I never would’ve guessed writing by hand would make me a more productive writer or improve the quality of my first drafts. The idea just seemed illogical. It had been ingrained in me that anything “by hand” was inefficient, and hand writing anything besides what could fit on a Post-It note seemed antiquated. However, the evolution of my writing process to where it is today has proven, at least for me, that writing by hand has become the most important part of my writing workflow.
Every writer has their own way of doing things, and by all means, do what works best for you. My intent is to share what I’ve discovered that was completely unexpected. Writing by hand has been a game changer for my writing process in terms of my quantity and quality of output, as well as making it more enjoyable.
My writing tools used to be exclusively digital. All I needed was my trusty MacBook, my favorite writing apps (primarily Scrivener) a good battery charge, and I was all set. That started to change not too long after I found Brad Dowdy’s Pen Addict blog a few years ago.
Honestly, I don’t recall how I initially stumbled upon Brad’s blog. Whatever it was that led me there, I’m forever grateful. What I do remember with vivid clarity is that I devoured the content like Joey Chestnut at a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. I read post after post about pens and paper, and I’m sure like many Brad has enabled over the years, I couldn’t wait to buy some new pens and get writing.
The Pen Addict blog led me to the super-amazing JetPens. I placed my first order for a bunch of gel ink pens. . . The first writing instruments I had bought with intent since high school art class. That order consisted of the following:
- Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel Ink Pen with Grip – 0.3 mm & 0.4 mm – Black
- Zebra Sarasa Push Clip Gel Ink Pen – 0.3 mm & 0.4 mm Black
- Pentel Slicci Gel Ink Pen – 0.25 mm & 0.3 mm – Black
- Pentel EnerGel Euro Needle-Point – 0.35 mm – Black
Ok, so not the most diverse selection1, but it was a start in a great direction. I couldn’t wait to use my new analog tools (toys), so I knew I was going to try them for my next writing project. What I didn’t know at the time was the eventual impact of that decision.
My writing process and variety of writing instruments I use has changed quite a bit since that beginning, and with certainty will continue to evolve. Since incorporating writing by hand into my creative/writing process, I’ve discovered several reasons why it has made me a more productive and better writer.
I have more opportunities to write something of length.
For me, nothing trumps the convenience of a pencil or pen and notebook for writing pretty much anywhere at anytime. There are even pens with a light source built in2 for writing in complete darkness. Phones and tablets are fantastic for the short note or thought (personally, I love the Evernote app on my iPhone), but for writing anything longer, they aren’t optimal.
I admit I’m biased since I truly enjoy writing by hand, but there are times when the availability of a writing tool and notebook make writing something of length possible. These brief writing stints add up to have a significant effect on my productivity, and I’m writing more often which can only help me get better (I hope).
In my home, it’s not a good idea to keep my MacBook open and accessible all the time. The glowing screen summons my three little kids to come and touch it, fight over it, rename folders, delete files, somehow buy apps and get liquid on it by any means necessary. Having a relatively boring pencil and notebook available allows me to quickly record some decent-length thoughts (and keep an eye on my kids of course).
I started carrying a pocket notebook (my favorite is Field Notes Brand) quite awhile ago, and it’s been such a valuable addition to my “analog toolbox”. Having a pocket notebook always on hand makes writing frictionless and ensures I will maximize my opportunities to be able to write something substantial.
I can create the ultimate distraction-free writing environment.
It’s an understatement to say distractions while trying to write are a productivity killer. I know there are all kinds of apps and tricks for shutting off the internet and social media while working on a computer, but you can’t get more free from distraction when it’s just you and your analog tools.
It would be awesome if my willpower and self-discipline were strong enough to overcome any distractions that could interfere with my writing time. That is definitely not the case. The call of Twitter and my RSS reader, among many other shiny objects, are hard to resist. It’s imperative I create an environment where all my focus can be on getting words on the page. Anything I can do to avoid getting tempted by non-writing things will guarantee an increase in word count. I believe having a distraction-free writing space is most important for first drafts.
When I started writing by hand and eliminating everything besides pencils, pens and paper for my early drafts, my production per writing session improved. Not only that, but my connection to the work is stronger, so it seems to me the creative process benefits as well. In hindsight, this stuff seems so obvious. Considering my writing time is limited, I need to make the absolute best use of it.
Oh, and don’t forget to put away your phone (or at least silence it).
I look forward to using my analog writing tools.
