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Writing or Typing? It Seems to Matter

Edited notes of Walt Whitman– Library of Congress

Would Shakespeare’s prose scan differently if he had used Word?

In the Preface of his recent 700-page presidential biography Barack Obama observed that writing only works for him if he lays out what he wants to say in longhand. With his natural fluency he notes that “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.” This is certainly a minority view these days, but this observation should give the rest of us some pause. He may be correct. Those of us who insistently invent our rhetoric at the keyboard should wonder if we have turned ourselves into typesetters first, and conveyors of significant meaning only when we can see past the instant formalism of text in pixels. Compositing in the frame of a word processor is its own satisfying act, but perhaps lets us drift away from the hard work of creating ideas worthy of the attention of others. Would Shakespeare’s prose sound differently if he had the use of Word? And what about Walt Whitman? His crossed-out scribbles seen in early drafts suggest he would have loved the ability to instantly copy, erase and edit.

And then there is the problem that some of us have that we cannot always read what we wrote. We need the help of a word processing program. The President probably did not have to transcribe his words into print. Others surely helped, and probably nudged a few errant nouns or verbs to their rightful places. But his point still stands.


We may not internalize ideas as well if we are typing them out.

One reason the choice of composition in longhand or at the keyboard is interesting is because we have some evidence that students are better notetakers if they are not using their laptops. Indeed, more university professors ban them from their classes, partly because of convincing research done at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere. These early studies suggest that we don’t internalize ideas quite as well when we are keying them in to a digital device.  The effects that play out here are a bit more subtle and complex, but we are generally more engaged when we must put thoughts down on the surface of a page.

I suspect that when we write in longhand, we look to our minds to reword what we have heard. That moment may be key. It means we have engaged with a topic differently than if we drift into a mode that is akin to taking dictation. An idea has gotten its hooks into us anytime we try to reword or simplify it.

Remember typewriters? I’m duty-bound to report that my best class in junior high school was–of all things–typing. My fingers could fly over an old Olivetti with few errors. But copying from the typing manual let my mind drift elsewhere. I had no idea what I was “writing.” Forty-five words a minute was not a problem, but this was a kind of dexterity more more akin to modern game-playing than engaging with ideas.

Now, as I wrap up a book, I have a disquieting reminder from the 44th President that I might have sometimes used my brain more than my mind.