Typing, today, is a way of life. We type, we text, we whatsapp. Our sentences are fast and to-the-point. But, does writing on-screen change what we mean?
“The mental space feels different when you work with paper,” writes Tim Parks, a novelist and essayist, for The New Yorker.
“It is quieter. A momentum builds up, a spell between page and hand and eye. I like to use a nice pen and see the page slowly fill.”
There’s something romantic about writing by hand, private even. It’s not calibrated to automatically be shared.
Plus, it sates my stationery fetish. Writing by hand, you turn off, tune in. Slip into some kind of dreamlike state. You can disconnect from all distractions. You focus less on word count of pages filled, more on story and pace.
It’s the physical making of a mark, of marking your territory.
Says author Neil Gaiman: “For novels, I like the whole first and second draft feeling, and the act of making paper dirty.”
Gaiman’s far from alone. Joyce Carol Oates wrote by hand. So did Tom Wolfe, J. K. Rowling and Stephen King. And, it’s not just novelists. Quentin Tarantino, too, is a handwrite kind of guy. He told Reuters:
"I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook -- and I don’t buy like 10. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I’m like, ‘These are the pens I’m going to write Grindhouse with.”
You can be as fast as you like. Get instant feedback, gratification … and, interruptions.
“Interruption is constant but also desired,” writes Parks. “Or at least you’re conflicted about it. You realize that the people reading what you have written will also be interrupted. They are also sitting at screens, with smartphones in their pockets. They won’t be able to deal with long sentences, extended metaphors. They won’t be drawn into the enchantment of the text. So should you change the way you write accordingly? Have you already changed, unwittingly?”
Like Parks, many worry that our onscreen convenience carries a cost.
“Is all that skimming, scrolling and flicking around electronic screens dulling our capacity for sustained attention and deeper reading?” asks a recent piece in New Scientist. “Is there something special about pen-on-paper that typing fails to reproduce?”
So, how exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read and write? And, is it not just the way but the what?
Screens are said to drain our mental resources, to distract, to make it harder to remember what we put down. It’s almost as though we approach screens open to distraction and not as committed to focus.
Many believe it comes down to touch.
Associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger's Reading Centre affirms that something is lost in switching from the page to the screen, from pen to keyboard.
The process of writing demands a number of sensors, she explains. In writing by hand, our brains are taking cues from motor actions along with the touch of pen to paper. These signals, she says, are significantly different to the ones received when tapping away.
There are some, though, who have never known differently. Digital natives brought up on touch screens and swipes. In 2011 a video went viral: we see the title ‘this one works’ and a young girl swipes her finger over a touch screen. Then, we see the title ‘this one doesn’t work’ and we see her with a magazine on her lap. She tries to swipe, to pinch, but nothing happens. She then tests her finger on her leg to make sure it’s working. The video is called ‘A magazine is an iPad that does not work’.
"Technology codes our minds," the girl’s father writes in the video's description. "Magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives.”
They, then, write their stories the only way they know how.