Write till your ink be dry

There’s something very intimate about cursive writing. Perhaps it is the feel of the ink being spread on actual paper, or the sliding sound of contact with the pen. It is so unlike the staccato sound of a keyboard, and the immediate gratification of pre-fonted, unvarying characters on a screen does little to assuage the Ikea-like guilt of assembling some anonymously prefabricated creation.

I suppose the pride is ultimately in the idea itself rather than any help with its appearance, but still there is something lost, not gained, in an inevitably-perfect ‘z’ -the cursive appearance of which was always a surprise whenever I dared to use it. But we all adapt, and I now find that it is no longer just the ‘z’ that startles me when I attempt to fill a page rather than a screen. I know I have lost something more important than beauty in the digital migration -something of myself. I have already written about this in an essay on cursive writing not too long ago: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/09/18/the-cloth-of-words/

But perhaps what I failed to adequately convey in that essay was how deeply linked cursive is to memory. It almost seems trite to observe that the act of writing something down often seems to encourage it to be more easily remembered -as if it were being inscribed in neuronal pathways at the same time. It could be as simple as the time and effort required in cursive that -at least for note-taking in a classroom, say- requires a more thoughtful précis. And since nowadays many people can type words on a computer far more quickly than writing them on paper, digestion of the salient information requires picking out the useful bits and discarding the rest -engaging in the concepts being promulgated, rather than merely copying words verbatim onto a screen.

I was pleased to see that I was not alone in thinking like that. I stumbled across a short article on my BBC Future app saying much the same thing -only with actual evidence to support it. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191122-when-the-best-way-to-take-notes-is-by-hand

The writer, Claudia Hammond, discusses a 2014 experiment by Pam Mueller at Princeton University in which her students were told to take notes of a lecture. Half of them were instructed to use laptop computers and the other half told to take the notes using a pen and paper. The computer half tended to verbatimize the content delivered; the other half had to decide on a summary of what was important information because they couldn’t write quickly enough to capture each word.

And the result? ‘When it came to remembering facts, it didn’t matter which method of note-taking they used, but when asked to explain the concepts covered in the lecture, the students who took notes by hand did better.’ I could have told her that.

‘Verbatim note-taking involves a shallower form of cognitive processing. You can even do it without thinking about the content at all should you choose to. But when using a pen and paper you process the information more deeply because you can’t possibly write it all down. The other advantage of using a pen and paper is that you can move around the page very quickly, circling, underlining or adding extra information in the margins.’ My university lecture notes were probably only interpretable by me, but after all, that’s who they were for.

Mueller repeated the experiment but this time with instructions to the computer half not to take verbatim notes. Alas, ‘Despite the warning, when the notes were analysed, the laptop-using students still took more verbatim notes and still couldn’t answer the conceptual questions as well as the people taking longhand notes… The reason is that cognitively processing material more deeply while you listen, helps you both to understand it and to remember it later on.’

Of course, in this technological age, there’s another way to process the lecture: record it -in other words, it’s cognitive offloading. Well, ‘The advantage of not having to take notes is that you can focus your full attention on what you’re being told without worrying about writing it down, because [you] can always listen again later. But the benefit of taking notes is that it forces you to process the information and think about it in order to work out the best way of summarising it.’

And yet, it seems to me there are also other less obvious benefits at play in cursive note-taking: the effects on the person giving the information -the person talking.

I’m retired now, and am rich in years -as was probably evident from my defense of the cursive- so for most of my medical career I wrote notes about my patients on paper situated on the desk in front of me where it could be seen by the person who had sought my advice. That may sound fairly standard for the time, but I discovered a profound difference when, for the last year of my practice, I was encouraged to type my notes directly onto a computer as I was taking the history. For many years I had been able to type far more rapidly than I could write in cursive, so I did not anticipate there would be much of an effect on the interaction with my patients. In fact, I noticed one almost immediately.

Apart from the nuisance of positioning the screen on the desk so it didn’t block my view of the patient and her body language, I discovered something else: the patients were no longer watching me write. In the days of paper charts and the sound of ink scratching its way across the paper, I realized there was a totally different dynamic at play: depending on the speed at which I transcribed their answers to my questions, the momentary decisional hesitations on my part as to how to characterize their responses, the depth my pen dug into the paper, or the length of line used to underline an important point -even what kind of diagram I drew to characterize their descriptions of the ailments- these things seldom went unnoticed.

Indeed, it was almost a dance -when I slowed down, so did they, but when my pen’s activity gradually increased, the patient would take it they were on to something and continue to describe whatever they had mentioned, but in greater detail. We would both pick up speed and the dance would begin again.

Not only was I attending to their body language to gauge the accuracy of their symptom depictions, and the severity of their distress, but they, too, were watching my body language, as we both watched the cursive unroll. The whole process reminds me of something Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher once wrote: “Communication means sharing together, thinking together, not agreeing or disagreeing together, but thinking, observing, learning, understanding together. Both you and the speaker have to take the journey together.”

For me, it was a cursive journey.

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2 thoughts on “Write till your ink be dry

  1. Fascinating. It seems the nature of your communication was totally changed by the introduction of the keyboard.
    Reminds me of writing letters, which is how we used to communicate with distant friends and loved ones. There is somehow a richer texture to the handwritten communication, compared to the typed letter or email. And I suspect that also applies to pen-and-ink versus handwriting on a tablet screen.
    Maybe we are losing something that is actually important.

    Like

    1. I suppose we end up by adapting to most changes, but accommodating doesn’t necessarily involve abandoning. As retirement loomed, I made a point of explaining things with hand-drawn diagrams that seemed to interest the patients.
      I suspect it was not so much the accuracy of the depictions as the continuing interaction it entailed.
      One patient reciprocated on a subsequent visit by tbringing in a drawing her child had done to explain something to her…
      Plus ça change, eh?

      Like

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