Cursive versus Typing for Writers

This NY Times article is about the debate over Common Core and some modern schools not teaching handwriting, particularly cursive.

nytimes.com/2014/06/03/scien … fades.html

It is not about writers taking notes or creating rough drafts by hand, particularly using cursive handwriting. But some of the research quoted has significance for writers:

Those remarks certainly have me thinking. Off and on, I’ve tried taking notes about my writing down by hand. Over and over, I’ve been blocked by the fact that my awful handwriting reaches all the way back to grade school when my report card regularly said “Needs Improvement” for penmanship.

But am I missing something by typing everything down? It certainly looks better and I can now type well faster than I can write badly by hand. But would hand-made notes—perhaps in my case rewritten soon afterward to make them legible—actually be richer in insights and ideas? I know one reason I prefer typing to writing is that the former lets me get those ideas down much faster. But is that added speed actually more harmful than beneficial?

I don’t know, but it is something all of us might think about, particularly in the early, idea-generating stages of writing.

–Mike Perry, Inkling Books

I am moving away from computers for “personal” stuff as much as I can. I have found that my sessions of “inspiration” with a pen and paper are much more fulfilling than those where I sit at a desk and type. Also, I find that I remember what I wrote much better when hand written. It may have to do with the need to dump the memory of the thousands of emails I type/read every week, but I can remember what I wrote 3 months ago when i can barely remember what I typed 3 minutes ago.

I am starting to use OCR to facilitate moving from paper back into electronic media. It is forcing me to write better.

Caveat… PERSONAL STUFF… i don’t get paid to write so time is not an issue and fulfillment is my only goal. YMMV

Regarding bad handwriting, I’ve flogged this before, but I got tired of my attrocious hand-writing, and also wanting to justify my fountain pen addiction, so I bought this: handwritingsuccess.com/write-now.php

I spent about a month re-training my handwriting, and now a year later, my handwriting is just sloppy, instead of being embarrassingly unreadable. If I slow down, it gets pretty good actually. Some day, I’m going to re-visit it and finish the last third of the workbook that focuses on calligraphy.

I spent about fifteen years writing, re-writing and, latterly, editing TV scripts with a group of other people. Generally, we wrote by hand - pencil usually - against the clock, and the hand-written scripts were then typed up. Towards the end of my involvement, I could have changed this procedure in favour of a type-from-the-start routine. When I discussed it with work-colleagues, we concluded, on the basis of anecdote and personal observation, that there was something about the hand-writing process that was beneficial to the clarity of expression that we were trying to achieve - although what it was we didn’t know. “Thinking through the point of a pencil,” someone called it. I still believe that thinking through the point of a pencil has a great deal to recommend it.

Interesting comments all. The Scientific American just released an article from the perspective of learning rather than writing, but again engagement with what you’re doing is still the key:

scientificamerican.com/artic … -a-laptop/

I wonder if techniques for lecture note-taking would also work for writers, techniques such as Cornell notes:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornell_Notes

Thanks too for a link to the training program in better handwriting. I’d be delighted if I could write well enough that I could read it, not to mention other people. I have to switch to block lettering to be legible and its just barely.

I’ve thought of another option. I’ve got quite a bit of empty wall space in my home office. If I can find a large white board cheap at a thrift store, I might trying drafting ideas on it. Changing those notes is easier than on paper and I can picture an entire book in one glance.

–Mike Perry, Inkling Books

To judge from the comments of the British novelist Will Self, your wall is currently suffering from ‘Post-it alopecia’.

Since a few years, I’ve started writing by hand again. Dragon Dictate makes very easy dictating my handwriting, therefore removing one of the worse obstacles to handwriting – having to retype.

I find that writing by hand helps with generating text and focusing on ideas. And dictating – instead of typing – makes revising much quicker, since I can focus on my original draft exslusively, instead of two separate tasks (reading and typing).

Paolo

Not yet, it’s actually quite blank, which is why I’ve thought of that large whiteboard.

Back in the 1980s, I worked for Boeing. Large projects often had a meeting room totally dedicated to tracking the project, with charts, whiteboards, and various schemes for giving a big picture.

It didn’t always help. Some projects were doomed from the start. Some people see giant corporations as ruthlessly efficient machines crushing all before them. From the inside, they often seem almost devoid of any sense of direction or good sense. Tens of millions get wasted on projects that even those involved suspect are doomed. I doubt a single bit of the millions of lines code that was written for either project is executing today.

–Mike

Keep in mind that studies about student note-taking and capturing random ideas down as writers aren’t the same as what’s best for getting what you actually intend to say down. Here’s an article that agrees with my experience that fast keyboarding lets me write readably and clearly as fast as I think, which reduces my frustration over writing by hand, especially since my handwriting is almost illegible.

medium.com/message/the-joy-of-t … 8d091ab8ef

Here’s a quote:

–Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

Just jumping in on this, I do find for myself both that I remember things better when I write them by hand (so it’s good for note-taking), and that I can get from brain to text faster when I type. I find the latter really worth while, especially with so flexible a tool as Scrivener.

The one downside I’ve found to writing on a computer (as compared with even a typewriter) is that, since it is so easy to rearrange words, clauses, and sentences, to replace one word with another, and so on, perfection always seems within reach. It seems that I spend 95% of my writing time doing the last 5% of polishing; and I always feel that another half-hour will bring the thing to shining flawlessness. I am never right about that.

All this applies to prose. I’ve found that, while I can edit poetry on a computer, I never even want to try writing it there. I need the more intimate connection of brain, hand, and pen to get a poem going.

