We’ve been a little delinquent in posting new material, so I thought I’d get this semester kicked off with a short rumination on why doing some writing away from the keyboard might actually be beneficial, even in this age of digital production.
I write professionally. I’m an academic and a playwright. I know a lot of others who write for a living, but I don’t know any who write by hand. Except me.
Even this blog post. Before it was typed, it was written out—in multiple drafts—in my college-ruled, grid paper, single subject notebook. And it’s not just short works. My last 4,000-word article was written by hand. The 120-page stage play I’m working on spills through multiple notebooks.
I suspect you think that I’m afraid of technology. But I’m not. I swear. I’ve had a computer since I was five. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. (Though no matter how many times my friends try to get me to join Pinterest, I just can’t make the leap.) I own a smartphone, tablet, and multiple laptops.
To be honest, I kind of hate writing by hand. It’s uncomfortable; it’s slow; and it’s messy, especially with my handwriting. It’s a waste of paper, and it means I’m tethered to a physical notebook, unable to access my ideas from the devices I carry with me at all times. All of my other work—assignments I’m creating, articles I need to read, my committee work—exists in the cloud. I can pull it up and send it out from my phone or iPad whenever the need arises. But when I have an epiphany about how to fix that scene I’ve been struggling with, I have to wait until I get home to my green spiral-bound companion.
So why? Habit? Romanticism? Stock in Mead? I’ve thought about it a lot; I’ve even tried giving it up and doing all my writing on my computer. But, frankly, my writing is better when it’s done by hand first. For me it boils down to three reasons:
- It slows me down. Sounds terrible, right? But when I type, I type quickly, and all my thoughts tend to run together. Words, sentences, paragraphs—they all become a blur. With a pen in my hand, though, I have to think through my ideas word by word and phrase by phrase.
- It helps me revise. The process of typing my handwritten thoughts is my favorite part of the whole proves. It’s my first step in the revising process; I have to make sure that what I’m typing actually makes sense. And it helps me deal with writer’s block. Whenever I’m stuck I start typing what I have so far. That forces me to think about the issues I’m grappling with, and I inevitably have a breakthrough. When revising, it also lets me see my writing in front of me. It can’t be deleted. While I save copies of my documents compulsively—I never want to lose a previous version—having my words on a piece of paper means that they’re always there. No toggling between documents or searching through archives. And every change I’ve made is preserved. Unlike on my laptop where every deleted sentence is gone for good, I can always see my original thoughts beneath all of my red markings.
- It helps me process my ideas. This is probably the biggest reason why I write by hand. Try this: type the letter “A.” Now type the letter “B.” What’s the difference? Now write “A,” then “B.” They’re different. While typing any two letters is fundamentally the same act, writing them out requires a different physical process. And that process helps me connect to my writing in a way that typing has never allowed me to do. When I write by hand, I better remember what I’ve written, and it becomes easier for me to work though difficult ideas or problems.
I don’t want you to think that I’m saying the only way to write is to write first drafts by hand. Lots of successful writers (maybe even most) have all of their work mediated by a keyboard. What I am saying is that writing by hand is an important first step for me and that it may be something worth considering as an option, even if it seems messy, tiring, and outmoded. Especially when you find yourself frustrated with an empty white screen with just a single blinking cursor to keep you company.