Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Benefits of Writing by Hand

I just returned from three weeks of vacation on a small island on Lake Temagami in Ontario, Canada, where we had no electricity (beyond a solar-panel-fueled-battery) and no internet access. Ergo, any writing was done on paper, in notebooks, with actual pens (two of which I dropped into the water while writing and sunbathing on the dock, arrgh!). It was like a writer's retreat, because I got a lot of writing time in between canoeing, kajaking, swimming, hiking, sleeping and reading (= the perfect vacation!). 

I worked on my current novel-in-progress, journaled daily, and wrote up a couple more assignments for my screenwriting studies. It sounds like a lot, and I suppose it was, if you don't look too closely at the word count. I definitely type a LOT faster than I write by hand, so even though I filled almost two notebooks for the novel, that's only approximately somewhere between 10k and 15k words, if my rule of thumb estimations are anywhere near correct. I will find out how close I am as soon as I'm finished transcribing my scribbles to the computer - the July Tally will have to wait until then.

I was a bit bummed at first that all this time I spent writing (and all the cramps I got in my wrist and hand - the writing-muscles in my hand had apparently atrophied completely) only produced a fraction of the words I'd meant to achieve. But I've since come to appreciate two big benefits of literally penning the story and then transcribing it.

The first is that, in order to save time and paper, I put more effort into keeping my narrative short and poignant, and the dialoge brief and snappy. I embellished less, thought about the importance of the words I chose, the descriptions I used. This worked well since I found that the slower writing also helped with the thinking ahead, with formulating sentences not in the instant of writing them down, but a little before. I feel like this tightened the story, something I usually don't overly concern myself with until ater finishing the first draft.

Which ties right into the second advantage of writing by hand: while transcribing my handwritten writings onto the computer, I'm already revising. In my case, the first draft is essentially there to get the important stuff down. Revision is to make it presentable, tighter, funnier, clearer - and I'm getting the first round of that done during the transcription.

In a nutshell: while writing the first draft by hand does take longer than typing it down, the transcribed version is already closer to a revised second draft. I can't tell whether this actually saves time in the long run, or takes longer. Maybe it makes no difference. I definitely no longer believe, though, that writing a story by hand and then transcribing it is a waste of time.

And somehow I like having notebooks with complete parts of stories in them, that I can stand on a shelf and pull out like a real book.

So I might actually continue penning the first draft by hand, at least for a while to get more of a feel for its practicality. I want to look into using shorthand, which might help with the taking-longer-to-write issue. From what I hear, there are several different shorthand methods one can apply. Research time! And a topic for another post.

Does anybody else still write down stories on actual pen and paper or is it just me going back to the stone ages? :-)


  1. Hi Pia,
    Very thoughtful post. I do write stories with pen and paper sometimes - mostly daily anecdotes in my journal and I'm transcribing a couple of them now to the computer.

    I'm curious to see how that works and encouraged by your experiences. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yay, it's fun to be inspiring. :-)
    Let me know how it goes!

    I've actually noticed that I'm not doing large-scale revisions, where whole scenes change; right now I'm mostly transcribing what I wrote word for word, at least for the parts where I know there'll be massive changes coming later on. No point in futzing around with little things in them now...