The virtues of the pencil

I have a thing about pencils. Most writers do. We can hold this magical instrument in our hand — like a musician with a violin or an artist with a paintbrush  — and we can create a world that didn’t exist before. And all this magical instrument requires is a little sharpening now and then to keep it working.

189320-drawing-of-hand-writing-with-pencil Despite my love of pencils however, I write on a modern invention called a computer, and up until recently, I did all my revising on one too.

But a troubled WIP that I’d revised way too many times on my computer led me to pick up a pencil and edit the old-fashioned way. I’d forgotten how different it was to look at the pages with my fingers curled around a pencil and scribble my edits instead of type them. I’d forgotten how editing by hand changed the way I viewed the story. Simply said, I’d forgotten the magic of the humble pencil.

We all know that people write less today than generations before us, which is no surprise, given the multitude of electronic devices at our disposal, and the fact that kids aren’t even taught handwriting in most U.S. schools anymore. Some people bemoan this trend, citing that the difference between writing on a keyboard versus with a writing instrument is huge. Experts say that handwriting is a complex task requiring numerous skills — feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought. These same processes don’t occur when typing on a keyboard — you just have to press the keys.

QWERTY_keyboardSome neuroscientists even go so far as to say that giving up handwriting may affect how future generations learn to read, because drawing letters by hand improves recognition. Research has found that note-taking with a pen instead of with a keyboard may give students a better grasp of the subject. Students at Princeton and UCLA who took longhand notes were better able to answer questions after a lecture, perhaps because they summarized and comprehended the material as they wrote their notes instead of typed them.

While doing my hand-edit, I rediscovered the flexibility a pencil and paper allows — scribbling in the margins, crossing things out then adding them back in again, and flipping back and forth between pages instead of scrolling up and down a screen. With a pencil and paper, it was all there right in front of me, a visual and tactile record of my edits in various stages of creativity.

I missed my old friend, the pencil.

I’m happy to see there are some signs that writing with a pencil (or pen) isn’t going the way of the rotary phone. In France, for example, students are still taught handwriting, beginning at age six. Ah France. They think writing by hand is a key part of cognitive development. Merci.

Also, pencil collector and lifelong pencil lover Caroline Weaver recently opened a store in New York — CW Pencil Enterprises — that sells numerous varieties of pencils. pencils Many of them sell out quickly.

And the ballpoint pen, first invented in the 1940s, is actually still the most widely-used writing instrument today. I bet you have one in your purse or backpack right now.

So I hope there is hope that pencils and pens will still be around for future generations. Pick one up and hold it in your hand. Voila! Your brain magically becomes the keyboard. Whoa. What a concept.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold, both from Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House. Visit her at

Michele Weber Hurwitz on Twitter
Michele Weber Hurwitz
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both Penguin Random House). Visit her at
  1. I’m a fan of revising with pencil or pen and also improvising when I’m stuck.

  2. Great post Michele. Love what pencil work produces.

  3. For a witty and warm ode to pencils, check out copy editor Mary Norris’s book “Confessions of a Comma Queen”. She even visited a pencil sharpener museum!

  4. I have a love affair with mechanical pencils. I must have fifty of them. I hadn’t thought of doing an edit by hand, but that might be just what I need to do. I am really saddened by kids not being taught handwriting. It will hurt them. I read recently that people can’t remember what they read on a computer or e-reader nearly as well as reading a book. Interesting, eh?

  5. Michele, I’ve discovered the same thing in my own writing. I can go over a story any number of times on the computer, but it isn’t until I print out the physical pages and attack them with a pen that many of the deeper revisions manage to pop to the surface. There’s just something about the shuffling of pages that provides the true RE-visioning needed for revision!

  6. Just an important reminder in this computerized age that handwriting defiantly works our cognitive skills in ways oh so important.

  7. I just wrote a blog post about the same thing!