GUEST POST by Joe Pace: Paper or Plastic; Notebooks, Keyboards, and the Writer’s Brain

The debate chirps on between the print-mongers and the hip cats with their Kooks and Nindles. I’ve always been a print man; I can’t bring myself to read anything more than a newspaper article on a screen. Even that, I suppose, is a concession, and selling books in digital format has forced me to accept the validity of the virtual word. Read however it suits you, I suppose, though there is something to the heft and permanence of the printed page, the texture and scent of it. Yeah, I would have been a cuneiform guy back in the day.

There has been extensive research on how the brain engages with different media, with hard copy or digital, and the bulk of this has related to reading. Yes, it appears, people’s minds do process information differently based on the format it which it is presented. That’s not a value judgment, as noted above, but simple science. A fascinating 2013 article in Scientific American explores the notion that our brains perceive the written word in the context of object recognition, navigating a landscape in which the tactile experience is an important component. Studies have suggested that comprehension and retention of information may be compromised by forgoing tree pulp for electronic bytes.

More interesting to me is whether the difference that researchers have found in reading format extend to the act of writing? There is evidence that it just may. A 2010 Wall Street Journal article discusses how the very act of writing by hand trains the brain. Interestingly, there appears to be a hard-wired relationship between the brain and the hand when it comes to creative composition. When we type, we select a key that produces a whole letter. When we write, we form sequential strokes that build a letter. This process apparently is a vital key to accessing our memory and language areas of the brain.

Beyond how our brains process the act of writing, are we losing something intimate and personal when we swap the notebook for the keyboard? As any fan of the forensic or courtroom drama television genre would tell you, our handwriting is as uniquely ours as our fingerprints. Not so the fonts on our computer.

As for me, I find that when I have pen in hand my mind operates differently than when my fingers rest on a keyboard. When I’m typing, the words appearing perfectly and Times New Romany on that Word Document, it feels like finished product. It feels like it has to be zero-defect. It feels like the punctuation and spelling and grammar and spacing has to be right.

Maybe it’s the silent chides of those pesky green and red underlines, tsking at me (as they just did about “tsking”). Maybe it’s the recollection of my earliest attempts to write with an actual typewriter (yes, kids), back in those groovy 80s. Typing was an unforgiving environment, and it still feels that way. It’s inhibiting. It’s less creation than stenography.

With a pen (or in my case, usually, a blue flair) and a notebook, I am liberated. I cross things out. I scrawl. I make marginalia. Arrows. Underlines, circles, secret symbols denoting enthusiasm or mental shrugs. It feels like I am writing, like I’m vomiting the contents of my brain into a pan and scrabbling about for tiny golden nuggets to separate from the mud. I can’t help it (the vomiting or the affinity for paper). It’s the difference, to me, between watercolors and MacPaint.


JOE PACE is a writer of science fiction and historical fiction, seeking to weave classic sci-fi adventure with political intrigue and memorable characters. His debut novel Minotaur was published in 2012. The first volume of the Harvest trilogy, Lost Harvest, was released in 2015, and the sequel, Against the Stars, is scheduled for release in 2016.

4 thoughts on “GUEST POST by Joe Pace: Paper or Plastic; Notebooks, Keyboards, and the Writer’s Brain”

  1. thewitandthewhimsy says:

    Interesting. I’ve found that I think better when writing if typing on to a keyboard. I find it easier to write that way. I find using a pen and paper what comes out is more disjointed, less fluid and makes less sense when reading it back. Yet I’m of the generation that grew up with pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen

    1. bstaveley says:

      I agree with you when writing fiction, although I’m in Joe’s camp when it comes to poetry. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine writing poetry on a computer, probably because each line goes through so many iterations, and I want to see the whole messy history of thing right there in front of me…

  2. janschubert says:

    I wonder if some of the difference has to do with a writer’s facility with a keyboard. I learned to type on a typewriter but it came very easy to me (my Dad could type like a maniac on a manual typewriter!) and the computer keyboard was even better. I see and type whole words, not letters, at over 80 wpm and it is as if my fingers just know where to go. I don’t even think about it. I always found handwriting legibly to be a challenge and typing freed me. I can type as fast as I can think of what to write.
    This would make some interesting research, teasing out what makes the difference!

  3. bluewhite1245Joe Pace says:

    I hear the appeal of convenience with digital readers. Friends of mine who commute on train or bus swear by them, and for my wife overseas in the Army, it’s pretty much the only way for her to have lots of books at hand. I’m a tactile guy, and the medium is part of the experience for me. What I found most fascinating was the brain research suggesting that how we construct and perceive language is affected by how words are presented to us. It may be that the auditory/visual processing divide is mirrored with digital/print. I suspect were just at the leading edge of what science will discover on the subject.

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