The Long and Short of Writing Longhand
Posted by: Daniel Kraus
That’s me, age 10, working on Foul Play, a novella about an evil pro baseball team. I’d been writing stories, longer and longer ones, for a good five years by then, and though my pencils, sharpener, and spiral-bound notebooks had held me in good stead, I could not transition quickly enough to our family’s brand-new, futuristically taupe-colored Apple IIe computer. Gone were the notepads with their blue-lined cages; gone was handwriting with its multitude of flaws. (I was literally sick the week they taught cursive.)
Back then, the computer screen was black, the typeface green. But the blinking cursor — that impatient “Well, what are you waiting for?” — has not changed much in the subsequent decades. Over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated to see a small but noticeable number of authors going back to longhand. It is a process so physically and emotionally different from typing in front of a screen that it almost must produce different results — and from a writer’s perspective, that’s exciting.
I haven’t had the guts yet to try it, but the below authors have. It’s impossible to read their comments and not want to give it a shot. I especially urge you to stick around for Joe Hill’s essay at the bottom. It’s a bit longer than the rest, but well worth the read. And he wrote it, of course, longhand.
I write longhand on graph-lined Rhodia pads — specifically Bloc Rhodia No. 38, the pages of which are long and wide — and write with Pilot Precise V7 roller ball pens. I’ve worked this way for as long as I can remember. The Rhodia allows me to move around at will, as if on a computer, so that if I get stuck, I can just scoot over and start something new elsewhere. But because I’m still writing on the same page, I can always reference what I’ve abandoned, in case I want to crib from it a sentence or a thought. And if I have a random thought, I can jot it down somewhere else and then come back to it — and there’s room for that.
Writing longhand allows me to sit and think without a screen blinking at me. I need that. The long blank page reminds me that I’m not likely to write an entire novel in a day, so why not just calm down and concentrate on the sentences. Why not try to make the sentences — a few of which I can finish in a day — as good as they can be?
The only drawback to writing longhand is its secret strength. It slows me down.
–Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
The choice is simply a matter of convenience for that day’s location. If I’m in my house, I type. If I’m outside or in flight, I go longhand. Most of my books are written through a combination of the two.
The two freeing aspects of the longhand part of a book are that 1) I am disconnected from tech disruptions (email, Twitter), and 2) it enables me to write without revising.
When I type, I revise as I write. It’s cleaner, but slower. Longhand is faster — annotated, arrows, dashes, scratch-outs — and often it reads more like scene direction or rough idea than actual prose.
–Melissa Marr, Wicked Lovely
From the beginning, from the time of my first novel and before, when I wrote poems, I have preferred to write my initial drafts by hand, in big journals with lined and numbered pages. The draft goes on the verso, its revisions and corrections on the recto, where they have plenty of room.
For about two decades, I wrote this draft in pencil, and was fetishistic about the brand. (Early on, Staedtler, which are German, tough, and hard-working; more recently, Palomino Blackwing, which are Californian, gentle, and more or less perfect.)
More recently, I use pens, fountain and rollerball (Visconti, Italian and elegant), which allow me to vary the color of the inks. I like the “made by hand” quality of these manuscripts, the record of micro-change they leave behind, and the way they permit an extra layer of revision during the process of typing up the mss.
–Peter Straub, A Dark Matter
I am a longhand writer. Not for every project, mind you, but my most recent books (one out, one pending, and two in their trial-by-fire before landing on my editor’s desk) began their existence in the quietness of paper, the intimacy of covers that close with a snap.
Writing longhand, for me, is far more sensual than typing — which, more and more, seems cold and detached to me. Like kissing a robot. Writing longhand turns the writing process into a touchy, loving thing, and I am a touchy, loving person. Always have been.
Also, I love walking into my office with no electronics, no distractions. Just slippers on my feet, tea on the desk, and a story in my fingers. I love the scritchy sound of the pen on the paper. I love the fact that I am forced to slow down — to breathe as my characters breathe, to worry over my inscrutable handwriting after a long day of writing, and to unwind the story like a long, tangled thread.
–Kelly Barnhill, The Mostly True Story of Jack
Over the years, I’ve come up with lots of reasons for writing longhand. It feels freer. I can doodle. I get an extra round of editing while transcribing. More than anything, though, it comes down to the fact that my handwriting is poor enough to hamper re-reading as I write. This keeps my attention focused where it should be: on the next word.
–Antoine Wilson, Panorama City
Even before I became I writer, I always wrote things longhand — I even wrote all the drafts of my dissertation longhand. I have always felt like a blank page is comfort and possibility, whereas a blank computer screen, with that damn blinking cursor, is judgment: “Have you written anything yet? Now? How about now?” Ugh.