I always look forward to any amount of writing time I can squeeze into my schedule. A not-so-small part of that is because I get to use my favorite pencils, pens and paper. If I get a delivery of new stuff from Jetpens or Pencils.com, I can’t wait to get to my next writing session to try my new tools.
I love to write, and I’m usually motivated by the current project I’m working on to try and fit in some writing time whenever I can. After I started writing by hand, I found using my favorite analog tools also encouraged me to make time for writing. I discovered I looked forward to the actual writing as much as the creative process and result.
There’s an expression in the writing community, “butt-in-chair” (BIC), and it’s a key to success and progress as a writer. Anything that can contribute to practice and productivity is something that should never be ignored.
It also helps me to rationalize buying that new TWSBI fountain I’ve had my eye on for awhile.
My writing time is more enjoyable.
Writing by hand with my favorite tools is a motivator for making time for writing and getting to my next session, but it also makes my writing time a more pleasurable experience. This has lead to a marked increase in my word count.
This effect is measurable. My output has increased since I started writing by hand because the frequency of my writing sessions have increased. Simply put, writing with my favorite analog tools is so gratifying that I want to repeat the experience. This has led me to try and fit more times to write into my hectic daily schedule. Although these added times may be very short (as little as ten minutes), they have a cumulative effect.
I also tend to believe being happier during the writing and creative process leads to a better result. I can’t be certain this is actually occurring, but I would like to think we do better at things we enjoy. Author Randy Henderson seems to agree and discusses the topic in a great blog post titled How to Be a Happy Writer. In the post Mr. Henderson refers to an excellent (but lengthy) academic paper The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener. If you’re interested, the paper can be found here.
I often think my writing is terrible and want to set it on fire and watch it burn to nothingness. We are our harshest critics. I think my rough drafts have (slightly) improved for other reasons I discuss in this post, but even if the quality improvement from enjoying the writing process is all in my head, I still think it’s a positive thing. Anything that can reduce self doubt or a negative barrier is worthwhile.
One thing I know for sure is that my love of writing by hand helps keep me at the craft over the long term, even during times my creative well runs dry. That alone should enable me to produce more and improve as a writer.
I write first drafts faster.
Without a doubt, I get more words done in a given period of time with my analog writing tools. This seems counterintuitive, and I’m sure many ultra-fast typists would argue this point ad nauseam, but for me it’s true.
I’ve already discussed how a distraction-free setting leads to increased productivity, and it’s a major reason I can get more done in an allotted amount of time. Grab your pens, pencils and favorite paper/notebook, and go to work. They’re all you need.
Another big reason I’m a faster writer with just my pencils3 is that I’m not tempted to edit on the fly. Honestly, I may do some slight editing while I write first drafts by hand, but it’s very minimal. It’s typically a very quick edit like crossing out a word or sentence. I try not to allow myself to slow down to do any major revisions, as it brings the creative process to a screeching halt. I do an extensive edit by hand before I transfer the draft to Scrivener. Any further editing is done in the Scrivener file.
So, during the first draft, I’m able to shut everything out and just write. No distractions. No erasing. No major editing (I aim for zero edits). I just write and write until I hit a creative roadblock4. Even those hurdles seem less, as it seems with writing by hand I’m more able to get into a “flow” state. This awesome state should be a goal of all writers.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., who wrote the book Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity, states:
“When you write from a flow state, you may forget what time it is, the words seem to arrive almost effortlessly, and it’s possible that you’re producing your best work”.
Being in flow is an incredible experience and has been much easier to attain since I’ve been writing by hand. If you’re interested in reading more about the flow state and creativity, I recommend an excellent blog post by Everett Bogue titled The Hidden Art of Achieving Creative Flow.
Writing faster has the added benefit of being another motivator for me. Seeing the volume of words building toward a completed draft is incentive to keep moving forward. Getting more work done each time I sit down to write provides a momentum that is fantastic for my progress and productivity.
It takes less time to get to the polished final digital draft.
Since writing by hand became (the most important) part of my writing process, the time for me to get to a polished final draft has decreased. My workflow of going from a handwritten rough draft to the final digital draft accomplishes a few things:
- It builds in an automatic edit.
- The digital draft goes much faster.
- It reduces my inevitable procrastination.
My current process consists of outlining by hand, writing the first draft (and sometimes second) by hand, and then transitioning to Scrivener5 for the digital portion. This path is ideal for me, as I can’t avoid cleaning up the content as I transfer it to Scrivener. I do much of my “macro level” editing during the written draft(s), so the analog-to-digital edit forces me to translate my chaotic mess of ink and/or graphite and enables me to perform copyediting at the same time.
