Talking to my fellow writers about our craft is always a learning experience. The many different methods, reasons, and styles reveal just how personal and creative the process of writing is. Some people like spiral notebooks, some people write on legal pads, some people like old-school typewriters, some love their sleek Macbooks. I, for one, only lend out one of my precious pens if I’m given a solemn oath that it will be returned intact.
In this land of varying opinions, however, some things have been subjected to scientific study. That’s the controversial water that I’m going to wade into today.
Defending Pen and Paper
You might think that putting a pen or a pencil to paper is the same as tippity-tapping your way over a keyboard, but research suggests that these are two very different activities. Or at least your brain thinks so. This article at the Huffington Post talks about research into how the brain processes handwriting differently than typing. The short version: when you write by hand, more of your brain lights up than when you type. Even children generate more ideas, and college students remember more from lectures.
Anytime I’m writing new material, it goes into a notebook. For me, the process of scribbling my own words on a piece of paper is radically different from sitting in front of a computer and typing. It’s slower, even for a snail-paced typer like me, but that’s the point. The ball of my pen rolling over the smooth surface gives each character, each word, a visceral meaning. The ideas in my head take shape gradually, the amorphous images carved into solid characters, feelings, dialogue, and actions by my hands. Sometimes as I write through a scene, things take a very different shape than I originally imagined. New ideas weave their way into the plot. Ideas that I hadn’t even put to words start to appear, made real by the solidity of my own handwriting.
The scientific evidence suggests that this is because writing by hand actually reaches more parts of your brain than typing does. Ideas come forward that you might not have found any other way. There’s a reason that I often come away from writing a nonfiction piece with a new awareness of how I think about something. By scratching down my words with ink, I’m finding thoughts that I didn’t even know were there.
There’s a romance, too, to sitting down with a blank piece of paper and filling it up. For hundreds of years before the invention of the typewriter, this was how the process worked. The ancient philosophers did this, kings and queens have done this, Jane Austen, and Stephen King, too. There’s a strange magic to putting pen and paper, knowing how many have done it before.
Don’t Toss the Keyboard
You might think me a hypocrite when I say this, but I still use a computer to write. I do so love pen and paper, but that doesn’t mean typing has no place in my life or my writing.
In fact, this entire blog post was written on my computer. I don’t think that typing is inferior to handwriting, it just has a different place.
When I want to get an idea out fast, then a keyboard is where I turn. My fingers can fly and my thoughts can, too, arriving on the page unfiltered. The end result is a little rougher, but that can be a good thing. There have been some scenes that I struggled to write using pen and paper. When I switched to typing, when I could see the scene marching up and down the page, when I didn’t have to spend so much time ruminating on the individual words, everything fell into place.
From a more practical perspective, a manuscript is almost impossible to share when it’s hand-written. I had some very patient friends in high school who read my cursive stories, but I’ve learned that as much as I love my own lettering, not everyone appreciates having to sort out my ‘b’s’ from my ‘l’s’. After hand-writing my first draft, I type the second.
I know that this seems like a cumbersome process, but considering the many, many drafts that most pieces go through before they are finished, it’s a small time investment, with big pay-offs.
The Diverse Writing Process
Research suggests my brain works in different ways when I’m handwriting versus when I’m typing. My own experience (and the experiences of much more renowned writers) aligns with studies. Which has convinced me that the best thing a writer can do is exploit this fact, and write using both methods.
Right before my daughter was born, I finally (finally) got serious about finishing the first draft of my first original novel. To speed up the process, I pulled out my laptop and typed away. I was on a deadline, and it just had to get done.
At last, the draft was finished. I hit the print button and stuck the stack of papers in a box.
When my daughter was a few months old and I’d finally caught up on sleep (or given up on sleep entirely) I pulled that draft out. I read it. It was terrible. I realized almost immediately that the majority of what I’d typed was going to have to be cut if the novel was ever going to work. It was a disjointed series of scenes, that while interesting on their own, would never work together. Sentences and paragraphs rambled across the page, taking up space without moving the plot forward, or saying much at all. Worse, every sentence, every character, every location, was flat and dry. I had spit out scenes with very little sense of place, without any depth.
So I cut. And every scene that I cut, I rewrote in my notebook. The result was so much more lively and cohesive, because I had to go slowly and put thought into crafting each word.
Then I retyped those scenes. And as I retyped them, I refined them. This kind of process is much easier on a computer screen than on paper. If I don’t like the order of a paragraph, it takes seconds to cut and paste the sentences into a new sequence. Whole scenes can be moved around this way, even whole paragraphs. Highlighting an entire chapter that’s dragging the piece down, hitting the ‘Delete’ button, and watching it vanish, is downright thrilling.
Those scenes that started in a notebook and moved to keyboard were far stronger than the scenes that started out typed. I discovered the method that worked best for me, the way of writing that resulted in the most evocative sentences.
It makes sense, as a writer, to approach a piece from as many different perspectives as possible. I care a lot about how my writing impacts other people, and I want others to be able to read the most cohesive, cleanest story possible. Drafting in multiple methods is the best, and I have found, most efficient, way of doing this.
All writers have preferred writing methods, and we all have deeply held opinions about them. But if I’ve learned one thing from talking to my fellow writers, it’s that what works for one of us isn’t going to work for all of us. Often, the only way of discovering what works best for you is to try new things. If you usually plop in front of your laptop during writing time, then pick up a notebook and a pen next time, instead. If pen and paper is all you’ve ever known, then give a keyboard a chance. You might find, like I did, that there’s an important place for both methods in your writing life.
Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to just one way. And if your notebooks have been getting dusty, pull them out and see what happens. You might be surprised at how much more depth your writing has when it begins that way. And the research backs me up.
What are some strange discoveries that you’ve made on your writing journey? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
And as always, thank you for visiting Bright Ink.