The Secrets to Writing That You Need to Know and They’re Not Grammar, Plotting, Etc.

Writing is more than plotting, outlining, and getting your grammar correct. Research tells us there are ways you can bring more brainpower to bear if you know it exists and how to utilize it.

Writing tips are out there in excessive amounts. Yes, writers want to share what they’ve learned, possibly in a painful manner, and what they want you to avoid. It’s a wonderful sense of community, and I applaud every one of them who isn’t also trying to sell you something. There is altruism, and I encourage everyone to keep it alive.

I’ve worked in magazine and newspaper feature publishing for a decade or so, and I’ve had two books published by brick-and-mortar houses. More of my book writing efforts have been in self-publishing, so I’ve been around the block on both of those.

I don’t need to buy a book-publishing bundle, another piece of writing software (I like Scrivener), or to hear another author try to sell me another version of “the hero’s journey.” I do like Reedsy, and I recommend their videos if you want some tips. No, I get no commission for telling you about them.

But now, after decades of working as a psychologist (I switched careers), it was this aspect of my work and writing that brought me to research. No, I wasn’t researching how famous writers were fighting the depression of rejection (read my article) or handling pecuniary living stress.

I research anything that interests me, and I write about it if I think it’s shareable. Along came one article that caught my eye and my attention. I had to write about it.

Notebook or digital device?

The first thing that every writer should be doing, no matter what type of writing they attack, is deciding how they will write; literally. You may think that’s a pretty pedestrian question, but it’s central to what research tells us.

Are you going to write in a notebook, or are you going to use some type of mobile device? Even if it’s for appointments (on a calendar) or making notes or Post-Its, writing in a notebook is far superior in terms of memory retrieval. Ever lose the thread of what you meant by that note on the computer? Next time, get a pen and notebook and physically write it down.

Research has shown that our memory recognition and memory embedding are quicker and more accurate when it’s in a note that is written down in handwriting. The brain has special activation processes which retrieve all of this localized information in the hippocampus and several other areas, and even verbalized memory is better encoded here.

So, it would seem that if you are dictating your notes and then writing them from what you’ve dictated, you may be putting yourself ahead of the game in terms of keeping that material and how you want to use it in memory. It always helps to use more of your senses.

Consider what you are doing when you’re writing on a tablet or a computer. Writing requires that you hold something, like a pen or pencil, in your hand, and you have to marshal all of the muscles in that hand and the attachments to your arm. These attachments then go via nerve pathways to the brain, where it receives much richer input.

Why richer? Because you are making delicate movements instead of using a keyboard where it is not the same type of pressure and movement that you would use when you’re writing with your hand. I know this may not make great sense now, but research with MRI imaging proves that this is a superior method for memory.

Another possible reason for the superiority of handwriting over computer input is that handwriting requires a greater understanding of what you wish to retain in that writing.

Handwriting also mandates a visual sense in putting the words together on paper. Perhaps the fact that it takes longer to use handwriting for a note rather than type a note may contribute to this memory gain. You are also, unconsciously, pulling up information on how to form the letters as you write. The brain is going full force to help you.

The specific study used for this portion of this article also views handwriting as something we should not lose in our digital age.

Our results suggest that the use of a paper notebook affects these higher-order brain functions, and this could have important implications for education, particularly in terms of the pros and cons of e-learning. The expanded use of mobile devices or computers could undercut the use of traditional textbooks and paper notebooks, which may, in fact, provide richer information from the perspective of memory encoding.

Considering cursive

What medium, handwriting, typewriter, or computer, did the great authors use? If you are considering Isaac Asimov, he’s an outlier because he always used several typewriters, worked on nine projects simultaneously, and typed about 120wpm by his own admission. And Asimov wrote only ONE draft of everything. But the lions and lionesses of literature mostly handwrote their tomes.

But there’s a hybrid in the mix; Capote. He wrote and revised two drafts of everything in cursive and then used a portable typewriter for the third and final draft. Of course, he also had a favorite pencil that he used, a Blackwing 602. This pencil was a favorite of many writers, probably because of the type of lead used to aid you in that fluid cursive movement.

Margaret Atwood is never at a loss for her writing ideas, but she always begins writing the same way.

My absolute opening entry is always a handheld object with a point on one end. So it’s going to be either a pencil or a pen. And then, it is applied to a flat substance of some kind, which is usually a piece of paper but could be a piece of cardboard if one’s stuck without the paper. Or even my arm when things get really bad.

Cursive is her choice.

I think that people should carry notebooks with them at all times just for those moments because there’s nothing worse than having that moment and finding that you’re unable to set it down except with a knife on your leg or something.

After all the cursive, she switches to a computer now because she’s an admitted poor typist, and spellcheck has saved her life many times over. And you don’t have to type on computers because you can dictate via programs like Dragon Home.

Cursive writing also aids the brain in learning in addition to beefing up your memory banks. One researcher, Audrey van der Meer, said of cursive:

The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write, and hearing the sound you make while writing

A subtle sensuality might also be sparked by cursive handwriting by these sensorimotor firings, and who wouldn’t want that?

Unfortunately, the research literature on cursive as opposed to digital is limited for the most part to teaching children the alphabet and to read. Some researchers believe that reading is sufficient and cursive is obsolete. Not everyone agrees.

Taking the time to physically compose a piece of writing with a pen or pencil connects us to the writing in a way that digital technology can’t. This writing is a piece of artwork in a sense, and it demands extra time for its creation. You may type 120wpm like Asimov, but you can’t use cursive for that type of production.

Are we aiming to be like Asimov? Some people, perhaps. For most of us, we want to produce something unique, something that pulls the reader into a world of our creating. We want magic, and only a pen or pencil will be the vehicle of that effort. Why are personally penned letters or thank you notes things we want to store away? They represent the writer and that degree of personal attachment is special.

I say cursive is here to stay and we will continue to benefit from it if we only allow ourselves that leisure.

Patricia A. Farrell, Ph.D: and

Dr. Farrell is a psychologist, WebMD consultant, SAG/AFTRA member, author, interested in film, writing & health. Website:

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