Need To Get Focused? First Go Analog

Have the feeling that you do your best thinking with a pen in your hand? There's a reason for that. And a way to get that feeling from a keyboard, too.

If you take the Wall Street Journal's word for it, handwriting trains your brain.

How? Writer Patrick Rhone lists longhand's positives:

"We learn more and retain more. Creative pathways are opened up as we engage more of our senses. Forming letters by strokes, as opposed to selecting each by keys, opens regions of the brain involving thinking, language, and memory that are not opened through typing. Writing, real writing, makes you smarter."

Handwriting has had its defenders even before Facebook was making us lonely: Martin Heidegger, the uncheerful philosopher, thought that the typewriter was a homewrecker, inserting itself between the hand and the word. Pages were no longer being written, he scowled, they were merely typed. And he never even saw the new R2D2 Mac Pro.

But what is really going on here—what do you get from turning off the screens and scrawling your thoughts across a page?

As slow as it is thoughtful

Harry Marks, who blogs at Curious Rat, wrote the final 40,000 words of his second novel solely using pen and paper. This is what he learned.

1. My brain does one round of self-editing as I carefully choose my words while physically writing them down.
2. Those same words go through another filter while my brain processes what I've already written as I type them into the computer.

That method resulted in a more thoughtful and better-written book, he says. He's not alone: Neil Gaiman, he of awesome commencement speeches and awesomer books, does his first drafts in longhand. Not only does it slow him down a little, Gaiman says, but it keeps him going—he won't spend half the day dawdling with a sentence if he's writing with a pen.

But what if that's too slow?

The Hybrid Method

Marks, the Curious Rat from above, has adopted a mixed method: he scrawls his first first draft in a gigantic Moleskine notebook, using the cheap and classy Pilot Hi-Tec C Pen. Then comes the hybridization: he uses Scanner Pro, an app from Readdle, that turns your iPhone into a scanner, to back up his notebook. Then the handwritten prose gets transcribed into a word processor.

Why the time-instinsive process? "I've learned the only things worse than procrastination are distractions," he writes, "and if I'm going to overcome them, I need to cut them out of my life as much as possible."

Which brings us to the center of the matter: writing your ideas out in a notebook or on a whiteboard gets you away from the beeps and bells of the screened-in world. Unplugging helps you focus and do slower, more thoughtful work, which is a good fit if the task at hand emphasizes quality more than speed.

But can you have the unplug without the unplug?

Kittysneezes scribe Richard J. Anderson has a workaround for getting the unpluggedness of the analog workflow without actually unplugging: enter the iPad, keyboard, and Drafts combo.

I’m typing this up in my neighborhood coffee shop, on a lovely, warm Saturday afternoon. Here, I’m able to go into a different mental state, free from the distractions of home. My mind goes entirely into my writing the text on the screen in front of me.

It's like unplugging without actually unplugging: rather than being driven to distraction by your gadgets, you drive them into productivity. Like Thoreau quipped, don't become a tool of your tool.


[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]

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  • Tilla Brook

    I use a combination, depending on the task and the mood. I write headlines/topics in pencil. I write on post-its and move them around to make a plan. I mindmap in colours, often on old flipchart because BIG helps me think and I'm standing up. I dictate to Dragon NaturallySpeaking and I type (like I am doing now). The more we can access all the functions of the brain the better the end result.

  • Amelia Robin King

    Great article I totally agree. Since I'm writing on my notebooks again I feel more productive and secure. Editing It is way more easy.

  • HighFashionAverageWoman

    Sometimes I think that people who have to insist on using technology like being contrary--that they have to assert their hipness by eschewing the analog world in which they may have been raised.  As a blogger, freelance journalist, and budding fiction writer, I do both analog and digital, depending on what I'm writing.  Blogging, done on machine, is quick, light, and linked.  I don't like to draft in longhand pieces will need links anyway.  Simply go to the source and do it in one swipe.  But articles need germinating time, and fiction is definitely analogue for me.  I need the words to have rhythm that doesn't come with taptaptaping on a computer.  Typing has its own rhythm that can, for me, take away from the rhythm of words that are coming from the mouths of characters that exist in a liminal space.  To make the liminal real, there must be a touchpoint in the real world. that's pen to paper. But that's just my process.

  • missmeliss55

    Speed is another overlooked benefit of analog writing or using a paper journal. It takes just a few seconds to jot something down, rather than switching to a digital word processor or opening up a notebook app on your smartphone--the latter of which can easily lead to distraction! (You open up another browser window, become engrossed in your personal calendar, etc.) Paper is always there, ready to use. The Accomplishing More With Less Workbook and Workshops offers some more excellent productivity tips and strategies along these lines:

  • Mark Mercer

    Problem solving, planning - I need to write on paper. For what little fiction writing I do, all still unpublished, I need to do the same for at least snippets, dialog inspiration, big ideas. Mind just engages better. Putting it together, sure, on a computer.

    When I was facing what seemed to be an intractable cluster of interrelated problems about a year ago, I went out and bought a notebook, and cleaned out my too-long set aside fountain pen. It helped.

  • Nathalie Lussier

    I'm a huge notebook-a-holic, and have recently fallen in love with handwriting again. The stuff I write longhand tends to be different from what I type, almost as if there are two different writing personalities inside me. But I'm really digging it, and this article confirms that exploring the analog side of writing is worth it! Thank you. 

  • James @

    Really enjoyed this article, thank you Drake! Extremely tight and well-written, chock full of juicy content. I'll definitely be taking my reporter's notebook down to the park this evening for a brainstorming session!

  • Susan

    Terrific article!  We forget that handwriting engages our muscles and that taking notes is still the way many of us learn. I've written all my books with "recycled" paper (used on one side) and #2 pencils(this is one instance where being #1 is not optimal) with a good sharpener by my side.  Books sell because of their appeal...not because of the hardware and software used to create them.
     Happy to add Neil Gaiman to my list of analog cohorts that includes Nelson De Mille, JK  Rowling and Neil Simon...and I'm sure many more.