J.K. Rowling scribbled down the first 40 names of characters that would appear in Harry Potter in a paper notebook. J.J. Abrams writes his first drafts in a paper notebook. Upon his return to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs first cut through the existing complexity by drawing a simple chart on whiteboard. Of course, they’re not the only ones…
Here’s the notebook that belongs to Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. Most of the pages in his notebook resemble the right side, although he has said to Design Observer that he had lost a particularly precious notebook, which contained “a drawing my then 13-year-old daughter Liz did that she claims is the original sketch for the Citibank logo.”
Author Neil Gaiman’s notebook, who writes his books — including American Gods, The Graveyard Book, and the final two thirds of Coraline — by hand.
And a notebook from information designer Nicholas Felton, who recorded and visualized ten years of his life in data, and created the Reporter app.
There’s a reason why people, who have the option to actually use a computer, choose to make writing by hand a part of their creative process. And it all starts with a difference that we might easily overlook — writing by hand is very different than typing.
Your equipment influences your work
In Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg advises that writing is a physical activity, and thus affected by the equipment you use. Typing and writing by hand produce very different writing. She writes, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.”
Goldberg’s observation may have a small sample size of one, but it’s an incisive observation. More importantly, studies in the field of psychology support this conclusion.
In chapter 13 of “Traditions of Writing Research”, entitled, “Relationships between idea generation and transcription,” authors John R. Hayes and Virginia Berniger conduct a study in which they learned children could generate significantly more ideas by handwriting than by typing.
Similarly, authors Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer students making notes, either by laptop or by hand, and explored how it affected their memory recall. In their study published in Psychological Science, they write, “…even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.”
While psychologists figure out what actually happens in the brain, artists, designers, and writers all have felt the difference in typing and writing by hand. Many who originally eagerly adopted the computer for the promises of efficiency, limitlessness, and connectivity, have returned back to writing by hand.
There are a variety of hypotheses that exist on why writing by hand produces different results than typing, but here’s a prominent one that emerges from the world of practitioners:
You better understand your work
“Drawing is a way for me to articulate things inside myself that I can’t otherwise grasp,” writes artist Robert Crumb in his book with Peter Poplaski. In other words, Crumb draws not to express something already he already understand, but to make sense of something he doesn’t.
This brings to mind a quote often attributed to Cecil Day Lewis, “ We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” Or as author Jennifer Egan says to The Guardian, “The writing reveals the story to me.”
This sort of thinking — one that’s done not just with the mind, but also with the hands — can be applied to all sorts of fields. For example, in Sherry Turkle’s “Life on the Screen,” she quotes a faculty member of MIT as saying:
“Students can look at the screen and work at it for a while without learning the topography of a site, without really getting it in their head as clearly as they would if they knew it in other ways, through traditional drawing for example…. When you draw a site, when you put in the contour lines and the trees, it becomes ingrained in your mind. You come to know the site in a way that is not possible with the computer.”
The quote continues in the notes, “That’s how you get to know a terrain — by tracing and retracing it, not by letting the computer ‘regenerate’ it for you.”
“You start by sketching, then you do a drawing, then you make a model, and then you go to reality — you go to the site — and then you go back to drawing,” says architect Renzo Piano in Why Architects Draw. “You build up a kind of circularity between drawing and making and then back again.”
In his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, author Gordon MacKenzie likened the creative process to one of a cow making milk. We can see a cow making milk when it’s hooked up to the milking machine, and we know that cows eat grass. But the actual part where the milk is being created remains invisible.
There is an invisible part to making something new, the processes of which are obscured from physical sight by scale, certainly. But, parts of what we can see and feel, is felt through writing by hand.
Steve Jobs said in an interview with Wired Magazine, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
Viewed from Jobs’s lens, perhaps writing by hand enables people to do the latter — think and understand more about their own experiences. Similar to how the contours and topography can ingrain themselves in an architect’s mind, experiences, events, and data can ingrain themselves when writing out by hand.
Only after this understanding is clearer, is it best to return to the computer. In the middle of the 2000s, the designers at creative consultancy Landor installed Adobe Photoshop on their computers and started using it. General manager Antonio Marazza tells author David Sax:
“Overnight, the quality of their designs seemed to decline. After a few months of this, Landor’s Milan office gave all their designers Moleskine notebooks, and banned the use of Photoshop during the first week’s work on a project. The idea was to let their initial ideas freely blossom on paper, without the inherent bias of the software, before transferring them to the computer later for fine-tuning. It was so successful, this policy remains in place today.”
Author Austin Kleon has applied this principle to his office layout. He says to From Your Desks, “When I get home, I have two desks in my office — one’s ‘analog’ and one’s ‘digital.’ The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on the desk — this is how I keep myself off Twitter, etc. This is where most of my work is born. The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, my Wacom tablet, and a MIDI keyboard controller for if I want to record any music. (Like a lot of writers, I’m a wannabe musician.) This is where I edit, publish, etc.”
J.K. Rowling used this piece of lined paper and blue pen to plot out how the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, would unfold. The most obvious fact is that it looks exactly like a spreadsheet.
And yet, to say she could have done this on the spreadsheet would be a stretch. The magic isn’t in the layout, which is just the beginning. It’s in the annotations, the circles, the cross outs, and marginalia. I realize that there are digital equivalents to each of these tactics — suggestions, comments, highlights, and changing cell colors, but they simply don’t have the same effect.
Rowling writes of her original 40 characters, “It is very strange to look at the list in this tiny notebook now, slightly water-stained by some forgotten mishap, and covered in light pencil scribblings…while I was writing these names, and refining them, and sorting them into houses, I had no clue where they were going to go (or where they were going to take me).”
Goldberg writes in her book, that writing is a physical act. Perhaps creativity is a physical, analog, act, because creativity is a byproduct of being human, and humans are physical, analog, entities. And yet in our creative work, out of convention, habit, or fear, we restrict ourselves to, as a man would describe to author Tara Brach, “live from the neck up.”
Nowadays, the practice of writing by hand is dwindling — to our detriment. You don’t need to do all of your work by hand in order to see its benefits. Instead, the next time you boot up Google Docs, Photoshop, or AutoCAD, try opening a journal instead. You may be pleasantly surprised at how your work turns out.