Handwriting versus Typing

The recent publication of Writing Letters with Pen & Ink by Edward St. Paige reminds me how important writing by hand still is for some people. It is also important to many individuals who collect passages from the books they read.

In a survey I conducted of individuals who keep a commonplace book several commented at some length on why they prefer to write by hand, rather than typing, the passages they want to save. Reading the text is one thing. Recalling it is another. But in between these two activities is the process of transcribing.

What is copying? First it is attending once again to the text. Perhaps it is also thinking about it further; it occupies your mind once again. In The Body’s Recollection of Being, David Michael Levin compared transcribing to the hand copying of religious texts by medieval monks, an activity that required “the most intense meditative concentration, poise and steadiness of hand.” Later he spoke of it as a “way of carving words (and their meaning) into flesh, into body.”

In a subsequent exchange about her survey responses, Olivia Dresher, publisher of Impassio Press and director of the Life Writing Connection went further to suggest that transcribing the quotes by hand is superior to typing them on a typewriter which, in turn, is superior to typing them on a computer keyboard. She claimed:

“...handwritten quotes linger more in my consciousness because I actually wrote [sometimes very slowly] them with my hands into a notebook. And they feel more permanent (even if that’s an illusion), more connected to me, less fleeting.”

For Levin and Dresher, writing the passages by hand is an experience that is almost “sacred,” a feature of commonplacing that brings the meaning of the words into their consciousness in a far deeper way than when they are typed. The experience becomes a very physical one for them, one that is not unlike incorporating something into your body, as one does in eating food.

As Audrey Borenstein, the author of Redeeming the Sin: Social Science and Literature noted in quoting the Talmud: “A fitting quotation is like bread to the famished.”

Further Dresher went on to argue that while typing passages on a typewriter enables you to see them on a piece of paper, it doesn’t have the same effect as writing them by hand. And that typing them on a computer keyboard, where they appear on the screen, places the text at an even further distance from the person than either of the two other methods of transcribing.

The distinction these readers make between the several methods of transcribing the passages in their commonplace book is instructive. So too are their claims for their short and long term effects on the transcriber. Does it matter how you record the passages? The hypothesis these readers propose is testable. It would be easy to design an experiment to compare the relative effects of the different methods of transcription.

Consider a recall test or some other measure of permanence. Would quotes that had been handwritten be recalled with greater accuracy than those that had been typed on a typewriter or computer keyboard? That is but one of several questions that might be explored in such an experiment.