Pen or Keyboard: A Literary Dilemma

peck typing

Is it better to write by hand or via keyboard? There are those who would argue there is a correct answer to that question, and it is not simply a matter of preference.

Our recent discussion about C.S. Lewis’ handwriting caused a recent article on this subject to draw my close attention.

In “Phenomenology of the Hand,” Mark Bauerlein, an editor of First Things, recently addressed the disassociation from one’s words that results from the intervention of the computer.

Despite all the promises made when keyboards were introduced to classrooms, he says, “Students write faster with keyboard and mouse, but would anybody say that student writing has improved in the last three decades?”

That is a subjective determination, but the rhetorical nature of the question assumes what most of us sense—that today’s graduates are not better writers than their predecessors.

The essay makes pleasurable reading, whatever your opinion.

The pen moves more slowly, but that isn’t a drawback. Like other “slow” movements (slow food, slow reading, slow art), slow writing aims for a fuller and tighter relation to the object, a nearness of mind to the language it utters.

The plodding process of “drawing” letters instead of tapping keys and telling a computer to draw them gives words greater intimacy and presence. The hand­written word is closer, and that makes a writer more deliberate with words.

C.S. Lewis’ Typewriter

Narnia’s creator did not type. He wrote all of his books and relied on his brother Warnie to type the final versions. Not that Warnie was a particularly talented typist, relying as he did on only his index fingers (the hunt-and-peck method).

Lewis sincerely appreciated his brother’s assistance converting his “scrawl” into a readable text. In 1953, he began a letter with a witty verb describing the typing process.

This will have to be an inadequate scrawl for my brother, who drives the typewriter, is away and I’ve so much to do that I can hardly write– in the double sense that I’ve hardly time and that my right hand is stiff and tired with compulsory scribbling!

You can read an interesting anecdote related to Lewis’ disinterest in typewriters on the Desiring God website.

They sponsored a Lewis-related conference, and nearly included a scene in a promotional video that could have “discredited” their scholarship. (Desiring God provides free access to the sessions of the superb conference here.)

But one scene nobody saw was Lewis at his typewriter, not because we didn’t accidentally film the scene (and delete it later), but because such a scene never happened. Lewis detested typewriters.

Some writers may be accused of being technophobes, but the truth is many are eager to embrace novel technologies. Referring to his sturdy Remington, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) famously bragged that he “was the first person in the world to apply the typemachine to literature.”

Curiously, he could not recall which manuscript he first completed on the newfangled contraption. He recalled it was Tom Sawyer in 1874, but historians have determined it was actually Life on the Mississippi, eight years later.

The First Things essay would take issue with Twain’s enthusiastic endorsement. In fact, it concludes with a rather harsh judgment.

The virtues of the computer—faster, easier, simpler—are vices when it comes to writing. The pen personalizes the labor of writing, reminding us that we are responsible for what we write.

C.S. Lewis, who advised a novice writer to avoid typewriters because “the noise will destroy your sense of rhythm,” would likely concur.

18 thoughts on “Pen or Keyboard: A Literary Dilemma

  1. I know I sometimes have to write something on paper instead of on the computer, but my handwriting is so bad that if I don’t immediately go to the computer and type down what I wrote, I run the risk of forgetting how to read my latest scrawl.

    1. I always set my monitor page view to the option that resembles a sheet of paper, and I much prefer doing my editing on printed copies of the text.

      That said, I can readily interpret my own handwriting, with rare exceptions when I scribble down something during the night on my bedside tablet.

      1. In some ways I imagine we’d all be a bit of a disappointment–or better, a curiosity–to Doctor Lewis. Still, I’d have love to have a seat near the Inklings at the Eagle and Child, even I had to eavesdrop on their conversation.

  2. Thank you for sharing your reflections on this topic. It is one that interests me a lot – I too wrote on the subject a few months back. I very much agree that the value of handwriting cannot really be measured by things such as speed and efficiency. It is better judged by its contribution to one’s creativity; often, I find, it can be far more effective in unlocking “writer’s block” than typing.

    1. And, thank you for sharing with us your own experience. That’s a great suggestion for writers to file away… that swapping the keyboard for a pen may aid them in overcoming writer’s block.

  3. I usually prefer typing, because it is faster for my train of thought. Perhaps generations these days have an ailment related more to other faults than typing vs. writing that causes their productions to ail so. That, and we are subjected to a wider range of the population being ABLE to express themselves publicly.

    1. You’re probably right. I think the outlining and idea generation that I prefer to do (along with my editing) on a physical page could be due to how it leaves my mind less fettered than I feel when typing on a keyboard.

      That said, I’m extremely glad that I can compose a first draft on my computer since it makes revisions almost “miraculously” simple.

      1. Ah, yes -outlining lengthier pieces is better on paper. Perhaps a length issue, then? I keep itching to print out by book-in-progress to organize by hand, but it would be too large.

      2. Length probably is the single most pertinent issue, for me.

        I know what you’re saying about wanting to print it all out and “handle” it. I felt that way with my doctoral dissertation. (The Master’s thesis was back in the pre-computer days… ugh.)

    1. That’s a good question, to which I don’t know the answer. I suspect they would have accepted a manuscript from an academic at that time… but it would also be fairly easy for him to secure the services of a typist at the university.

  4. Typing on a computer, writing in a notebook, none of it matters to me. It depends on where I am at. I find that notebooks are better for rough drafts and scribbling out ideas. For writing out a whole story or novel, my computer suits me better. They both have their purposes. I don’t feel like one improves my storytelling more than the other.

    1. I agree with the ease in outlining on paper and using the computer for actual composition. I hate to write much down long hand knowing I will need to transfer it to a digital form later. It’s good that you’re versatile enough it doesn’t matter to you much either way.

      You’re probably a digital native, and grew up with computers around you. Those of us who are digital immigrants tend to have less of a bond with the keyboard. (Especially those of us who suffered the brutal typewriter classes that focused on typing like it was a military regimen: f–space–f–space–f–space–r–space–r–space–r–space… ad nauseam.)

  5. Hi Rob,

    It makes me feel a little guilty that I type my work and teach my kids at school as well. However my hand and head are not at same pace so my writing is terrible. Some people just have beautiful writing.



    1. No need for any guilt feelings about this stuff. Just illustrates our normal differences.

      Yep, it’s difficult for our hands to keep up with our synapses. (And I think that’s a good thing!)

      As for the elegance of people’s penmanship… I don’t think much at all about that. Legibility is pretty much my sole criterion for evaluating hand writing. I’ve been reading some civil war letters (facsimiles) and the fancy flourishes sometimes make reading far more difficult.

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