Do you write anymore?
I don’t mean do you type.
I’m talking about good old-fashioned handwriting.
You know, that very human practice most of the world seems to have abandoned post digital revolution?
It may seem practical and smart. After all, using a keyboard is definitely quicker.
But something critical gets lost in translation.
Not just to your audience, but to yourself.
Could keyboarding be causing you to disconnect? To lose your passion?
This is why writers including J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates have rejected word processors and computers in favor of writing by hand. At least for their first drafts.
CAVEAT: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking these “handwriting people” are all just “old,” “old school,” or “stuck in their ways.” Rather, they intuitively discovered things about hand writing. All subsequently borne out by neuroscience. Once upon a time I intuited this as well. I couldn’t imagine giving up my yellow writing pad and pens of various colors. How would I think expressively if forced to type everything? Gradually, I was persuaded (shamed?) to jump on the bandwagon of modernity and efficiency. And, lo and behold, it was incredibly efficient. So fast! I got used to editing as I went along. Pretty soon I couldn’t envision ever going back. BUT…
But… after many years on the wrong track, I’m coming to understand the documented benefits of composing by hand.
Writing By Hand Offers Psychological Benefits
You can learn more about some of these benefits from specific studies here (improves memory and promotes deep encoding); here (bolsters learning), and here (advances idea generation), to name just a few.
Today I want to share six of these benefits I think you’ll find most relevant to your nonprofit work.
1. Forces You to Think about Where You’re Going
Writing by hand allows you to proceed in a linear manner rather than being tempted to rearrange words on the screen before you know exactly where your story is going.
Your train of thought can literally flow out of you, with agonized cutting, pasting and reshuffling coming after the fact.
In this way, none of the good emotional stuff gets lost. You’re in continual building mode, striving to form the thing you’re trying to create.
“Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat, one word after another.”
— Neil Gaiman, Writer
Don’t allow yourself to get derailed. You can review and assess later, deciding what’s too much or not enough.
2. Improves Thinking
Did you know at least 14 states are now including cursive in curricula after a decade where it seemed doomed to become an abandoned and outdated art? The reason?
The way you write relates directly to the way you think and express yourself.
That’s right; writing things by hand serves as a thinking tool.
“…when you can write in a smooth, no-thought-required manner, you can concentrate on expressing yourself, not on grinding out each individual word or letter.”
— Reporting on findings from University of Montreal study
Longhand writing also boosts knowledge acquisition and retention. A study on note taking via cursive vs. computer found the former to be more effective for long-term learning.
3. Improves Memory
I’m not talking about rote, but conceptual, memory. One 2014 study, comparing students who took notes by hand rather than computer, found hand writers were more likely to listen closely, analyzing for key content, processing information and reframing it in their own words. When asked conceptual questions, they were better able to answer than those who typed their notes.
Might it not be beneficial, when attempting to connect with donors better, to be able to recall important information they previously shared with you? Especially information related to their individual identification? In this way, you can better match the values your organization enacts to the values donors hold most dear.
A 2021 study shows stronger brain activity when writing on paper.
“Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize.”
— Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, Neuroscientist and Professor, University of Tokyo
4. Slows You Down, Activating a Neural Pathway
Because your hands can type faster than you think, some of your most expressive ideas may never make it to the paper. When you write by hand, you give your brain the rest it needs to unlock creativity.
Writing by hand helps you collect and connect your thoughts.
Since this writing is more mindful, it also sticks with you longer. And perhaps the same is true with those who read this writing? In fact, there’s some research showing students writing essays by hand on the SAT scored higher than those using a computer.
“Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out our letters. And this pathway, etched deep with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.”
— Claudia Aguirre, Neuroscientist and Mind-Body Expert
“The primary advantage of longhand notes was that it slowed people down.”
— Daniel Oppenheimer, Professor of Psychology, Carnegie-Mellon University
5. It’s More Emotion-Packed
Emotion creates connection, and that’s the goal of a philanthropy facilitator endeavoring to take people on a life-long journey. If your objective is writing that transforms, rather than just transacts, consider the possibilities inherent in handwriting.
“When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component stroke, by component stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.”
— Virginia Berninger, Professor Emerita of Education, University of Washington
Writing by hand stimulates neural pathways connected to emotional parts of the brain.
And guess what else? Actually seeing handwriting connects to emotional parts of your reader’s brain. If you hand write a note on an appeal or thank you letter, it’s the first thing the recipient will look at. Because it’s the most personal thing you’ve included.
6. Limits Distraction
When you write by hand, you can find a quiet space where email reminders and texts won’t constantly pop up, tempting you to interrupt your thinking and creating. Not to mention going down the rabbit hole of getting on social media, reading endless articles served up to you, or simply smoldering under the dark cloud of an overfilled inbox.
Free yourself from oppressive interruptions that encourage multi-tasking behavior.
Hopefully by now you know multi-tasking doesn’t work. For anyone.
Technology can be a blessing, but also a curse. Give yourself a much-needed break.
Give Hand Writing a Try
You can start slow. Maybe just begin with these suggested activities:
Personal journaling, which has all sorts of mental and physical health benefits to keep you at the top of your game.
Keeping a Donor Gratitude Journal, which is a way to be intentional about thanking supporters in more meaningful ways. You’ll be amazed at how this can positively shift your attitude towards your work, not to mention beginning to move towards a gratitude, goodwill, or philanthropy-infused culture.
Handwriting a thank you card to a donor, or even to a friend, rather than sending a pre-printed one.
Handwriting a note on a thank you or appeal letter, rather than letting it arrive and appear impersonal.
Taking notes on a paper pad when meeting with a donor, rather than bringing a laptop, which may be faster but won’t boost your thinking and memory.
Writing a first draft of your thank you letter using pen and paper, thereby getting in touch with your most generative, emotional thoughts.
Writing a first draft of your fundraising appeal using pen and paper, to keep the neural pathways active as you collect and express your thoughts.
Remind Yourself Why You’re Doing This:
For my recent birthday I received two handwritten cards. One from my best friend from elementary/high school, the other from my college roommate. Since these days such personal notes are as rare as unicorns, they were magical for me. Just made my whole day!
Even thinking about the special, warm feeling seeing a handwritten cartd gave me, I’m feeling a little emotional. And I’m learning something similar can happen when I put pen to paper myself. So, why on earth wouldn’t I do this more?!?!
Want to give your donors this same satisfying feeling? Want to give it to yourself?
“…there’s no replacing the feeling of spreading out a clean sheet of paper, uncapping a beloved pen, and letting the ink flow.”
— Aytekin Tank, Founder, JotForm
I’m not suggesting you write everything by hand. Simply consider where doing so may add value.
Want to Consider Other Thoughtful Strategies to Up Your Game?
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I’m a Christmas card sender (part of a dying breed), often sending brief, handwritten notes on the card. I decided in 2023 to send actual birthday cards with a handwritten message, sending it snail mail. It’s a lost art, too, but it makes me feel connected to the person to whom I am sending. I still find it fun to receive a card or letter in my mail box, too.
Thanks for sharing that parallel Tanja. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the word “connected!” If we reframe our work to ask “How might I add to this to make the donor feel more connected,” we go a long way towards building a sustainable community.