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Writing by Hand to Create a Deeper Engagement in the Classroom

June 4, 2013

The following article was published this week in Teachers and Writers Magazine.


Writing by Hand to Create a Deeper Engagement in the Classroom

Greg Graham

In an age when digital literacy is viewed as the holy grail of education, and when teachers are urged to jump aboard the digitrain or get run over by it, Heather Sellers is one of the few voices bucking the trend, extolling the benefits she says come with writing the way human beings have written since they became literate: by hand.

Sellers, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and author of the critically acclaimed memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, which details her lifelong struggle with face-blindness, believes students who write by hand produce superior work, so she requires handwritten first drafts of each assignment. Sellers says she stumbled onto the fact that writing by hand can make a huge difference in the quality of written work. After noticing stark variations in quality in students’ submissions to her writing class, she wanted to know if there was something about their approaches that made a difference, so she asked the writers how they worked. Three of them had submitted work that Sellers regarded as “stunning—prose that read more like poetry.” When she asked them about their writing process, each of them said they had written their stories by hand.  In contrast, Sellers found that all of the weaker authors had written their drafts on a computer. There were a couple of students in the middle whose work was a mixed bag. Their descriptions of how they wrote, says Sellers, were revealing:

“There were these two stories that had some great parts, and some flat parts. ‘I wonder if you mind saying a few words about your process,’ I asked these two writers.  I still remember their names. Chantelle said, ‘Well, I started hand-writing. But then I got behind, and it was due, and so I typed the rest, but the opening, the scene at the restaurant, and the ending were done by hand.’ Those were the EXACT same sections I’d pegged as thrumming, as memorable, as real.  Charlie said the same thing–parts were done by hand, parts on the computer.  The class was stunned when I showed him that I could tell which parts he’d hand-written first and which sections he’d typed.”

Sellers says this was a transformational moment for her, one she shares with each new incoming class. In her disarmingly warm and engaging style, she preaches the gospel of handwriting to every digital native who walks through her door. And she meets less resistance than one might expect. Make no mistake about it—her approach is a radical one. More than merely writing by hand, Sellers’s students start out writing with markers in giant all capital letters. The reason? “We go really, really, really slowly.” Surely college students balk at these elementary school practices? Surely these media multitaskers gripe and moan about this tedious work? According to Sellers, quite the opposite:

“I think we are all just working so hard to try to put something meaningful together… it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of that. Here’s the thing: You know why we write by hand? Why we keep doing it?  It’s fun. It was fun when we were little kids, and it’s fun now. It’s fun to have markers and pens, and great sheets of paper, and to paint with words. And it is fun to concentrate.  Any athlete knows that.  Readers know that, lovers know that, kids know that.”

Though Sellers’s evidence for the benefits of writing by hand is anecdotal, recent research supports her findings. Gwendolen Bounds’ excellent Wall Street Journal article “How Handwriting Trains the Brain” (October 2010) cited multiple studies on the importance of writing by hand: Neurologists at the University of Indiana found more advanced neural activity in children when they wrote by hand as opposed to typing. An educational psychologist at the University of Washington found that 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders in a study there “expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus using a keyboard to compose.”  In her Wall Street Journal article, Bounds also quotes a neuroscientist at Duke University who says “as [aging] people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise.”

“Writing by hand really works, and I just want to make sure we don’t lose this method,” says Sellers. “The process can help our students retain their individual thinking, get them in touch with their voice, and, also, help them understand the hard, slow work it is to write.  Writing simply takes an enormous amount of time.  Writing by hand is a realistic pace for making something out of words. It forces one to slow down and stay connected to the sensory and sensual moments that come from the deepest part of one’s self. I know this sounds weird, but I have seen the results.”

In her creative writing classes, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, Sellers emphasizes the importance of taking one’s time by making a connection between writing and drawing: before her students even start writing, she asks them to take fifteen minutes or so to make a sketch of the scene they want to create. When they are done, she has them list all of the sensory details in the picture. “I think there has to be a kind of building stage before we get to the thinking stage,” she says. “In working by hand, I tell my students, you are creating the containers where you will eventually do your thinking.  If you are just thinking, on a screen, where you can write so fast and erase so fast, it’s kind of like Frost’s thing of playing tennis without a net.”

