Writing Slow in Order to Think Deep

When I tell people that I prefer to write by hand rather than type on a screen, they typically look at me like I’m a dinosaur. But I protest that I prefer to write by hand because it allows my mind and hand to work at the same speed since I can type faster than I think. 1 When I type, my mind is always trying to catch up rather than setting the agenda. With my caveman ways in mind, I was delighted to read Claudia Dreifus’s interview with the esteemed journalist, Robert Caro’s own practice of drafting his books by hand.

Is it true that you write your books by hand?

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.

I prefer to write by hand because I express myself better when my mind and hand are synchronized. Caro’s purpose for handwriting is a different one. He can write very quickly as he attests, but he purposefully slows down his writing in order to provide the space he needs to engage his subject deeply. Although, I have preferred drafting by hand because it feels more natural for me, it is true that handwriting allows me think more deeply about my subject.

Of course, some will probably scoff at the idea of writing by hand and all the time that is lost by re-writing by hand and then transcribing to screen. But I think Caro is correct that the practice of writing by hand does create the space to engage a subject in a more meaningful way. Caro’s interview adds another reason to why I think writing by hand is a skill that I plan to continue to use. 2

  1. Tony Reinke has also noted C.S. Lewis’s preference to writing with nib pen rather than fountain pen or a typewrite for this same reason.
  2. And yes, I wrote this post by hand before transcribing it.

2 thoughts on “Writing Slow in Order to Think Deep

  1. The blog post below reminded me that the pencil has been referred to as “the third eye.” I can’t remember where I heard or read that, but at least I remembered it! Something similar is reported to have been said by Louis Agassiz: ““That is right,” said he, “a pencil is one of the best eyes.”
    —Samuel H. Scudder’s version of “The Student, The Fish, and Agassiz” is online at Dr. David Howard, Jr.’s Bethel Seminary site at http://people.bethel.edu/~dhoward/resources/Agassizfish/Agassizfish.htm [accessed 11 JUL 2012]. Howard documents this as from American Poems, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879), pp. 450-454. Other versions of the story may be found at “The Story behind the Story of “The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz”” on Dr. David Howard, Jr.’s Bethel Seminary site at http://people.bethel.edu/~dhoward/resources/Agassizfish/storybehind.htm [accessed 11 JUL 2012].
    — Justin Taylor, “Agassiz and the Fish” (16 NOV 2009), on The Gospel Coalition at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2009/11/16/agassiz-and-the-fish/ [accessed 11 JUL 2012].
    See also:
    “A biologist once told a story about his Harvard professor named Louis Agassiz, who taught him a simple habit to help him see more than he ever dreamed. The lesson he learned is also the secret to lifelong and life-changing Bible reading: keep looking.
    One reason we see so little when we read the Bible is that we do not give ourselves long enough to look. John Piper shares the story “Agassiz and the Fish” in his new book Reading the Bible Supernaturally. In the seemingly ordinary act of reading the Bible, something miraculous happens: God gives us new eyes to see more of him — if we are willing to slow down and keep looking.”
    — John Piper, “Keep Looking: The Life-Changing Secret to Reading the Bible” video (2:56), on desiring God at http://www.desiringgod.org/keep-looking [accessed 27 APR 2017]; from John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), pp. 327-332.

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