Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pen or Keyboard?

“Most literary people,” according to legal-writing authority Bryan Garner, have “good hands.” Garner, consequently, advises legal writers to improve their penmanship. You might suspect his advice rests on a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (mistaking correlation for causation), but a more charitable interpretation is possible: perhaps handwriting is more useful to composition than many suspect, and perhaps practice improves penmanship. This seems the best explanation of the correlation between handwriting quality and literary inclination, leading me to experiment with penning first drafts. (One alternative explanation, that proofreading requires clear penmanship, is less compelling because correction neither compels the efficiency of the cursive form nor affords much practice.) One doubt about this reasoning stems from observing that adult penmanship resists improvement. Physicians, for example, have notoriously poor hands, scribbling almost illegibly, just because they write numerous prescriptions, but that enigma may contain its own answer. To improve a skill, you must strive to do well when practicing it; if you practice an illegible scrawl, you are rewarded by permanently acquiring one.

These speculations motivated me to experiment with handwriting, but before discussing the outcome, some description of procedure. First the pen. Occasional earlier tries at handwriting drafts ended adversely, the big difference, this time, the writing tool. Ballpoints, rollerballs, gel pens, pencils, and steel-nibbed fountain pens had demanded excessive effort. The effect of these inferior alternatives wasn’t small: my first drafts with these instruments were unusable—unrevisable. Fourteen or eighteen karat gold-nibbed pens proved far better. Second, the keyboard; to compare pen and keyboard fairly, the experimenter should choose the best of each. A mechanical-switch keyboard, with its tactile feedback, distracts less than the cheaper membrane variant that usually comes with the computer.

Now the results—or at least, my impressions. Whereas the keyboard is unsurpassed when you know in advance what you shall write, the pen is better for figuring it out, that is, for free writing, a surprising finding, since skilled typing is much faster. What’s desirable in free writing is not only speed, which helps production keep pace with thought, but also unobtrusiveness, to minimize the distraction of physical effort. Cursive writing with a quality pen distracted me less than typing. This is a conclusion from mere personal experiment, but the results do cohere: handwriting improves with practice when the writer strives to draft legibly.

What I don’t know is how widely these results transfer. Greater typing speed might make a difference. I type about 90 words per minute, but I’m aware of much faster typists. (Discovering them on the TypeRacer website was a bit deflating.) If a writer can type fast enough, that may overshadow writing ease. Also, the results might depend on preferences. I find typing less pleasurable than handwriting (but only with a proper pen).

If readers have compared pen and keyboard for early drafting, comments are most welcome.

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