Sellers describes those quickly typed up pieces of writing that students often produce as “phoned in.” She explains “You know in ‘bad acting’ how it doesn’t seem like the actor is that person he is playing—it seems…fake? That’s how computer generated first drafts can seem: too-fast thinking, a gliding over the surface, typos, hard-to-understand sentences and arguments.”           Writing by hand, Sellers has found, serves as a governor to keep the writer from speeding past the necessary steps in the writing process. “This is very much a process of seeing what it is you know,” she says, “getting your mind on the page, without the interference of the editor, the fake voices, the cleaner-upper, the conformist.”

Educational theorist and philosopoher Paulo Freire defined literacy as “critical engagement with world and word.”  Sellers believes writing by hand can improve literacy by deepening students’ engagement with word and world.

“I’m trying to create a reverence for the process,” she says.  “I’m looking to be part of a culture of quiet and contemplation. My students get addicted to our in-class hand writing sessions.  They have to do the handwriting thing for thirty minutes a day for thirty days. For many of them, it’s the only time in the day they are alone.  It’s a form of meditation, right? To sit with oneself and discover what’s in there.  Writing by hand, then, is a great way, of creating a conversation with oneself.  That’s vital for the first year writer—maybe the most vital thing.”

As the author of three books on the craft of writing, Sellers frequently travels to read and speak around the country. When she tells other writing instructors about her practice of requiring handwritten first drafts, the responses range from intrigued to incredulous. “Some people freak,” she says. “And I’m not sure writing by hand is right for every teacher, every writer, every classroom. I just want to make sure we don’t lose methods that really work.”

Sellers knows full well the challenge of convincing students to commit the time necessary to do “the hard slow work it is to write,” but she also sees what this gives them. “I teach the sonnet in all my poetry workshops,” she says, “and at first the students complain mightily about how much time writing the sonnet takes.  Yes, I say.  This is how much time a poem takes.  This is the right amount.  Then, they produce their best work of the semester in these sonnets and they realize: it’s worth it.  It’s worth spending this much time on a poem.  And I think that lesson transfers to composing an essay, a memo, a letter—to all writing.”

For additional information:

How Handwriting Trains the Brain

Handwriting is a 21st Century Skill

Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit

Printing, cursive, keyboarding: What’s the difference when it comes to learning?”


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  1. vic buehler permalink

    Mr. Graham,
    I would say the same applies to ….. architecture. The free hand to paper is essentially no more. Designer’s start on the cpu/ipad… whatever. I had a good hand to paper, not so much now, mouse to ACAD, .dwg file. My old drafting table is now covered with well organized stacks of magazines espousing green/sustainable design. Some of it is kinda neat?, but what about stone carved buildings that were designed 100’s of yrs ago and still stand as beautiful and strong as when they were first built?, and they were designed by “persons” using ink on linen.! Let alone the monuments of architecture that were designed, built more than 100’s, 1,000’s of years ago! Please pardon my English. V.C. Buehler

  2. Greg,
    Writing by hand certainly demands more mindfulness and attention to the task at hand–any student nowadays who drafts on a computer or even a phone will be distracted by social media, browsers, choosing songs to listen to on YouTube, etc.
    I’m realizing I might be misguided to encourage students to draft on a computer due to this constant temptation of distraction, but I also challenge them to work in focused bursts. Personally, I prefer drafting on a computer–it has worked for me for years–but I’m also disciplined enough to read and leave comments on blog posts or draft essays, for example, without clicking away every thirty seconds.

  3. Reblogged this on The Digital Realist and commented:

    The following article was published in the summer of 2013. Interest has surged on the topic due to new research by Daniel Oppenheimer and his grad student Pam Mueller. In the past month, new articles about the value of handwriting have surfaced in The Atlantic, Scientific American, and The New York Times. It’s good to see that some are paying attention, but will it make a difference?

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