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The joy in ‘writing’

By on May 27, 2011 in Food For Thought | 36 comments

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Exam period in university is a time when I have to write a lot, and it feels awkward for me. Not the exams themselves per se – that‘s a story in itself – but the physical act of writing with pen and paper. Seldom, if ever, do I resort to writing on physical material. I mostly type on my netbook, or if have to make a quick note then I bash it out as a draft text message on my cellphone. I never was the type to jot down appointments in a notebook; I meticulously log upcoming and regular events on an online calendar instead so that I can access it anywhere.

Unlike other students, especially at NTU Singapore, I never print out lecture notes. Instead, I prefer to annotate PDFs using comments, drawing tools et al that PDF readers have. This, to me, is less hassle than having to print out stacks of printing notes, remembering which ones to carry on which day to which lecture, marking key points using a highlighter…only to find mere weeks before an exam that I can’t find a particular set of notes.

(This is why I love my netbook. It is light – just about one kilogram, excellent for carrying around – and it gives me 8 hours of battery life without using wifi, 5-6 hours if I do; that’s enough to last me a ‘working day’. Running Ubuntu it can boot-up in 30 seconds, but even with Windows 7 performance is not that bad except for the longer start-up time. It’s perfect for the way I live.)

For tutorial sessions I click pictures of solutions put up on the projection screen with my cellphone or digital camera and tag them by subject when I import them in to my photo manager software; this gives me an archive of tutorial sessions that I can browse through by both subject and time. I am the type of student whom e-learning departments in universities use as model students when pitching for funding for their e-learning projects.

So when I say I feel odd writing during exams, it feels odd. Since exams come, say, once in every six months you can imagine how long I go before lifting a pen. When I have to sign receipts for card transactions, I find it a struggle to sign my own name properly. This atrophy of ‘writing’ muscles (fair to call it that?) is so bad that I need to start writing on paper at least two weeks before exams to get myself habituated. The first 2-3 days are the worst; it’s like learning to write for the first time.

Here’s the thing: I love ‘writing’, in its meaning of ‘creating text’, and I do lots of it. Obviously, not as much these days on this blog, but I’m constantly ‘write-typing’ for my private blog and for personal fiction-writing projects. I have tried to do both of these activities on paper – maintaining a (physical) diary or writing short stories / scripts on paper – and every time I have walked away frustrated. Because I don’t write a lot, I am slow at it. When I write on paper, I constantly find myself lagging behind what I’m thinking I want to write now, and this irks me. I don’t face the same issue on a text editor because I can touch type comfortably at a fast rate. (I’m not going to go into a discussion on how it’s easier to edit on a computer etc because those are self-evident.)

What I am curious about, though, is whether I have developed a preference for typing because my handwriting is bad, and, whether there is any correlation between people who have ‘good’ handwriting and prefer to write on paper as opposed to people who don’t and thus gravitate towards typing. Now, not writing for long periods affects my handwriting negatively as I have seen, but it is only making a bad thing worse. Ever since middle school my teachers have been railing at me to improve it; one particular teacher even made me do cursive writing workbooks used by primary school kids because she got fed up of trying to decipher my assignment submissions.

This is just a hunch, so to get some sort of preliminary validation I asked Aditya whether he: a) owned a Moleskine b) had a good handwriting. I asked the first because I vaguely remember him mentioning it once on Twitter. Someone who owns a Moleskine surely has to be big on wanting to write on paper, and probably does so frequently as the ‘features’ of the ‘Moleskine form-factor’ – hardbound or sturdy softbound cover, elastic band to retain loose page leaves, stitched binding for durability, etc – are designed for rough or ‘mobile’ usage rather than sitting on a desk.

He replied yes to both, but as a counter-argument mentioned that Ernest Hemingway had bad handwriting even though he wrote a lot. (Hemingway was also known to be a Moleskine user.) In my opinion, this example doesn’t disprove my hypothesis – and may actually strengthen it. In Hemingway’s time, writing on paper was the only realistic option if you wanted to record thoughts on the move. Typewriters were an instrument where you sat down at a desk to type out drafts or final versions, not to record everyday musings. You certainly couldn’t – rather, wouldn’t – want to carry a typewriter around in your knapsack. You didn’t have a choice. Regardless of how legible your handwriting was, hand-writing was the quicker and more convenient option. Is that true now, though? I realise the first part of this blog post might have been tedious to read through but I did it for a reason: I wanted to illustrate how it was possible – though certainly not by all – to live divorced from paper.

