a pencil and paper near by when my mind starts to stick. A few minutes with stick figures or vain efforts to capture a reasonable representation of a bird on paper and stuff starts moving in the void between the ears. Probably has more to do with embarrassing the cells back to work to end the suffering.

This has become a very interesting thread, especially as we hear the debates among educators about the value of teaching cursive and/or typing. I would certainly say we need both, beginning early with cursive to teach some hand/eye coordination (so that Xbox does not entirely rule that quadrant) and then typing later on, although many kids pick up hunt-and-peck via computers.

A related area of interest for me has been the decline in the ability of students to read aloud. I don’t mean as actors, just normal competence in pronunciation, emphasis, and pacing. I taught at a university for years and regularly forced students to read literary passages aloud. They were atrocious at first but became far better with practice. I always read aloud my own texts and can’t imagine writing without some fusing of both the oral and aural components. Will the computer kill off this great human experience, or is it less important than I think?

As I pressed “submit” with my former post I realised the glaringly obvious: we are talking about 2 different things here. The first is the importance of learning to write, by hand, as a child and the benefits (beyond legible writing) this has for learning. The second is that, as adult experienced writers, the tools matter less than the thought expressed. We have already mastered both the motor and thinking skills that allow us to write. Hence the importance of hand-writing in education and the limited impact tools (pen or keyboard) have on adult style and content.

So with that in mind…

kewms: The research I was quoting was saying only that (based on timed, first draft, evidence) there was little difference stylistically between text created by experienced writers using either pen or keyboard. Editing is another issue altogether and I agree with you - I would expect it to reduce any remaining differences even more. One thing the author did mention was that keyboard entry appeared to be faster (more words in the given time-frame) - consistent with your chef analogy and thoughts on productivity.

Apollo16: thanks for the additional info. I had a quick look but couldn’t find it. I’ll try and track it down next weekend. Regarding the, er, informed discussion with your husband, you can mention that you found additional support for your most educated opinion.

Jaysen: I read recently (some time the last couple of weeks, but absolutely no idea where - please don’t tell my students that I didn’t reference it) that doodling helps you think. That while someone is “distracting” themselves doodling, their brain is really busy. I think the author (journalist, radio hack - I don’t know) said the brain was working on whatever is at hand, such as integrating information, but am unclear of the rationale for the claim. However, if I could draw better, I’d take this evidence and make the claim. You have my permission. :slight_smile:

Druid: you have my support. My, admittedly shallow, reading in the area seems to support the claim that writing is important in learning to read. My guess (having not seen any literature on typing in childhood) is that typing is important for getting enough stuff produced to get through high-school (let alone university/college). Regarding reading aloud, I do the same thing. Sometimes just sub-vocally, but for “tricky bits” I’ll always read aloud, often repeatedly. Everything flows better. I’m ashamed to confess that I never thought of getting my students to do the same. Although, having read their papers, I’ve already paid penance.

I think the comparison between typing and cursive is more like asking whether or not it is okay to make a salad with a Cuisinart instead of a knife and block. One is going to get the job done in a fraction of the time and whether or not the difference can be detected at all by the consumers is bordering on audiophile territory (in other words, I don’t see how you could possibly arrange a scientific study on quality of output since that is subjective). The difference between a Wüsthof and a dull dollar knife is more like whether or not your pen is skipping. :slight_smile:

I think there are so many things that can affect the quality of your writing that it’s almost impossible to isolate any individual factor.

I was Annie Proulx’s copyeditor for many years. The first book of hers I worked on was Heartsongs, and I was blown away by it, called up everyone I knew. I had nice conversations with her; she is a gracious and learned woman (when I worked on The Shipping News I had to get hold of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which she helped me locate in a Montreal bookstore–fortunately my ex-home town and I still had family there willing to run errands).

The last book of hers I worked on was Accordion Crimes. I mention this because to my mind, that book was sadly inferior to her other work. (Not everyone shared my opinion). I found out years later that it was written while she was in the throes of moving across the country. Stuff packed up, unpacked, trains of thought derailed, probably some lengthy hiatuses (hiati?).

This is a tangent, I know. On topic, I wrote my first three novels longhand and my latest on the computer. My earlier ones I think were much worse. But I don’t think that fact has much to do with the mechanics of my composition. :confused:

Somebody isn’t taking LEARNING STYLE into account.