This topic is very interesting and gives some hope that hand writing will not give way entirely to typing, at least among dedicated writers. I find Paolo’s work method especially suggestive; hand write a draft and then read it to dictation software, for fast transcription. Although I can dictate correspondence, I wouldn’t try it for creative writing…I want that to be a more silent process, but why?

In the history of reading, all early readers did their work aloud. I recall a book from a few years ago about the point in time when silent reading became more common; I think it was after 1500 or so. In my classes, I often ask students to read aloud long passages, challenging them to do it correctly and with some expression. They fail badly on both scores, unless they have acting or radio-tv experience. My sister, a professional actor, says that in order to sound like “a real person” in a commercial, one must throw in a bunch of um, er, ah, expressions. Otherwise, a smooth delivery sounds too slick. Obviously, correctness is a real speech-writing difference. Are we any more correct when typing?

My final point has to do with a personal obsession of mine, tracking memes to their origins. In almost all of the current Net commentary on the writing-typing difference, no one mentions the original source: the two boffins were at Princeton, a psych grad student and her professor. [small plug for local talent]

theatlantic.com/technology/a … nd/361478/

The book about reading is Paul Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. See sup.org/book.cgi?id=683

That’s an interesting point about reading once being done aloud. You can see this even in the terms used in some languages. English “read” comes from a word that means “advise” (related to German “raten”). In Hebrew the verb “read” is originally “call.” Likewise, I think, in Arabic: the name of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, comes from the same Semitic root “call,” and while it means “that which is read,” the etymological implication (for what that is worth!) is that the reading is done aloud.

I think that drafting by hand and then dictating to Dragon would provide some really valuable opportunities to get the “feel” of one’s prose to the ear. I know that even when I’m doing the final polishing of a text on a computer, even with fairly ordinary prose (I don’t write fiction), I pay attention to sounds.

As a lecturer, particularly when working on translation, I always told students to “write with their ears”, even when they were writing Chinese. A lot of them thought I was just weird; those that had talent twigged that what I meant was they should be aware of how what they were writing would sound when read aloud.

The big problem with this for the Chinese students was that they have a pretty tin-ear for how English sounds. Like all other languages — according to M.A.K. Halliday, though I suspect he hadn’t listened to Flemish being spoken in the background — Chinese is syllable-timed, while English is stress timed; and they are as bad at hearing the stresses and intonation of English as the vast majority of foreigners are at hearing the tones and sentence rhythm of Chinese.

On Flemish, way back in 1974, on our overland-LandRover journey from Bangkok to London, our last stop before Britain was outside Leuven/Liège in Belgium. We set off early in the morning, drove into town and found a café just setting up, who provided us with breakfast. He had the radio on as he was getting everything ready for the day. When I was talking to my wife, and the radio was the background, I kept thinking it was in English; when I listened, I realised it was in Flemish, which I don’t understand. So I concluded that Flemish must be stress-timed and have an intonation pattern not unlike English. The exception to Halliday’s rule?

Mr X

Ooh, the thread is drifting nicely now. :smiley: According to the Great Pedia, “empirical studies have not been able to find acoustic correlates of the postulated types, calling into question the validity of these types” of rhythmic timing in languages, whether syllable or stress. Besides English, the article lists supposedly stress-timed languages including German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese, and Dutch; so Flemish ought to fit right in there.

Hearing Flemish and thinking it was English reminds me of the time my wife and I were on our way back to the mainland from visiting Iona, traveling by bus across the Isle of Mull. We were in the front seat, and the driver had a mate of his on board. They were listening to football on the radio, and I suppose, discussing the game or life in general. I am convinced they were speaking English, but not a syllable of it was comprehensible to me.

I think the thing is that human perception is different from empirical studies. Germans and Dutch people speaking English sound syllable timed to me, and German sounds syllable timed to me. I also think that on the occasion in Liège there were other prosodic aspects involved; but no other language, and I have lived or travelled in a fair number of countries, has sounded stress-timed to me … not German, not Thai as wikipedia mentions, and I lived there for a number of years and spoke Thai.

I also taught in a college for Swiss students, mostly Swiss German speakers, and they had great difficulty distinguishing between pairs like “paper bag” vs “paperback”, where the distinction is the length of the final vowel, not the final consonant, suggesting that they didn’t perceive timing clearly enough.

The other thing is that other varieties of English, like Indian English or Singaporean English, are very different from British or American English in their phonetics and phonology. I was, I admit, talking about British English, my variety. I was teaching Chinese students who had been taught by Chinese teachers and whose English was not “machine-gun” rather “drip-feed” rhythm, and it was very hard to get them to perceive the different timing of English.

Mmm. Even if they weren’t speaking Gaelic, they would have had a pretty thick accent and different structure.

Mr X.

I think the thing is that human perception is different from empirical studies. Germans and Dutch people speaking English sound syllable timed to me, and German sounds syllable timed to me. I also think that on the occasion in Liège there were other prosodic aspects involved; but no other language, and I have lived or travelled in a fair number of countries, has sounded stress-timed to me … not German, not Thai as wikipedia mentions, and I lived there for a number of years and spoke Thai.

I also taught in a college for Swiss students, mostly Swiss German speakers, and they had great difficulty distinguishing between pairs like “paper bag” vs “paperback”, where the distinction is the length of the final vowel, not the final consonant, suggesting that they didn’t perceive timing clearly enough.

The other thing is that other varieties of English, like Indian English or Singaporean English, are very different from British or American English in their phonetics and phonology. I was, I admit, talking about British English, my variety. I was teaching Chinese students who had been taught by Chinese teachers and whose English was not “machine-gun” rather “drip-feed” rhythm, and it was very hard to get them to perceive the different timing of English.

Mmm. Even if they weren’t speaking Gaelic, they would have had a pretty thick accent and different structure.

Mr X.