Herein lies the conundrum: given the choice of different writing mediums, do people with better handwriting prefer pen and paper, even though they may be touch-typists with high typing speeds? Aditya is but one example who conforms to this hypothesis; I have other friends who do too. What I have never seen, at least within my circle of friends and acquaintances who write a lot, is someone who has bad handwriting and still prefers paper. I am restricting this to people who like writing, because people who don’t need to record considerable lengths of text will probably use whatever medium they feel more comfortable with.

(Not related but another thing I’ve noticed: most of the people I know who match this hypothesis prefer to use a pencil or an old-school fountain ink pen – rather than a ballpoint pen – almost always ‘out of personal preference’ rather than any practical considerations. I think this is because they enjoy the stimuli these instruments provide – the distinct scratching noises, the physical feedback – that is often missing when using a ballpoint. Maybe it has something to do with ‘charm’, as ballpoints could be seen as ‘practical’ instruments whereas pencils / ink pens are for ‘pleasure’; the same way book-lovers keep on harping about that goddamned ‘smell’ as a charm factor.)

Anyone willing to prove or disprove the hypothesis, with facts or examples you know of?

Addendum: By ‘good’ handwriting I mean really good handwriting. People with average handwriting swing both ways. ‘Bad’ means really bad – I usually write about 100 words on an A4-size sheet of paper; it’s that messed up.

****

I am in Cambodia now, and over the next two weeks I plan to also visit Thailand (and Laos, if I can fit it in). Unlike my previous trips to other countries which usually were weekend getaways, this is a trip where my itinerary has a significant amount of ‘unplanned’ time, making it all the more important for my own satisfaction that I record what happens during my journey. When I’m travelling I do not always have access to power sockets (or enough of them) to charge up my cellphone-netbook-camera triad; this is okay for shorter trips as I can keep at least two of three of my devices charged to record my experiences. This time, however, I do not have the same luxuries, and not just out of necessity but other reasons that I will talk about later, I wanted to keep a notebook with me.

I have had Moleskine cravings earlier but not until now did I follow through on it and seriously went looking to buy one. I did find a rack of Moleskines at the bookstore, but I balked at the price. At about S$30, the Moleskines are half the price of a plane ticket that could fly my to some other part of Asia – and about three times the price of similar offerings. I eventually bought a ZeniTouch journal – sounds like a Korean smartphone but the packaging assures me that it is a highly regarded Swiss journal brand. Whatever. Clearly, in a Mac vs PC ad I’d play the PC guy.

I have written ten pages in the journal, with a lot of oh-boy-what-do-write-here-now doodles, but I think I’m getting the hang of this, and actually enjoying it. I don’t think this will improve my handwriting or that I will ever seriously switch to paper, but as a ‘staging’ medium where I make quick notes on the move and them flesh them out on a computer I think this is going to work out great.

If it doesn’t work out, I can always use it as a prop to appear pensive and pretentious at cafes.



36 Comments

  1. AkshatB

    May 27, 2011

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    Makes me wonder if a couple centuries down the line handwriting will become an archaic relic. I don’t write, bad handwriting.

  2. postmanspark

    May 27, 2011

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    I have a few friends from Creative Writing. They were told that writing drafts on paper first before typing it is a way to get the words to flow directly from the imagination…or something :-P

    • Do you mean free writing? Not exactly what I was talking about here. I used to do free writing at one time – on paper that is – but now I do the same on-screen.

      Or maybe you were referring to what Sahil mentioned later.

      • postmanspark

        May 30, 2011

        what Sahil said. :P

  3. Vivek

    May 28, 2011

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    I don’t have terribly good handwriting, but yes, I am a note-a-holic, especially in classes. Shall try transitioning to digital in college, but cannot guarantee a thing.