This process is so much more efficient for me than my previous digital-only workflow. The key difference is that I do the bulk of the major revising during the handwritten draft. My written drafts end up looking like a wild mess, but my margin notes, cross outs, arrows and symbols make sense to me. Moving the words to Scrivener ends up going quite fast since the translation and basic grammatical edits leans more towards transcription. If I’m writing a blog post, I’ll even use Markdown for the handwritten draft which makes the digital version go faster.
Another positive side effect of my analog-to-digital process is that it prevents me from getting too lazy. It’s hard to look at my chaotic and marked up handwritten draft and not want to get it into a tidier form as soon as possible. Also, while I do understand my written jargon and scribblings, it’s way better to move it to Scrivener while the content is still somewhat fresh in my mind.
There has been a relative increase in the quality of my writing.
Writing by hand hasn’t turned me into some sort of gifted writer, but it does seem to me there has been some progress in the right direction. How could writing by hand make my work better? If I had read this in my digital-only days, I would have thought that sounded like a whole lot of nonsense.
While the quantity of my words can be measured, I really have no easy way to tell if my quality is really getting better. I have a feeling my writing is improving, or to put it in more real-world terms, my stuff seems less crappy than it did before I started writing first drafts by hand. As a practicing writer trying to learn the craft, I realize forward was the only direction for me to go (however slow it may be), considering I started at “zero”, but I do think implementing writing by hand has played a part.
I’ve already mentioned how enjoying the writing process and writing faster may have a positive effect on my quality, but the primary reason is I’m simply writing more. Writing by hand has enabled me to increase the frequency of my writing sessions, as well as the volume produced during those sessions. I’m getting much more writing practice. I don’t think the saying “practice makes perfect” applies to creative writing, but “practice helps a lousy writer slowly get better” seems logical.
I also think my first drafts are improved due to my handwritten editing process. It’s not some brilliant technique I invented, but for me, it’s extremely efficient and effective. I currently write my rough drafts on yellow legal pads6. By the time I’m ready to open a Scrivener file, my pages look like an incoherent jumble of nonsense. I write copious margin notes. I cross out words, sentences or entire blocks of text. I add words between lines in super-tiny print. I use arrows to show where text should relocate. Abbreviations and symbols are all over the place. Meaningless doodles may show up here and there. The process is always evolving, but I can’t reproduce my handwritten editing process using digital tools. It has become such an important part of my writing method at this point that I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Some people even support the idea that writing by hand is beneficial to the creative process.
Author Lee Rourke writes in his excellent article, Why Creative Writing is Better with a Pen, about writing longhand with pen and paper”
“The whole process keeps me in touch with the craft of writing. It’s a deep-felt uninterrupted connection between thought and language which technology seems to short circuit once I begin to use it.”
Writer Sarah Selecky is also a proponent of writing by hand, and in her insightful blog post, Why You Should Write by Hand, she asserts that:
“To your brain, writing by hand feels more like making art.”
She continues to make the case of how writing by hand stimulates creativity:
“As you write, your letters turn in to words and sentences, but the act of putting ink to paper activates the right hemisphere of you brain. This is the part of the brain that sees in pictures.”
I sincerely hope writing by hand enhances the creative process. My efforts at improving as a writer need all the help they can get.
It’s also very encouraging and reassuring to me that some very talented current writers choose to eschew digital writing tools. That just warms my heart.
I have no doubt that using pens, pencils and paper for a significant portion of my writing process has had a tremendous positive effect. Writing by hand has led to an increase in my output and enabled me to progress as a writer. While I do feel the quality of my work has improved some, I’m a better writer because I’m actually doing what a writer should do– getting pen to paper and doing the work.
If you’re already using analog writing tools for your writing process, this post may have just reinforced what you are already doing.
However, if you’re still an all-digital writer, I highly recommend you go old-school and get some good pens and/or pencils, a notebook or pad full of high-quality paper and start getting reacquainted with your handwriting. Try them out on your next writing project. In my opinion, you don’t have much to lose, and potentially much to gain.
Disclaimer: That is an affiliate link for Scrivener. I like it so much, and it’s so valuable to my process, that I highly recommend it. I realize the irony of promoting a digital product on a blog about analog tools, but I only support using it after the handwritten rough draft(s). Ok, now I’ll be able to sleep well. I’ll receive a small commission if you purchase it via my link that will most likely go towards coffee.