Monday, July 19, 2010

Why a Handwritten Draft is Still Necessary for Writing Papers

There's no doubt that computers have made some parts of the writing process easier. As a teacher, I am extremely grateful that I don't have to attempt to read my students' handwriting, for example. I can require them to turn in all speeches and papers in a typed format, because our campus has a computer lab where they can do their work if they don't have a computer at home. Most computers will also tell you when you've made a mistake in spelling or grammar, allowing you to fix those before you turn in the paper (although I have discovered that not all students understand what the squiggly green and red lines under their words mean).

But while the computer may have added some conveniences, it has had some drawbacks in terms of the thinking process itself. I've only started to understand some of these, and I'm seriously considering requiring a handwritten first draft of every speech and paper I assign in my Speech and Philosophy classes. Here are a few reasons why.
  1. You can make mistakes on a handwritten draft. There's something extremely satisfying about crossing out an awkward sentence or drawing an arrow to indicate that this example should go there. You can spread out your piles of notes and grab one when you want it, or toss it across the room for a 3-point shot into the wastebasket.
  2. It allows for non-linear thinking. Typing something onto a computer monitor is a very linear process, but not all students are linear thinkers. The free flow of ink or graphite on paper can include doodles, heavy cross-outs (the kind that relieve frustration as they practically tear the paper), emotional exclamations, margin notes, mind mapping, diagrams, or any other kind of expression of ideas that doesn't flow from I.A. on down.
  3. It uses different parts of the brain. Different neuron pathways are forged through hand-writing than by on-screen writing. Even professional writers sometimes break away from the computer screen and jot down notes on character, plot, and setting, because the sheer physical action stimulates the imagination differently. For further stimulation, try writing a few lines with your non-dominant hand—your thinking becomes really creative then!
  4. It helps you discover what you want to say. According to Daniel Chandler, in his article "The Phenomenology of Writing By Hand," there are two kinds of writers: those who have fully formed ideas in their heads and simply write to record them ("Planners") and those who discover what they want to say as they write ("Discoverers"). In my experience, most students are Discoverers, and therefore must have a rough draft before they even begin to contemplate what they will turn in for their assignment. If this first draft is handwritten, it allows the student more time and more direct experience of the discovery process—simply because hand-writing is slower, and the connection between hand, pen, and paper links you to the world of ideas you're exploring.
  5. It looks like a rough draft. This may be the most important consideration. A paper that's typed up and neatly printed out looks like a final copy—no matter how underdeveloped the ideas, arguments, or communication within it might be. Many students stop there, since they have a paper that appears to be ready to turn in. At that point, the teacher's reaction (mine, at least) is often, "Did you not even read over your own paper before you turned it in?" But if you hand write it first, you have to develop ideas in a state that makes it clear that the paper is not ready to turn in. You're far more inclined to clarify your arguments, then get the paper into a presentable format.
Technology has made many parts of education more convenient and efficient. But there aren't any shortcuts to good thinking. By hand writing the first draft of a paper, students still have to move slowly through the steps of a more complete thinking process, and that's good for everybody.

This guest post was contributed by Kathy Teel, who is a college teacher, mom, and professional writer. She's currently a member of one of the fastest growing online education communities and writes on topics like education, teaching, learning, and parenting for Online Schools (