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Writing in the Margins: An Experiment in Creativity

November 11, 2008

This week I’m going to continue my loose theme of posts to help those who have answered the NaNo challenge. I’ll admit, this one is a bit vague in its connection to NaNo, but stay with me. I’ll get there…

Sometime ago I read an article about handwriting analysis. Not the sort of analysis that forensic experts use to verify identity, but the kind that attempts to use handwriting to aid in psychological analysis.

The paper primarily dealt with linking handwriting characteristics to personality traits. For instance, people who don’t completely cross their Ts, are said to be the type who often don’t follow through with things. However, a portion of the findings dealt with how a person’s handwriting can change based on their state of mind. When angry, people tend to write in tight angular letters, with forceful punctuation which often leave indentations in the page.

More importantly to authors, when people were in a particularly creative mood, they tend to ignore the margins, writing from one side of the page to the other. And as a creative burst went on, writers would increasingly ignore the ruled lines as well. The theory put forth to explain this, was that the margins and ruled lines are not formal rules, but societal conventions we are all taught to follow. And the creative impulse isn’t generally content to be confined by what it should or shouldn’t do.

This notion intrigued me, and over the next month or two I found myself returning to it time and again. One day, when the muse would not come, I decided to do a few warm up pages, while ignoring the margins. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I wrote well for those morning pages, but I did write freely. It felt less constraining.

I wondered if there was something to this theory, and decided to test it a little more methodically. For one week I wrote my warm up pages normally—that is with margins and ruled lines (what I later termed legible). For one week I wrote with no margins and lines (which I called free). And for one week I wrote with margins and lines, but made no effort to obey them (fittingly called rebel).

I then waited for one week, so none of it would be fresh in my mind, and reread all of it. While it would be possible to develop an objective way to measure how much creativity was present for each style, I simply viewed it all with a subjective eye. Even so, the results were startling.

While the legible pages were certainly easier to read, they also showed many more, corrections and editing marks—which at the time, I didn’t know I was doing.

The free pages were by far the hardest to read—made worse I am certain by my tendency to write in a downward arc when I don’t have lines. By the third day I had developed tendency to backtrack and squeeze stray thoughts alongside and in between what I had already written. The finished product was both more creative and less polished than the legible pages.

During this experiment I vacillated between two expected outcomes. Usually, I thought that I would find very little difference between the three styles. However, I allowed myself that if there were a “better” way to write creatively, it would be the free style.

I was mildly surprised to discover the rebel style contained by far the best writing of the three. And most surprisingly, for the rebel pages, my handwriting changed just a bit, becoming less-tall and longer. This last, according to some theories, is a sign of a mild mania, possibly indicating that part of my brain was very excited.

What does all this mean? I’m not sure. I’m not proposing that my very unscientific experiment holds any inner truth about the human mind, or even about writing. But it might show that when you break the rules a little, you’re daring the creative areas of brain into action.

When you want to be creative, there might be a better method than just telling yourself to “think outside the box.”

If you’re up for an experiment, try writing outside the box.

  1. November 11, 2008 12:41 pm

    I suspect all the theoretica about handwriting styles was more valid back when people wrote more by hand. Frankly all you could tell from my handwriting is that I use a keyboard most of the time 🙂

    The big problem for me is that I type faster than I write… so when I write, I try to write as fast as I can type, out of pure impatience. Consequently my handwriting is sloppy, illegible, poorly punctuated, and error-prone. I can do nice handwriting if I really concentrate (eg. writing a thank-you note for someone who doesn’t have email), but it’s just not natural to me any more. And I’m in my 40s and grew up with paper.

  2. karoob permalink
    November 12, 2008 12:32 am

    If you are concerned that your handwriting is unattractive, take a look at an article called Pretty Handwriting and see why some of the ugliest handwritings reveal the most talent.
    Here are two very good resources:
    and then see the wildly creative handwriting of Picasso at

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