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.

The Dreaded Daily Word Count

By Chris Stewart

Open any book on “how to write,” and somewhere you will find a discussion of how many words you should write every day. Forget the struggle to get ourselves to the paper or the computer every day, now we have to produce a certain number of words?

Me? I don’t write every day (Quick! Call the Writer Police!), I don’t do 2,000 words, and you don’t have to either. So what’s the pace you should aim for and how do you figure that out? I’ll show you.

Rather than order yourself to write a certain number of words a day, here’s your free entry into the Design Your Own Word Count program.

find your daily word count in three easy steps:

  1. Give yourself an easy word count limit, say ten words. Ready? Go. And… stop. Hurray! Congratulations, you’ve met your goal. You’re free to go do the laundry or have some ice cream. Your choice.Seriously, note how you’d feel fairly ridiculous if you stopped there. Remember that feeling and keep writing. Check in whenever you find yourself pausing and see if you still feel that way (i.e., lame, lazy, if you’re laughing— picture yourself telling a writer friend, “I wrote 27 words today, isn’t that awesome?” Picture the look on their face). Now, keep writing.
  2. As long as you feel interested and excited in what you’re doing each time you check in, keep going. Even if you’re nervous and a little scared, keep going. Those feelings will propel you past superficial writing about how much you’re looking forward to that bowl of Ben & Jerry’s.
  3. When do you stop? When you first notice you’re controlling word and image choice. When you notice your thoughts turning negative. When you feel yourself sliding downhill into the Tar Pit of Despair. Dig in your heels and turn your eyes back to the sun (your page or computer screen). Look what you’ve accomplished! It’s important that you end the session still feeling positive and excited about what you’re writing.

Hemingway always stopped at a place where he could leave himself something to start with the next day, something to look forward to. Do the same. Jot down where you want to pick up the next time and stop. Work your way up to the count that feels right, through practicing the above exercise. The amount of time you spend lost in your enthusiasm (sometimes even the nervousness) for what you’re writing will get longer and longer the more you stick with it.

We all really love writing. It’s not the act itself, it’s the fear that everything we produce will stink and everyone will find out. Pssst, let me tell you a secret: everybody writes garbage. I’m including the greats too.  Some publisher should dig up some of this bad writing from the best writers of our time and publish it. It would make us all feel better.

Here’s another tip—Stop trying to impress the people in your head. Whoever they are. Who cares what they think? This is about discovering what interesting things you have to say, what visions are in your mind’s eye. Maybe they don’t come out as polished as you’d like, but they are still important. You’re not going to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel right out of the gate. Give yourself a break. Just get it on paper. You can fix it later in the editing process. If you’ve got a blank page, you’ve got nothing. Can’t give a haircut or new hairstyle to a person who is completely bald, right?

I’m giving you a free pass to write garbage. In fact, that’s your first assignment. See what truly awful stuff you can write. I dare you.

As for writing every day: Promise yourself you’ll write three or four days a week and stick to it. If you end up not writing for a week or even two months, and the next time you do you really enjoy it—and end up writing for two weeks straight before taking a break—I’d consider that a successful writing practice.

I believe what keeps you writing is that electric loss of self—when you’re inside the experience, flowing with your thoughts and vision—even if that feeling only lasts for ten minutes.

It’s the process, not the product. Stop when you’re still feeling good. Leave yourself wanting more.

By the way, the word count for this article is 793. Not 2,000 but who cares? What matters is: I wrote today. Did you? More importantly: did you have fun? Good for you. Write it on a Post-it note and slap it on your computer screen. Make sure you use lots of exclamation points. You deserve it.

Christine Stewart is an artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore. She has an M.F.A. and M.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She mentors and leads private workshops for adults and teens, and has taught writing in the extension programs at Los Angeles Valley College and Pasadena City College in California. Christine Stewart has a Website.