Writing using retro tech

Who needs Scrivener? (Or Ulysses… or… MS Word…)

Back to Basics: Benefits of Writing With a Pen & Notebook

Not with my handwriting!

I am somewhat repeating stuff I already said, so I won’t go that much into the details, but there is a lot I achieve writing on paper that I just can’t get quite right on a computer.

That thing that pretty much all the articles say about your brain not dealing with writing the same way, longhand vs typing soliciting different parts of it, it is true.


Although this is completely true for me, and dictates the way I work - as analogue as possible for creative writing - it is unlikely to be universally true - though it’s often repeated as though it were.

It works for me because I was in my 20’s before I first used a computer, I am a poor typist and so the keyboard represents an (admittedly diminishing) form of friction. My 22 year old daughter doesn’t feel that at all, and finds handwriting clunky and increased friction for her.

The ‘handwriting creates more brain activity’ needs some careful details too: typing on one leg would use more brain activity, as would typing with one hand, or a gun to your head.

I think a generation (like mine) that learned to read and write analogue might find a kind of creative cramp from technology that a generation that had iPads in their prams does not. Like many neuro-stories, the basic findings do not generalise as far as the popular gist then spreads.


I think it is universally true that different tools engage the brain in different ways, and so using different tools can help writers who are stuck. But I don’t think a universal “best” tool exists.

On the other hand, I think writers can sometimes fetishize their tools to an unhealthy extent. If you believe you can only write with a quill pen by the light of a single candle in a silent house, well, probably there are some issues at play that are unrelated to your tools.


The brain is very plastic - as Nicholas Carr points out, this can be bad; but experience based rewiring (as he calls it) is also good. We’d never learn skill sets or develop useful habits otherwise.

But although different tools engage the brain in different ways, they do so in different ways for different people, so the universality of these alleged results in the absence of controlled participant parameters is, at least, a little less wide than it might seem.

There is a non-scale difference between skilled and novice users of any tools, including musical instruments and surgical scalpels - involving neurologically significant divergent functions (the way I was taught this was to consider than running, physiologically, is not just fast walking).

But the fetish comment is absolutely true - and I am guilty of it: I have a longstanding, probably unhealthy, relationship with certain fountain pens and certain weights of clairefontaine paper.

Oh yes, 100% agree. I try to be very careful to avoid prescriptive “you Must write by hand” advice in favor of “if you are stuck, try something different.”

In physical activities where I am skilled, I find that I pay very little (conscious) attention to, say, the manual dexterity involved in using a chef’s knife, and much more attention to the bigger picture of what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m not sure what the analogous difference between experienced and inexperienced writers would be, but I’m sure there is one.

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one additional issue might be insurance due to the increased fire risks :nauseated_face: because of the candles :candle: (akin to recent issues in Australia with some not being covered when having a business registered at home) :money_with_wings:.

As a totally ‘old fart’ brought up in the analog world, Scrivener and my Laptop are a godsend. I do still have work on pen and paper from the 70’s and struggle to read my Dr’s scribble - an exercise in frustration.

At 71, my children and grandchildren get their iPad/Mac/iPhone support from me. (Ok, full disclosure, finally (perhaps) retired from Apple, for the second time, last month)

I did massive spreadsheets in VisiCalc on Apple II and SuperCalc under CP/M and developed an accounting package on the very first Mac, so was ‘digital’ from an early age.

The brain can adapt to anything if you have the mindset to allow it.


I ran across this article somewhere and was intrigued by the idea. While I will never give up writing on a computer (it has been a Godsend,) nor will I ever give up :heart_eyes: Scrivener :heart_eyes: it appealed to my just-under-the-surface Luddite nature. (I’ve been having issues with ‘tech’ recently.)

To each their own, and whatever help you write, finish, and publish ‘is what works.’


It doesn’t have to be one or the other, you know…

Have you ever tried to print a first draft, edit it longhand, retype it ?
Or, more extreme, first draft (computer) - 2nd draft (longhand) - retype.

You (might) be surprised what happens when you confront back and forth the potential result of those two approaches…

If your longhand writing is a nightmare to decipher, try bigger letters. That usually does it. :wink:


Yes. Back in college in the early 1980s. There was my final year when I had several research papers to do and the total number of pages must have been well over 300. I used an old Smith-Corona typewriter. No computer. No printer. Notes were handwritten from library books.

By the way, I only posted the article as a curiosity. I do not personally advocate going back to retro tech such as notebooks and pen/pencil; I merely thought it was interesting and decided to share it here.


For taking notes, brainstorming, and outlines I use pen and paper because I can scribble faster than I can type. I have a lot of note books. But now I prefer to annotate PDFs. But aside from brainstorming etc I rarely write out a 1st draft. There was one exception though. One night I could not sleep because the inspiration for an essay came to me. I tossed and turned but no sleep. So I got up and wrote out the whole 20-30 page draft by hand. It just poured out all in order and in one piece. After the brain dump I was able to quickly fall asleep. I transcribed it and published it with very little editing. It was quite successful for me.

But I would never give up Scrivner and go back pen and paper.

Holy cow, are you writing shorthand? :exploding_head:

My father described my writing as “chicken scratches” so that might give you a hint. I write so fast that even I have trouble reading it. Because of this I have since changed my writing style so that I only use block letters, no more script.

On a different note I was really shocked to look at a notebook I had from 1981, my wife could not believe that it was my writing, I couldn’t believe it either. Then my writing was cursive, small, clear and neat.

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I can’t even produce cursive anymore, kinda sad. But I was curious and had to ascertain the numbers: barely 18 WPM by hand. :joy: Five times slower than I type comfortably. Not the kind of retro tech that suits me, unfortunately.

My hand writing even at its best could never be described as beautiful. My mother’s on the other hand was graceful and artistic, on the level of calligraphy.

Former generations were taught penmanship. They had beautiful handwriting. We have descended to the planet of the apes in this regard. :innocent:

I have fine motor control issues which means my handwriting would be an embarrassment to a drunken spider that dipped its legs in ink. I gave up writing decades ago and now type everything — including shopping lists!

At least you have an excuse for being calligraphically challenged. I don’t. :innocent:

This ‘former generation’ was forced to write right-handed as left-handed ‘smudged the ink’.

A ruler repeatedly on the knuckles is a powerful incentive.

While I can still do many things with either hand, my writing sucks on both.