Writing SFF With Paper and Pen Spurs Memory and Creativity

By R.J. Huneke

I recently went back to something for the first time in many years: I wrote the entire first draft of two SFF works, a short story, and a novel, in longhand. There was an ease of flow to the writing that surprised me. A plethora of vocabulary jumped to the page. The memory of previous lines was prevalent, quickening my writing pace as the story grew, and the quality of the written words—the prose, oh, the prose!—sang.

But why?

Researchers for the last two decades have been exploring the benefits of using pen and paper. Writers have attested to them, too. Here are a few examples to help you decide if writing by hand is just what your own creative practice needs as well.

The art of handwriting in education contexts

An SFF writer dials into an array of cognitive processes when crafting a tale with pen and paper. Some of these processes also benefit writers in general. In 2014, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer published a study in the Association for Psychological Science that suggested not only the strength of writing by hand for greater comprehension, but also the detrimental effect of typing which could lead to “shallower processing.” Writing faster came at a cost: less time was spent on the content itself.

These results echoed concerns by AP and NWP teachers surveyed for a 2013 PEW study on digital tools and writing by hand. Almost all (94%) encouraged their students to do some writing by hand, and it was not for nostalgia. They felt that “students do more active thinking, synthesizing, and editing when writing by hand,” which could offset some problems seen in the solo use of digital technologies.

I find that I spend more time writing longhand but less time editing, as my attention to the text is keener from the outset, and the transcription process from paper to screen is an opportunity to further expound on the voice in my work.

Examining the brain on writing

All writers might have some distinct neural interactions going on, which improve with their experience with the form. Also in 2014, neuroscientists published fMRI results that suggested greater activity for seasoned writers in a region called the caudate nucleus, which is essential to cultivating a complex skill, the way that better gameplay also comes with practice. fMRI studies are notoriously small-scale with respect to sample size, but this one intriguingly suggested that writers might have more activity in neural regions involved in speech even before setting pen to paper.

And as handwriting is tangible, the “irregular strokes, and uneven shape” put on the page might offer even more complex spatial information, and cause more brain activity in areas associated with language and imaginary visualization. This was the suggestion of the University of Tokyo researchers in 2021, when they published a study comparing data retention between people using notebooks, tablets, and phones. They found higher brain activations for the note-taking group “in the bilateral hippocampus, precuneus, visual cortices, and language-related frontal regions,” which include areas known to be important for memory and navigation.

This finding was reinforced in January 2024, when researchers publishing in Frontiers of Psychology noted that “brain connectivity patterns were far more elaborate than when typewriting on a keyboard”—if, again, for a sample size of only 36 university students.

When I put pen to paper, I associate strong memories with the process, so I can quickly jump back into the creative process and pick up what my character was thinking and doing at the time I wrote about their experiences. I have typewritten entire novels where I cannot recall any scene or character easily, unless I consult my handwritten notes.

Paper is vital to the creative writing process

Neuroscience may slowly be catching on to what writers have long said feels right.

As Neil Gaiman described his first foray into writing longhand, “Writing by hand changed my head…I was sparser, I would think my way through a sentence further, I would write less, in a good way.”

That matches one of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for great writing: “Keep It Simple.” In the limited space on a piece of paper, there is literally less room for extravagance.

Still, a lot can be packed in. In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic succinctly described how the physical act of pen and pencil to paper is more conducive to the writing process than typing: “Writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process.” Simic believed that handwriting allows for the increased likelihood of inspiration, philosophizing, and elaborations of thought.

I take Simic’s advice to heart, and I go so far as to print out articles I read online for my SFF projects—I write on the page and in a notebook—and I even read real paper books as well. My story’s bones become rooted in this research, and I remember them, the specific compound thoughts and ideas surrounding them, far better when I go the pen-on-paper route.

Writing is a skill that requires practice

Writing every day, even as little as one page, helps to keep sharp, just as concert violinists need to play daily to retain their chair.

We need to keep learning in order to grow our craft and skillset in beneficial ways that expand our work. Tapping into the fantastical relies on the utilization of the creative self—what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “the breath”—and there are so many more branches of the brain that bloom organically from the pen to the hand, the heart to the page.

When confronted with a limited amount of ink and space on a page, the art needs to not just present itself, but to do so in a succinct, impactful way.

Much as I like to be verbose, I keep Gaiman’s “write less, in a good way” in mind as a mantra. In a similar vein, I aim to make Kurt Vonnegut proud.

R. J. HunekeR.J. Huneke is a proud neurodivergent author. As a journalist, he began his writing career at Newsday, Gadizmo, and The Examiner. His cyberpunk-noir novel Cyberwar was released in 2015. His SFF short story “The Ink From Mars” was featured in EM Magazine in 2023. He also founded a magazine dubbed The Forgotten Fiction that features book reviews of fiction, as well as author and artist interviews. Many more works of fiction and non-fiction are coming soon from R.J., and you can follow him at www.RJHuneke.com or on Bluesky at @rj.rjhuneke.com. He splits his time between New York and Portugal and lives with his wife, daughter, their spotted dog, and two unspotted cats.