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But My Hand Is Starting to Hurt

When was the last time you hand-wrote an important document? Could you imagine hand-writing e-mails before typing and sending them? Would you consider hand-writing a term paper before formatting it according to your instructor’s specifications?

Blogger (and writer/teacher) Greg Graham recently interviewed writer and teacher Heather Sellers, author of the memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know and believer of handwritten drafts. In the interview, Sellers says:

I always ask the students in my advanced course to submit a story in advance of the workshop. I noticed, when I was reading the advance submissions over break that three were just stunning–prose that read like poetry. The stories had such a beautiful quality, each of them rife with what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning.” They were nearly finished stories–fascinating, original…I went to class, and I asked the first three writers how they worked. Each student in that top three said, “I write by hand. Always. Always.” I didn’t single out the weaker authors but I did ask the group, “Do y’all write on the computer?” Each one said yes.

Sellers believes that writing by hand is in itself a creative process and that it’s important for a writer to compose without censoring him or herself. A writer should begin the thought process without interrupting it. Using a word processing program, a writer can too easily add or delete without consequence, writing with too much shame and self-consciousness. Writing by hand, the writer must remain comfortable with his or her imperfections and missteps.

Before reading this interview, I had not paid much attention to how a mode of writing affects the quality of a student’s work. I usually ask students to type their writing when possible, simply because too many students write illegibly, and I can’t serve my students if I can’t read their work. However, by allowing and even encouraging my students to type their work, I worry that I’m simply ignoring the real problem: shouldn’t students have learned how to hand-write legible drafts? According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, handwriting is a skill that improves memory and idea generation and should be taught in schools.

Upon further reflection, I can admit that most of the work handwritten by students during class time and then typed/revised for homework or at a later date has more depth than first drafts generated with a word processing program. I believe this is true because the student has to carefully craft one detail before moving to the next detail. Using a word processing program, the writer sometimes types faster than he or she can think, with the goal of reaching the required page/word count and the intention of returning to the vague parts during the revision stage.

Typing, a writer is bound by the conventional page size, font size, and margins of the word processing program. However, while handwriting a draft, the writer uses a size and stroke that makes him or her feel most comfortable. After reading Sellers’ brilliant testimonial, I would love to require my college level students to hand write all first drafts, but I believe the practice should be both taught and encouraged in younger grades. Do students even learn cursive anymore?

(Photo by photosteve101)

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