Last fall, I enrolled in Classic Civilization 101 to fulfill my first-year writing requirement, knowing full well that it would require a heavy workload of both reading and writing. Drafting papers was still somewhat new to me, especially ones built around such specific topics or given prompts, like those I knew I would encounter in this class.

In order to tackle the challenge of first-draft composition, I started by getting out a stack of notecards and writing my way through lists of bullet points. But even with those cards set out in front of me, the white page of my word processor stubbornly refused to fill with text. So instead of staring at the screen, I armed myself with a mechanical pencil and one of my well-worn yellow legal pads, decided how many pages I needed to fill to meet my word-count goal and got started scribbling words.

When workshopping the early drafts of our papers in class, I mentioned that my neatly typed pages of text had started out as handwriting, and drew incredulous stares from my peers. None of them had written their papers by hand, and all took a moment to think about how that might work. We were writing fairly long papers, aiming for 1,600 words — about eight double-spaced pages, which, for me, meant seven or eight pages, handwritten. In filling those pages, much of what I wrote was mediocre, and the content wasn’t incredibly cohesive, but I got something down to meet my word- and page-count goals.

It was in transcribing those 1,600 words that something changed. In so closely going back over what I had written, I gave myself a chance to edit while still in a stage of initial composition. Instead of trying to find connections between my ideas, the material and how to transcribe them, I was putting down a lot of raw material and watching with satisfaction as it filled up the pages of my blank piece of paper. By not starting on the computer, I came back to what I had written with a more organized idea of where I wanted the writing to take me, and now I had a quantity of text already written, from which I could begin to more thoroughly develop my ideas.

As a matter of fact, we use different neurological pathways when we write out words by hand versus when we type — so I’ve been told by fellow writers, and as has been confirmed by a variety of studies, including a 2012 study conducted by researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt at Indiana University. Through imaging children’s brains, the researchers found that handwriting activates different regions than typing, and with greater overall stimulus. The study also addressed the variety found in handwriting, and how, when writing on paper, creative and personal expression can come into play. Everyone’s handwriting, even their styles of shaping letters, are incredibly diverse. It’s by practicing shaping those letters that children can come to better understand what each one means.

Compositions on paper can also be easier to navigate than ones on the computer; there’s complete freedom to write notes in margins, box off parts of a page, or to circle, underline or highlight passages of text. And then there’s the content that’s generated — not just an abstract, virtual document made of megabytes, but something more solid and real. Even while in the process of composing words, the time it takes to write them out and later to type them up allows a deeper reflection on the ideas being presented, as well as on the composition and cadence of sentences.

While it may seem like a daunting task to write a paper longhand before a single word makes it into your blank document, I believe it saves time in the long run. Writing a composition before typing it grants space that’s needed for ideas to sink in and form more fully. Having a break between modes also leaves breathing space for an author to see his or her text with fresh eyes, and to more easily pinpoint spelling errors, grammar mistakes and breaks in continuity. While keyboards must play a role at some point — and while I only deem my papers complete after careful refinement on the computer — typing on the computer isn’t the only way to transcribe a first draft or to do writing that’s academic and serious in nature.

Even these words, though they have undergone changes after I transcribed them onto a screen, were drafted first by hand. And in future writing exercises, I fully intend to continue using a mix of analog and digital in generating and refining my ideas. Though it may require I invest more time in the process, I know the effort I put in will result in me building a more complete understanding of the ideas I’m ultimately trying to put forth. Besides, who needs to spend all those hours staring at a computer screen when a pad of paper is so much easier on the eyes? This fall, I plan to once again fill my yellow legal pads with ideas written out in hasty graphite scratches, knowing with full confidence that I’ll be able to turn those scribbles into polished, word-processed text by the time my paper’s due.

Susan LaMoreaux can be reached at susanpl@umich.edu. 

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