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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

July 5, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Why in the world I hand-wrote my emails – and what it taught me about how we write

We write SO much, but is it what we want? The responses of 70 people to the question, "What, if anything, would you write more?"  are represented in the word cloud above, with larger words showing up more frequently in responses. (Image made at Wordle.com)

We write SO much, but is it what we want? The responses of 70 people to the question, “What, if anything, do you want to write more?” are represented in the word cloud above, with larger words showing up more frequently in responses. SEE MORE RESULTS BELOW (Image made at Wordle.com)


(Want to read this column in my own handwriting? Click here.)

Ever stop and think about how much you write?

The technologies of the last 20 years have produced “a foaming Niagara of writing,” as tech author Clive Thompson put it in his book “Smarter Than You Think.”

How much writing is that? About 3.6 trillion words a day, he says, the equivalent of 360 million books. And that’s just counting email and social media.

Think of our billions and billions of texts.

I wanted to get a more tactile feel for my share of this digital mother lode. So last week, I did something crazy.

The experiment: Handwrite every email, tweet, text and status update I sent for two days...

The experiment: Handwrite every email, tweet, text and status update I sent for two days…

I wrote everything by hand.

Every email and every tweet, every text, status update and comment I scribbled on one of our neglected small notebooks, photographed with my phone and shipped off as an image to its intended audience.

I wrote, shot and shared more than 130 handwritten messages over two days — long and short, professional and personal, public and private.

I didn’t do it because I like handwriting, though I do. I did it to hack my brain. To make it slow down and notice the flurry of digital mutterings it writes and sends so easily, they barely register as mutterings at all.

To explain myself to my recipients, I added a URL that linked to a description of what the heck I was doing — http://bit.ly/whybyhand — and figured I’d open it up. I invited people to share their take on their own writing flurries.

And what do you know. Dozens of people did.

We’re living in a powerfully chatty world. And at the close of my two-day experiment, as I read through this collection of writing self-diagnoses and mused on my own, I realized something.

When it’s so easy to write so much, it can get even harder to write what you want.

Three-quarters of the 70 people who answered my questions say they’re writing more now than they were 10 years ago, with nearly a third guessing their output is at least triple what it was.

No surprise, considering the sweep of smartphones, digital-based work and the million channels and connections that pull words out of us we never knew we had.

“I kept my thoughts in my head 10 years ago,” wrote Anna Coghill. “Now I send them to friends.”

writewhatyouwant

Not everyone has a happy reason for why they’re writing more.

“Precisely because everyone else is,” wrote a respondent named Leon.

But it was another question I asked — one I ask myself all the time — that was most revealing:

Is there anything you want to write more, or less, than you do now?

Just about everyone agreed on their biggest writing hog.

“Email is an absolute menace,” wrote Bradley Steinbacher.

As for what they could write more, just about everyone craved something. And most craved the same things: more creative, thoughtful, meaningful writing. More contemplative, focused, deep writing. More journaling. Blog posting. Story writing.

And the same jerk is still getting in their way.

Time.

“I’d rather be blogging and sharing creatively, but I spend a lot of time just answering unnecessary emails,” wrote Charlie Wilson.

“I’d love to be writing an actual story instead of my mundane thoughts,” wrote Paul West.

“I find writing longer messages — blog posts, specifically — to be more difficult than before,” wrote Ann Peavey.

Many people who saw my handwritten notes sent back some of theirs, like this one from Elizabeth Clawson (@eclawson on Twitter).

Many people who saw my handwritten notes sent back some of theirs, like this one from Elizabeth Clawson. SEE MORE BELOW…

“All I need is to set aside time,” a woman named Ania wrote about starting a journal. “Nooooo problem …”

As for me, sharing my scribbles put me in delightful conversations. When people responded by digitally sending me their own handwritten notes, it put a new signature on everything we said.

But having to jot down messages I normally type hardly slowed the rush to send them. My hand was tired, my notebooks were confused, and my phone’s camera roll showed a sea of paper tinged gray with either bad lighting or my phone’s own shadow.

To nostalgists who’d love a return of the written word, trust me. We don’t have time to write what we want.

We have to make it.

“More loafs, less crumbs,” wrote one respondent.

“The oven is preheated, I just need to bake.”

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.


The #whybyhand experiment: It was a lot of fun to see how people responded to my sudden stream of handwritten messages. Below, a breakdown of how much more people believe they’re writing now than they were 10 years ago. And then – some of the handwritten tweets people sent my way.

Big thanks to everyone who joined in!


Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 6.21.04 PM


Below are just some of the handwritten messages people tweeted my way during last week’s whybyhand experiment…


And here it is, this column in my own handwriting. Hope you can read it :)

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Comments | More in Column, Conversation, Habits, Nostalgia, Seattle

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