Handwriting: Is it Part of Your Process?

I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling 

Image credit: Petar Milošević

I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.

The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill  

J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:

Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:

Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right..

I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.

What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.