Do you write longhand?

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.

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13 thoughts on “Do you write longhand?

  1. I write longhand when I’m having a hard time focusing, since it’s easier to get away somewhere with a notebook than with a laptop. At the same time, I switch back as soon as I’m in the right mentality again, because the slow speed actually frustrates :/ But I definitely agree about the transcribing being like a first round of editing! So helpful.

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  2. While I agree that typing on the computer makes things more convenient, my experience is that physically writing an outline helps me think more clearly. Plus, it’s helpful to be able to draw arrows and diagrams and little boxes all over the place, which is impossible to do quickly on a computer.

    But once that’s done, I transfer everything to the machine and let the convenience of rearranging paragraphs digitally take over. I’ll always be fond of constructing the initial draft on paper, though!

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    1. This is an excellent point! You’ve reminded me that I also often draw diagrams with arrows too. (Maybe this is a something psychologists like or just visual learners?) I forgot only because I haven’t had to with my current WIP. Yes, paper and pen for diagrams and focusing!

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      1. For me it’s definitely because I’m a visual learner! Plus, there’s something about regular shapes that makes them stand out amid the words and paragraphs. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a city where everything’s built up, so I’m more sensitive to regular shapes.

        Regardless, right angles are the best way for me to get my own attention!

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  3. Thanks for a great post!
    I love writing out my work by hand first, then typing it up. It feels organic and my creativity always feels less restricted when I don’t have to stare at a screen. Likewise, I always print out my drafts and edit them on paper. It might take longer, but it’s the way I like it 🙂

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  4. Great post Sarah! I’m happy to learn I am not alone writing first drafts longhand. I began this way as I too learnt to touchtype on my mother’s manual typewriter. It was less painful on your fingers if you only had to type your mss up once! (Don’t get me started on correction papers!) I still write most of my first draft longhand because I love handwriting. When I’m in a flow it can be faster than typing too. However I’d agree that it’s easier to move scenes/paragraphs around on a pc, which I often do. I also don’t write chronologically, so my laptop is where I piece together my literary puzzle. Thanks for the discussion. I love to know other people’s processes.

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  5. I don’t really like writing longhand unless I’m taking notes for something. As a result, my penmanship has gotten terrible over the years–I hardly write out anything anymore. Sometimes even I can’t make out my own writing! Which is why I don’t write my first draft that way. 😉

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      1. Haha, I know, shocking, isn’t it? But in my defense, before we had electronic prescriptions, I always printed prescriptions neatly. No room for unclear writing when it comes to people’s medicines and health. 🙂

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  6. I don’t write by hand unless I’m somewhere without access to my computer, but I do my editing on a printed copy with a pen, always. Somehow, the edits I scribble down feel more real, and I often find myself able to clearly see a way out of a scene that isn’t gluing together. Plus, it’s really handy to literally pull out any problem chapter and be able to sort out pages and paragraphs. I haven’t quite cut one up and pasted it in the right order, but I’m occasionally tempted to.

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