I’m primarily visual, BUT the specifics of my visual orientation are uncommon. Most visual learners are image based. I’m word based. Most word based learners are aided best by their own handwriting. I do best with typed words. Most visual learners find colors to be of great help. I find them a hindrance. (Seriously, the easiest way to hide info from me is to highlight it.)

Making me a visual learner, specifically from monochromatic typed words.

I’ve met a few other people like me, and you know what?

NONE of us can read cursive very well.

Does that affect our spelling in cursive? You betchya.

So I bet those studies’ conflicting results stem from failing to pay attention to learning types.

Thanks, everyone. I find this discussion interesting. It seems that an earlier post about distinguishing two aspects is critical: learning initially to write and later adapting to the preferred method of writing (handwriting vs. keyboard).

I am a throw back - learning to write in the 1950’s the old fashioned way. In 8th grade I began to experiment with cursive and found a very fast, and very legible approach that greatly improved my handwriting. Even now, when people see my signature or other writing, they often will comment on how readable and pretty(?) my handwriting is. :blush:

I taught myself to type on a manual, portable typewriter when in college, but at the time being a math major/physics minor, almost everything was handwritten anyway. Computer punch cards hardly count. :wink: But all my postgraduate education (nine years) has been in the humanities (history, religion, etc.), and so I had to use that trusty manual typewriter. By the time of my last dissertation I had finally bought a Mac and was proud to see its output (since it included Greek and Hebrew). But I still wrote the first and second drafts by hand.

Writing for me is better if I start with a pen and paper, but now traveling 50% of the time has forced me to use the computer for everything. Editing was always better with hard copy, but now I am finding I can handle it better on the computer.

… just some ramblings from an old codger
(who wishes he were 25 and ready to tackle the world with the new technologies! :mrgreen: )

I can’t read my own writing.

To me the “death” of careful writing was not the computer.

It was the “spell checker”.

To, Two, Too
There Their They’re
were, where, we’re
he, she
it, its, it’s

The list can go on and on.
The reality is a spell checker is only good for words not in its dictionary. Most spell checkers cannot determine the “correct” word in context.
Yet people pound away and as long as the spell checker says its ok then they let it go (still full of word misusage.

If you truly want to manually spell check something you have to read it in reverse order. If you just read over it you are bound to fall prey to the biggest problem we have with spelling. The brain’s awesome ability to be able to read anything as long as the first letter and last letter are correct.

Here is an example that many of you will easily understand but a spell checker will not.

I agree about the spell-checker, but at least it catches my dyslexic fingers (e.g. “teh” instead of “the”). But I never write teh, only type it, so the spell checker still doesn’t win. I also like the idea of reading in reverse order to check for errors - nice one (although surprisingly hard to do).

Regarding the jumbled letters quote, it’s a bit of an urban legend based on a fact. For a detailed description, see this discussion by Matt Davis at Cambridge University. He attributes the original research to a 1976 PhD thesis by Graham Rawlinson and links to a summary he received from Graham about it. He also debunks the claim that the order of the middle letters doesn’t matter and explains how word length, similarity to other letters and sound (amongst other factors) all play a part.

Apologies for taking away the fun, but it does relate to my training and I know one of my lecturers took great joy in posting a revised version of the same text that was almost impossible to read. But do you think I can find it now? :unamused:

Jaysen, you’re absolutely right! We could do, what do they call it…a class action type of thing. I’m sure there’s not one person here that didn’t get addicted to Scrivener during their trial time. It was a set up, all right! And that’s not fair! And there was no warning on the packaging of how addicting it is, or how good it is, or how hard it is to quit. And there’s no recovery center to go to! Help! No, don’t help! :frowning:

Why am I dredging up this one?

An article and a conference on how a lack of handwriting does reduce reading comprehension scores even with keyboarding.

General article: … lp-sb-ascd



And I was the one every one called an idiot for not letting the kids use the computer for homework until they were in high school!

At least they were wrong calling me an idiot for that. The other reasons … I can hope can’t I?

Hmm, so what happened to those kids, just hypothetically speaking here, that taught themselves to mirror-write and would turn in backwards papers to befuddle their teachers?


weren’t we exiled to the back row of life? You know, that place where all the cool kids sit?

If “back row” is a euphemism for the detention room, then yes, I hear ya.

Back row is not a euphemism. At the end of class everyone in the back row pretty much got whacked. Let’s see, there was me, the school pot head, the “easy girl”, the emotionally troubled, and Jim. I think he was more like me. Maybe it was actually you? You weren’t Jim before you were Ioa were you?