But also, as physical act, I prefer the sensation of writing longhand. I like the feel of a pen in my hand, the way it moves over the paper. I like being able to choose the right color ink for the story, or to use variations in ink color to mark progress, revised sections, things that happen in different timelines.
I like the way writing longhand slows me down just enough to think about word choice, to hear the way the words sound together in a way that gets obscured by the clinking and thud of the keys as I type. (Though if I know I need to write a scene that is particularly difficult for me, I do sometimes draft that on computer, because I can type faster than I can reflect on what it is I’m typing, and sometimes that’s useful.)
Things are less gone when I write by hand — I’ll put a line through sections that aren’t working, but there’s no click to delete. I get the benefit of the first edit being the transition from notebook to computer, and I get the benefit of stories being only thing being accessible in my notebook — it’s the low-tech equivalent of Freedom.
–Kat Howard, “Painted Birds and Shivered Bones”
I had been working on different versions of what would become The Chaos of Stars for 18 months. Typically I finish first drafts in weeks, not months, and definitely not years, so it was a challenge. In order to force myself to pay attention, I needed to be cut off from everything. I’d take my notebook, sit outside while my kids played, and write by hand.
With nothing between myself and the page, the story finally spilled out the way it needed to. No editing, no second-guessing, and no internet. When I’m truly stuck, pen on paper always frees up words in a way a keyboard just can’t.
–Kiersten White, The Chaos of Stars
I came to longhand thanks to a member (Kelly Barnhill) of my writing critique group extolling its virtues at just the same time that I needed something to change, to freshen up (in my mind) a MS I’d let stagnate far too long.
I found quickly that writing longhand slowed me down — it let my hand and my brain breathe a little easier as I worked, detached me from a frantic electronic pace. Also, with my pen scratching lightly across a surface, I felt immediately connected to the words I was writing, more “inside them,” more present in every sense: I had an easier time envisioning setting and action.
Pragmatically, I love the idea of having a spiral notebook or two and a very good pen that I can have with me all the time — it demands no power supply, no table (my knees work fine), and no coffee shop, like the laptop I’ve counted on in the past for drafting. As you’ll see from the attached photo, there is the drawback of my horrendous penmanship.
–Steve Brezenoff, Brooklyn, Burning
For years I did all of my work on the computer, going all the way back to my high school days, when I wrote on a Mac SE/30, using Microsoft Word 5.1 (the last really reliable version of Word). The practice of writing all my first drafts longhand kind of snuck up on me over a period of a few years.
I was in Italy and wrote a story called “The Devil on the Staircase,” working by hand because I had left my laptop at home. A while later I dashed off a comic script, “Open the Moon,” for much the same reason; I was stranded in a foreign land without my cocoon of electronics. Those were both weirdly satisfying experiences: jobs that didn’t feel like jobs, work that felt like play. They flowed. It was less like writing, more like turning a faucet, only instead of water I got words.
Other things happened. My girlfriend got me rich, creamy stationery and asked me to write her old-fashioned letters. I did and it was fun, I liked it. My friend Neil Gaiman is evangelical about working longhand and encouraged me to give it a try. He made it sound like automatic writing. I came across a review my father had written longhand for Entertainment Weekly and was struck by how effortless it was: how funny, clear-eyed, unadorned, and totally him.
Finally, though, mostly . . . a part of me has started to hate screens a little. The electronic cocoon sometimes feels more like an electronic shroud. I know that’ll probably sound odd coming from a guy who tweets a frillion times a day, but more and more I find myself turning all the way on only when the machines are turned off.
For I don’t know how long, my favorite part of the day has been the half hour I give myself at 4 o’clock to drink the last cup of tea and read (a book of paper, ink, and glue, not a phone, not a device with a battery in it). I think at some point I decided that’s how I wanted to feel when I’m writing, too: relaxed and plugged into my daydreams instead of a piece of software.
Last year, when I went on tour for NOS4A2, I consciously left my computer at home, and took some pens and a notebook with me instead. When I came home a month later, I had a new 28,000 word novella spread across three notebooks (and a paper placemat), and I knew I was done writing my first drafts on the computer.
Possibly because handwriting is slower work than word processing, you counterintuitively wind up writing stories that move faster. You tend to only write the scenes that matter and you write them with less ornament, less conscious efforts at a style. The tools of word processing software encourage cutting and pasting, deleting, tweaking, and the creation of beautifully written filler. Writing by hand, there’s less to distract you. All you have is this line to fill, and then the next line to fill.
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. I don’t think it’s any surprise that most of the best known authors of children’s novels — Beverly Cleary, Urusla LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, and Neil — have all written their most famous stories by pen. You see it in the calm, straight-forward lucidity of their prose and in the way every scene naturally follows from the one before, the next domino in the line tipping over.
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. Thank God there’s still a place you can go to be alone and work on your own private dreams for a bit.
–Joe Hill, NOS4A2