Writing Longhand

HandwritingRecently a friend tweeted this article, about how taking notes by hand helps you to learn and retain information better.

It turns out that handwriting engages your brain in different ways from typing:

The benefits of handwriting — though it’s a disappearing skill — have been documented by lots of educational psychologists, who have found that handwriting engages parts of the brain that typing neglects, especially areas associated with memory formation. For these reasons, the arguments go, kids come up with more ideas when they’re writing in cursive versus typing.

But I knew this already.

When I was first thinking about writing novels, I made a lot of false starts. This was in the late nineties and early oughts; at that time, there was no wifi, and e-mail wasn’t something you had all the time–if you wanted to take a file off one computer and put it on another, you put it on a floppy disk and used the walknet to transfer it–that is, you carried it from one place to another. I didn’t get a USB drive until 2006. I didn’t even have high-speed internet till the end of 2000.

But I started having ideas for novels, so I would sit down at the laptop (if I had one at the time) or desktop, and started to write.

And stopped.

I quickly learned that the keyboard and screen were not a source of creativity; everything was a false start. Usually I couldn’t get more than a paragraph written, and never more than a page.

I found a similar effect when I was working, as a technical writer at the time. I could write user manuals and technical documents just fine, but if I had to figure out the structure, or put together an outline, I reached for pen and paper, and put it together there first.

So when an idea for a novel hit me hard, I bought a notebook and tried writing it there. And it worked. I finished the (short, very poor) novel. After that, I was clear: creative writing was to be done by hand; non-creative work could be done on a keyboard.

That’s what I did from then on. I wrote my first published book, L.M.F., entirely longhand. I even started a novel for NaNoWriMo on the keyboard, stalled, and then went on to finish it longhand. The sequel as well. And two other novels since.

There were a couple of real advantages to writing this way. One was the security of it: the notebooks wouldn’t get corrupted, wouldn’t get obsolete. I’d never open an outdated file and work on it. I was forced to write at least somewhat procedurally: I couldn’t jump from scene to scene (not that I like to write that way anyhow).

And one of the extra tasks in writing the first draft longhand was to retype the book once it was finished; that turned out to be a positive, not a negative. It forced me to give a very close read-through and light edit along the way. This was a good way to identify contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as find poorly-written sentences.

One interesting effect I found in retyping: I would start typing a handwritten sentence, and halfway through discover some kind of flaw in the way I had executed it. I would start to change it… and then by the end of the sentence would realize that I had been right the first time. Sometimes it was a little linguistic twist, sometimes it was a way to bring in some idea I wanted to connect up. But I was surprised how my writing would take me in one direction, and then land somewhere I didn’t expect.

Then two things changed: I started outlining, and I had an idea.

They started at the same time. I bought myself an Android tablet, one of the Asus Transformers. The tablet had a detachable keyboard which was actually a joy to type on despite its slightly smaller size, and was very easy to carry around–that is, out of the office and down to the coffee shop without people noticing. A few days after I got the tablet, I landed on an idea.

A book had never thrown itself open to me in this way before. It was a science fiction book–a genre I hadn’t read much in the preceding 15 years, and had never written–and the idea quickly became an outline that spilled out in a torrent.

I finished the 9,000-word outline in two days. I started writing immediately–on the tablet. I wrote it in five months. My previous record for finishing a novel was closer to a year and a half.

I noticed something else, too: I wrote much, much faster on the keyboard. Part of that was the outline, surely; I wasn’t sitting and trying to think of what came next. But longhand, I would write at most three 175-word pages in an hour. On the tablet, I averaged about 1200 words, and in more productive sessions, I could top 1500 without straining myself.

But I noticed another thing: I wasn’t as interesting a writer. Granted, it was genre fiction, but in re-reading the stuff I wrote, I found that my writing wasn’t as coloured as it could have been; I was missing opportunities. The writing was functional, but lacked energy.

It’s taken time to get used to the keyboard. But over time, I’ve modified my writing style to better handle the words through my fingertips rather than the nib of a pen. Still, when I really want my writing to count, my first draft is often a handwritten draft.

Your tools are important; the medium might not be the message but it inevitably shapes the message. And my creativity is best captured with ink and paper. That’s laughable to some, abhorrent to some, but next time you’re stuck, give it a try. As it was for me, it might be a way to open up something new.

 

* Check out Kaarina’s site, OnPoint Writing and Editing!

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