Before the proliferation of word processors, typewriters were the go-to means of formalising documents. Copies had to be made without any spelling or grammatical error, or an entire page would have to be thrown away. This meant that an unyielding mental presence had to be maintained over time to ensure sound spelling and grammar. Although the typewriter has since been made obsolete by word processors, an implement that dates further back than both remains ever popular – the mighty pen. In fact, the pen’s comeback in recent years suggests a nostalgic yearning for a past gilded age of writing. Apart from the desire for greater expressive freedom, writing also improves one’s cognitive and language abilities. In this article, we explore the advantages that writing possesses over typing.
Writing sharpens our focus
The human mind can only hold a few pieces of information in short term memory. These are stored in the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, digital technology has diminished that ability by overloading the prefrontal cortex with distractions. For instance, try recalling the details of the last article you read before this – see what I mean? Not only do our digital devices actively distract us with incoming notifications, we invite distractions into our writing process by tempting ourselves with the possibility to procrastinate. In fact, we create an illusory belief in our ability to multitask by listening to music, responding to text messages and enjoying a cuppa, all at the same time! When we force our mind to pay attention to peripheral tasks, we diminish our ability to focus on what matters.
Writing on paper requires us to maintain an unwavering focus. Without the autocorrect or text replacement functions, the pen forces us to consistently spell and write without error. This trains our mind to hold ideas for an extended period of time while the hand writes them down, eventually improving our focus.
Writing improves our long term memory
Memories are often tied to physical encounters. Sensory experiences give us certainty that an event occurred, helping us better remember these experiences later on. Similarly, when we write, complex motor skills are required. The sensory experience of writing gives our ideas the physical form that would help us remember them better. For example, during a lecture, a student who types on his device may produce them verbatim. A prudent student, however, would critically consider what he hears, and judiciously select only the most important content to be written. As he spends time contemplating his thoughts, he pays closer attention to the content of his writing. He remembers details through cues rather than by rote memorisation, reinforcing the natural mental processes that would result in better learning. Undoubtedly, the student who writes will commit his knowledge faster to long term memory.
Writing strengthens our means of expression
Typing as we think is a habit second nature to most of us, a means to get more done with less time. Unfortunately, such haste leaves us only with a vague understanding of our thoughts. And under the veneer of efficiency, we are in fact thinking more haphazardly than any generation before us. As such, we ought to take more time to meditate on our thoughts and fully understand them before expressing ourselves. Similarly, with no easy means of erasure, writing forces us to structure our arguments before putting them down on paper. As we pay attention to our spelling, handwriting and grammar, we inadvertently strengthen our ideas by thinking of them in an expressible manner. By the end of our writing, we establish a finality and certainty to the content of our argument.
Writing helps us to examine our thoughts
Writers today face differing trends and opinions which may interfere with the consistency of their writing. Most of us may not even be aware of how frequently we morph our thoughts and opinions to fit the flavour of the day. As such, our ability to think critically is under threat. Keeping a diary or journaling can help us to regain the ability to differentiate opinions of our own and those that are forcibly impressed upon us. Recording our thoughts helps us trace our network of beliefs to their moments of inception and discover the influences behind them. This self-awareness helps us to differentiate the opinions that belong to us from those stealthily planted by others. We may even root out patterns of contradictions in our beliefs, or discover that what we staunchly believed in ages ago, no longer applies today. When we write reflectively, our thoughts will be clarified, and our convictions strengthened.