I’ve just spent the past two nights taking notes longhand from various books and websites. I’ve got notebooks full of such scribblings, deep black ink on white paper, handwriting that changes according to mood, caffeine levels, and whether or not the cat wanted attention. It’s a dramatically inefficient way to take notes: using a pen takes far longer than typing. I can’t shuffle things about in various folders on the desktop; I can’t do keyword searches. So why, in this digital age, would anyone choose a pen and put it to paper?
I can’t answer for other writers, but I know the answers for myself. It forces me to slow down, pay attention to each word and phrase, rather than skim. When one is struggling to learn alone, to draw disparate bits together and forge them into a coherent whole, make sense of things barely understood, slowing down to that degree is immensely helpful. I’ve read one of the sections I took notes from several times, but it wasn’t until I started copying out the sentences that their meaning became clear. Things began to make sense. What I saw on the page began merging with what I’d seen in the field. And when I add to those notes ones taken from other sources, and can then read them as a unit, matters become even more clear.
I notice things and question things I wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise. In one of the books I’m mining, the authors keep mentioning radioactive dates. Fine, yes, I know how that works, how ages are determined by the decay of radioactive minerals – but which ones? Was this potassium-argon, uranium-lead, something else? Taking notes longhand, walking the slow road, keeps me from missing such subtle omissions, and alerts me to where the gaps in my knowledge are. Not merely the great gaping chasms, mind, but the little cracks. And that prompts me to pay attention when something comes along to fill those cracks in later readings.
There’s also the aesthetic sense. There’s something sensual about writing longhand. I can feel the words in a way I can’t when I’m typing. Forming each letter is a kind of art. The physicality of it, the inability to erase mistakes without a trace, the gleam of fresh wet ink, brings me as close as I’ll ever get to more visual arts like painting. It satisfies the need to create something more like a drawing. And trust me when I say you’d much prefer I fulfill that desire in this way: my drawing skillz are teh suck.
Copying out longhand also puts me closer to other writers. I’m not just reading what they’ve written, but feeling it. I start to notice little quirks each author has, particular habits of word choice, signature turns of phrase. Even the strictest formal prose has an individual mind behind it. When you’re merely reading, or cutting and pasting blocks of text, or scribbling out a key concept or two, it’s easy to miss those subtleties. Not when you’re copying out each sentence word-for-word by hand. At this point, I can just about write a dissertation on David Alt and Donald Hyndman’s quirks. That kind of thing can be extremely useful to a writer. Getting a feel for how different writers employ language in prose helps you develop a style of your own. It’s another way of learning the good tricks that turn you from apprentice to master wordsmith.
And then there’s the purely practical matter of having all of these various bits and pieces collected in one place, in a form that fits easily on the arm of a chair, where they can be referenced without having to switch screens. And those notes stay collected, easy to refer back to for future missives on similar areas or issues.
Some idle thoughts have tickled my mind while I’ve been doing this. I wonder if kids a few years from now, with their pad devices, will find people like me hopelessly anachronistic. As I form the letters in my own personal mix of cursive and print, I wonder how much longer it would take to write longhand if one had never learned cursive at all, and whether anyone aside from specialists will be able to read cursive letters in the future. I wonder if any pad device with a stylus will ever allow me to do this longhand writing electronically, and convert my scribbles into nice clean lines, and if it would feel as right as this pen gliding across this paper. I wonder if I can ever train a cheap optical character reader to read my handwriting so that the next time I move, my entire collection will fit on a corner of a hard drive rather than taking up several boxes, and so that I can actually organize this crap. I mean, yes, I could scan it, but if I’m going to go that far, I want a program that will turn my notes into things I can search and manipulate, not merely stare at as one monolithic ensemble on the screen. I’d like it turned into neat and clean Times New Roman.
The way technology’s going, there’s probably something already out there, but I haven’t bothered looking for it. I’m enjoying my old-fashioned dead-tree-and-ink methods too much right at the moment. That stack of notebooks beside my chair is a nice physical reminder that yes, I’ve been working me arse off. And the cat likes them. All reasons enough, I should think, to keep on despite the glaring inefficiencies.