  4. Espèra

    May 28, 2011

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    I have a reasonably good hand-writing and I write in class, while taking notes. But when I go for long periods without having to put pen to paper, my hand-writing deteriorates. At that time, I prefer typing, not because my handwriting is becomes atrocious but because my writing-muscles become stiffer.

  5. sahil

    May 28, 2011

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    I don’t think my handwriting is in any way bad, and I definitely (definitely) prefer writing by hand. But I’m pretty sure that this has nothing to do with the fact that my handwriting is good – I don’t write to admire my handwriting. I can’t say whether I’d write as much by hand as I do if it was bad, but to me it’s more because I dislike being on the computer for long hours [I most certainly dislike reading long texts on screen (books, for example – I loathe e-books but then again, for more than one reason)].

    My typing speed is not slow, but I find holding a pencil and putting it to paper and recording my thoughts a lot more invigorating. In fact, I’ve found that I can rarely come up with creative pieces or well-written blog-posts if I start by typing them out; I often write them in a notebook (this seems to be changing ever so slightly of late though). There just seems to be a greater connectedness when I write by hand.

    • Have you tried any of the new breed of ‘distraction-free’ text editors, like JDarkRoom? I don’t personally use any of them, but the full-screen editor mode in GEdit works well for me. I know it sounds like a small thing but removing all the standard desktop adornments does help.

      • sahil

        May 29, 2011

        Yup, I’ve tried them. (I tried something called WriteMonkey, which is quite nice). But no, I don’t think distraction is the problem. I just enjoy writing a lot more than typing when it comes to any kind of creative stuff, I guess.

  6. Karan

    May 28, 2011

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    I have a ok-ok handwriting (It just makes sense), I can write really fast, but I still prefer typing, it is neater, and I can type nearly as fast as I can write (can’t touch-type, though).

    Which netbook do you use, btw?

    :-)

  7. Amit Varma

    May 28, 2011

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    I type on my old netbook, I can type very fast but I can’t touch-type. BTW, Which netbook do you use? I have an old Asus EEE PC and am planning to replace it…

    • I have a Lenovo S10-3. What I like about it the best – apart from the weight and the battery life – is that it’s keyboard is large-sized (‘90% full-size’, as Lenovo claims) and the keys are isolated (‘island-style’), which makes it a pleasure to type on this. I tried typing for a while on Asus, Acer etc netbooks before I bought this one and just wasn’t comfortable with their cramped keyboards.

    • The crucial bit about touch-typing is to remember there are dents on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys to allow you to get your bearings; keep your left and right index fingers, respectively, on those keys. Let the other fingers rest on one of the subsequent keys in the same row. After that, it’s trying to condition your muscle memory to remember where the keys are and which finger is closest to what. Typing in the dark helps when learning, because it forces you to try and remember.

      • sahil

        May 29, 2011

        Is it called touch-typing if I can type without looking but don’t use all eight fingers?

      • Amit Varma

        June 3, 2011

        Strange. I don’t have dents on those keys. And the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys on my keyboard are on different rows entirely. ‘f’ is in the top row and ‘j’ on the bottom row…

      • Amit Varma

        June 3, 2011

        Actually, I’m a writer based in Mumbai. First novel was released in ’07, was quite successful. Am currently working on my second novel now. For the novels, I write on a notebook. I also publish a blog called “India Uncut”, you might have heard of it. For the blog posts, I prefer to write on my blog’s post-editor itself. My writing is pretty good, and I find writing on a notebook to be much less tiring than typing. But it might also be probably because I find and hit keys, instead of memorizing the locations like you. For appointments, meetings and events, I have my blackberry.

        Good Job with the blog, btw, Keep it up! :-)

      • Ankur Banerjee

        June 3, 2011

        I see that you have a Dvorak keyboard. Those are fairly hard to come across – how did you get one? I’m guessing that you bought your netbook State-side, where it’d be slightly easier to get. I’ve no idea how to touch type on a Dvorak keyboard; although some people say it’s easier for typing I prefer the familiarity of normal QWERTY.

