Quite a few wonderful writers actually use a pen. I used to. I have thousands of notebooks filled with many chapters from the first drafts of novels and short stories that I’ve written. What I like about longhand is the speed (or lack thereof). I like to think slowly when I write (before you get clever, yes! it is a choice) and so longhand fits. There’s also the added benefit of the notebook being more portable and immediate than a computer. The act of taking the novel from the notebook and typing it into my laptop always used to be the first part of the editing process.
I learnt to touch-type when I was 12. (Because it was the olden days back then, I learnt from a book which I borrowed from the library, and developed strong fingers as I hammered away on my mother’s manual typewriter – which dated from the 1940s.) I would urge anyone who can’t touch-type to learn, because it has always been a boon: at school, university, all kinds of work.
The benefit of writing straight onto the computer, which is how I mostly work now, is that it is very easy to re-jig whole pieces of a novel and re-sew them to create a completely new product. I’ve written before about how I don’t write chronologically (Time Is On My Side) but even since that article it’s reached new levels. I now start new pages if I have a tricky scene to write and want to focus just on what I’m writing, without feeling tugged at by what I’ve already written. I want to be free to make mistakes. I can also edit as I go.
A few years ago I went to the British Library to see their exhibition about writing and I was struck by JG Ballard’s first draft of Crash, which had been typed and then scribbled all over in pen as Ballard made adjustments. Hats off to the person who was able to follow the notes enough to retype it. Editing has changed utterly over time and what I would be interested to learn is whether we have gained or lost in the process. We’ve certainly lost the beauty of those heavily annotated first drafts.