Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

We’re in a love-hate relationship with handwriting. Some studies claim that writing by hand makes us smarter than keyboarding; others insist that while handwriting remains a relevant skill in general, teaching cursive handwriting has become a waste of students’ time. Still others think handwriting is already obsolete.

Writers are split as well. Some insist that writing by hand is a waste of time, particularly in a world where easy connectivity means you can type or tap out any note at any time and have it instantly stored in a centralized (typically, cloud-based) location. Others, like me, say that you can pry my pen from my cold dead hands.

I write all my fiction first drafts by hand. Here’s why.

Leave The Office ASAP

Writing is Personal

There’s no consensus as to who first penned (pun intended) the image of writing as “sitting down and bleeding,” but that image keeps being invoked because it’s so illustrative of the process.

Fiction writing is intensely personal. Its intimacy can intimidate beginners into never starting, and it can stall veterans who decide to open a vein rather than simply write to deadline.

Since I also make my living by writing copy, sitting at the computer feels public to me. I draft most of the work I do for clients on the computer; when I’m sitting at it, I’m in People Mode, even when there’s no one else in my house. People Mode is necessary in order for me to occupy the same space as my audience, which I have to do in order to ensure I’m writing a piece that will make sense to them.

I cannot, however, both write fiction and be in People Mode. I can edit that way, but forming ideas into words is, for me, incompatible with performative extroversion.

In my notebook, I’m free to write the worst crap in the world. I can fill five pages with crappy false starts. I can doodle until I figure out what I came to say. None of it matters, since nobody but me will ever see it. I’m alone with my thoughts, which is exactly where I need to be in order to tell a story.

Handwriting is More Secure

Sure, I can’t password-protect a notebook. But I’ve never lost a notebook because I failed to hit “save” or had one eaten by the Blue Screen of Death.

I lost my first round of typed fiction drafts in 1998, when my mother’s Gateway 2000 crashed. I lost another round, including two full and three partial novel drafts, in 2004 when my then-boyfriend botched a backup job.

Even files I haven’t technically lost, I’ve lost due to advances in technology and/or the degradation of digital media. I have zip disks from the late 1990s with my work stored on them, but neither I nor anyone I know owns a zip drive any longer. The floppy disks containing my earliest work, from the late 1980s, are probably corrupt – even if I had an Apple IIGS that could read them.

My notebooks from the 1980s, however, are still entirely readable. Embarrassing, but readable.

The problem with preserving digital works and the degradation of media hasn’t pinged only my radar, either. Check out, for example, the 2015 art project that printed 106 volumes of Wikipedia in English – of nearly 7,500 total volumes.

Speaking of Wikipedia….

Ever hop online to check just one little thing, and suddenly you have 83 tabs open, are reading about the social life of aardvarks, and it’s Tuesday?

Falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is really easy to do, and it’s even easier when you have ADHD. But I can’t fall down the research hole or get wrapped up in a social media argument when I don’t have access to the Internet.

The notebook prevents me from getting sidetracked by the Intertubes. It removes the quick-hit solution to intermittent boredom. And since boredom appears to be essential to creativity, it may also make me a better writer.

I’m Old

I also like the notebook for deeply personal, even idiosyncratic reasons.

For instance, writing by hand angers my arthritis far less than typing on my phone. I like being in less pain.

I also like notebooks because they’re an old habit: I grew up at a time in which computers weren’t a standard household object. My dad bought an Apple IIGS not long after they hit the market, but he was very much in the minority (even my school hadn’t sprung for the IIGS, preferring to stick with the IIe when anybody used a computer at all). My mother was gifted a Commodore 64, but it had no word-processing program.

My computer time was limited until I was in high school, but I was allowed to have all the notebooks and writing utensils I wanted. Today, when I think, “I want to write,” my brain spits out images of notebooks, not of my laptop, tablet or phone.

…And I Used to Be a Smug Little Snot

I also (major confession time) used to love being smug. Loved it. I was one of those college kids who carried around a Moleskine and said “I’m writing a novel” with just the right elitist inflection.

Notebooks let you be smug in a way laptops simply don’t. Look around your local coffee shop: Chances are you’ll see half a dozen people on laptops or tablets. What are they doing? Are they writing, checking Facebook, making dinosaur porn?

There’s no way to know. Everybody buried in a device looks exactly the same, which is how we get endless smug Boomer memes about phone use instead of acknowledging that half the people on their phones in public at any given time are probably doing some kind of business, especially in a world where people think that just because you can answer the phone any moment of the day or night means you should.

But write in a notebook, and everybody knows you are writing. More importantly, everyone knows you are serious about your art. Otherwise you’d bang it out on a keyboard like a Philistine.

(Philistines had keyboards, right? I’m pretty sure they had keyboards.)

Smugness lost its appeal right around the end of my sophomore year of college. That’s when I realized I was filling a Moleskine every month, and that my habit of carrying it everywhere was making it look…no longer smug. Plus my favorite pens are Pilot V5s, which are not smug.

Besides, I almost never write in coffee shops.

Notebook vs. Laptop: Which Should You Use?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not you.

Some folks struggle with handwriting for various reasons, or can’t do it at all, making the keyboard their only realistic choice for writing in a manner that can even begin to keep up with their brains. The ability to store things in the cloud is great if you’re constantly losing your notes. And someone, somewhere, probably possesses the self-restraint (or the Internet restriction apps) to write without getting sidetracked by Instagram.

The best method for writing is the one that lets you finish. Everything else is window dressing.

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2 thoughts on “Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

  1. I like writing by hand because the rhythm of my arm movement helps me get into flow. My first drafts are almost always in cursive on paper. -Rebecca

  2. I’ve never liked creating on a computer. When I do, my voice sounds all wrong somehow, even though it’s the same person writing the words. The act of writing longhand is soothing, healing almost. I’ll take a pencil and a notebook over a keyboard any day.

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