Slow writing and the joys of the pen

To write by hand or write by machine, that is the question. And I am not the first to ponder it. Here is what I decided works for me.

Being able (and willing) to write by hand is one of a writer’s greatest assets and joys.

Many people will dispute my assertion that writing by hand is a joy. Those people—and I count most of the people I know among them—proclaim that writing by hand hurts. That it’s tiring. That it takes effort.

Cry me a river, you guys.

Is writing by hand actually more cumbersome?

If you’re an accomplished typist, as I am, it can be easier to assume that typing at the speed of thought is easier and less effortful than writing by hand. Which it is, if you’re only thinking of the act itself.

In fact, the act of writing requires a bit more than just the doing.

I’ll show you.

An example: Start writing (by hand vs on a computer)

To write by hand, you open a notebook and pick up a pen. Commencement: maybe 30 seconds.

To write on a computer, you have to turn the machine on, open an application, find a file (or start a new one), and sit in a space and begin to type. Commencement: between 1 and 5 minutes depending on your machine.

Probably, the idea that computers are better is force of habit and conditioning

Writing by hand keeps your material automatically. Writing by computer is subject to power and stability. If you don’t save it, you lose it. And if you save material in an application or format that disappears, you’ve got absolutely no recourse. This is why the battle between digital and paper isn’t a clear-cut matter. The pain of booting a computer up and saving and backing up files doesn’t end once you hit an archive. If you intend your files to stand the passage of time, then you have to consider the longevity of media and of software, too.

Importantly, if you find handwriting to be cumbersome or difficult, it’s likely a result of spending all your time on machines rather than on paper.

This would be why, for example, many older writers still write by hand. And why many younger writers write on a machine.

It isn’t just that pulling yourself away from a machine can be very difficult, particularly if you have a dopamine addiction. It’s that this is what feels easier to you, because you might be on one all day anyway.

Fascinatingly, this is also why working in an alternative medium can be so brilliant.

I’m not the first one to write about this debate, and nor will I be the last

Many studies have shown that writing with a pen beats writing on a computer, when the question is ‘what is better for learning retention?’.

While some writers point out that handwriting naturally drives conciseness, others (like Quentin Tarantino) revel in the exact opposite: In the luxury of being able to sprawl a story out to see where it goes. Tarantino describes his stories as demanding attention, and that this is what pen and paper afford him.

In The Guardian, Lee Rourke describes the act of writing on a computer as being akin to ‘filling out invoices’, of being bored by the sound of it, of notebooks enabling him to work whenever and wherever he chooses.

In Writer’s Digest, Elizabeth Sims pondered whether writing on a computer holds writers back. In her investigation, she explored every type of writing medium she could find, from pencils to feathery quills and steel-nib pens. Her discovery was that for first drafts, pens win. For everything else, technology please!

I’m sure that as I write this there are hundreds of others pondering the same thing. Yet I was reminded of something I read this week (oops, didn’t keep the source) in which an author (whose name I don’t remember) stated that people have been writing books by hand for centuries. So, actually, the technology is the digression.

Anyway, it’s a deep rabbit hole, and a fun one to go down at that!

This week I made a firm decision to write my first drafts by hand.

While my husband may claim that I do this because writers I admire do it, he would only be partially correct. The truth is that writing by hand is a great joy for me.

Last week I went out and bought new, A4 notebooks—themselves a joy to write in because of the sheer volume of space they afford—and began crafting the second Integration Project book. Other works of mine, including the long-simmering propaganda work, various short fictions, and flash fiction, are also kept in an array of hardcopy notebooks.

Writing by hand connects me to my work in a way that I don’t feel when I write on a screen.

My fountain pen (yes, truly ‘pen and ink’) gives me the ability to just zone out and get into the flow.

With a notebook, I am not tempted to look at anything else. I don’t need apps to keep me off the internet, or out of my emails.

With a pen, I can sit and scribble a few words, even if all I have that day is five minutes. The idea that you have to block time for writing is bullshit, in my opinion, unless it’s your job. For example, I block out five hours a day for writing client projects; but for my own it’s a snatch-and-grab.

The thing that is perhaps of most value is that working on the second write becomes a mode of dual function: On the one hand, reviewing what I’ve done, while rethinking it and rewriting it. Except the rewrite happens on a screen.

Perhaps critically, at this juncture in my life, I realised that writing in a notebook is something I can do while sitting in bed. Once I’m an adept breastfeeder, I will be able to feed and write at the same time. While it’s lovely to have a Writing Place in which to do this thinking and working, my life is going to change in a few months, and the thing it will demand is flexibility. Notebooks and pens afford me that flexibility where sitting at a desk simply cannot.

If you’re reading this wondering why I don’t just work on a laptop, it’s because there is just as much hassle with a laptop as with this desktop machine. The key difference is that this machine has a dedicated function and is less likely to lose my work than the laptop. It’s less cumbersome, it’s in a space dedicated for writing (with the psychological benefits that this affords), and it has the software I prefer. Laptops, in my experience, can only be briefly trusted… and you still require two hands so you can write!

Writing by hand brings the craft back to writing, too.

Writing is both an art and a craft. It’s a moment of concentration and release. It’s a beautiful, isolating, magnificent moment of intangible creation.

With a pen, you are reminded of how organic this process truly is.

All of this is why, when young people tell me that they want to do a degree so that they can write, I tell them to skip the degree and pick up a pen. To a man, they snigger derisively. But honestly, that’s all there is to it.

Writing has become a process that is as complicated as the technology will allow us to believe it is. There are cloud platforms, research tools, software of all kinds. Many people believe that they need the Right Program so that they can work. Granted, software can afford you a brilliant level of organisation for all of your parts. But you can do that with a pen and some notecards too. The difference is that the former tells you what to do, and the latter forces you to work it out for yourself.

As a creator, I don’t mind working it out for myself. It makes my method stronger, which benefits me as an artist. And without relying on technology with which to produce anything of note, I retain the ultimate flexibility. If the world went to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, I can still write.

Ah, the beauty of a pen!

In summary

Writing by hand is something that I’ve chosen to do for my first drafts, for good and solid reasons. It feels good, it enables me to work whenever and howsoever I choose. But don’t take this as an exhortation for you to do this: You need to work the way that works for you.

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