        Glad that you liked the blog. :) And you’re only being too humble! I follow India Uncut and I loved your first book. (Partly because I was rooting for the Bong, mostly because it’s the humour. It’s like how in this Manu Joseph piece the Bong guy is the one to crack a hilarious wordplay-based joke AND also the guy who gets the shit beaten out of him for it.) You’re right there at the top of my list of favourite Indian authors with Samit Basu, Indy Hazra, and Sidin Vadukut.

      • Ankur Banerjee

        June 3, 2011

        Oh, and I loved the ‘park towers’ joke. So brill. :’D

  8. Amit Varma

    June 4, 2011

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    I don’t know much about computers. Received this one as a gift from my cousin…

    Thanks for liking my book. I was depressed for more than a month when I got a negative reply from Chetan Bhagat about my book (“this is the crappiest novel I’ve read in recent times”), had sent him a copy for blurbs… recovered after reading reviews of other critics…

    Putting me in that list of popular writers is a HUGE compliment. Thanks! Though it’s a bit of a shock to not find Chetan Bhagat in there, he is the largest selling novelist in the history of Indian literature. (could never find time to read any of his books though)

    You are a great writer yourself. The archives tell me you’ve been writing since like the last six years. Should try writing a book yourself now!

    • About Chetan Bhagat not being on the list – selling a lot of copies isn’t everything. It’s great that he got people reading who otherwise might never have, but that still doesn’t make his novels spectacular for me. McDonald’s vs a gourmet meal.

      I’m only 21 years old, I don’t have nearly enough life experience to write a novel. :) Travelling around in South/South East Asia over the past year has given my useful characters and stories though.

      Looking forward to your next novel, sounds like a riot! :)

  9. bhavika

    December 26, 2011

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    did you never, well, doodle (before)?
    weirdly, my doodles are almost always random words and phrases.

    I think your theory is total crap, by the way. I prefer to write, but this has nothing to do with my handwriting (the good-ness of which depends entirely on my mood and the writing instrument). Maybe it’s to do with being in my college, I dunno. It’s not like I write worse on the keyboard, I’ve had a lot of practice doing that with dissertation and a hundred other typed assignments. I just think it’s lesser hassle to use pen and paper, but, then again, I’ve just realized, I rarely write-write on paper- I’m mostly note-taking or doodling or designing.

    Hmm. But I still think your theory is crap. And, moleskins are horrendously expensive but totally lust-worthy :)

    • Ankur Banerjee

      December 26, 2011

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      Uh but you’re FORCED TO do those college assignments on a computer, that’s different. When you want to doodle something, you do it on paper. I hardly ever do that; I tend to prefer to create rough notes on a computer than write them down on paper. There may be exceptions but I think based on handwriting I have found people feel more comfortable either with keyboard or paper as I mentioned here.

      • bhavika

        December 26, 2011

        There’s no forcing involved. If it’s a proper writing assignment, I’m not going to do the khulhaari and foot thing and write it all out by hand! I mean, backspace and delete are powerful tools :)

      • Ankur Banerjee

        December 26, 2011

        Okay forget the assignments for a while. What do you FEEL more comfortable writing on – paper or computer?

  10. bhavika

    December 26, 2011

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    I dunno, probably paper. But the choice of medium depends entirely on convenience for me: If I have to write something moderately long, or something which needs to be in soft copy anyway, I’ll type it out. But I’ll most definitely jot down class-notes by hand, and initial idea-ting/ sketch-designing NEEDS paper. With paper I like how quickly I can play with forms and how words look (fonts, kerning, spacing, weights), it goes directly form mind to hand to paper. While I have done the same on the computer, it definitely takes longer (but I’ll still do it on the computer if it’s for an assignment/ I want to keep it for posterity/ it’s not a random doodle). Also, I’m slightly OCD, when I need to write down something fast (like in class) I prefer writing because I don’t mind short-hand (or my form of short-hand) on paper but I generally hate abbreviations on the computer.

    • Ankur Banerjee

      December 26, 2011

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      This. This is the point I was trying to make. I remember your handwriting Bhavika, it’s pretty neat. In your place, I *always* prefer taking lecture notes on a computer simply because when I go back to them, I can understand them better. I am so much comfortable with typing that I can even make rough notes faster on screen than on paper.

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